The U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday that Libyan authorities appear to be encouraging African migrants to board unseaworthy boats bound for Europe.
A spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said the conflict in the North African country has opened up a route for migrants that was closed for two years because of an agreement between Libya and Italy.
Already some 14,000 people mostly from sub-Saharan Africa have used Libya as a springboard to reach Europe, and thousands more are poised to make the treacherous sea journey in the coming weeks as weather conditions in the Mediterranean improve.
"The authorities (in Libya) are not discouraging, at all, in fact there may be signs that they are encouraging these boat journeys," Melissa Fleming told reporters in Geneva.
Some migrants who fled to Tunisia and Egypt when fighting broke out are now crossing back into Libya because it is easier to get onto smugglers' boats there. Others are arriving from elsewhere in Africa, said Fleming.
"Even though you have to cross through a conflict zone to reach these boats there might even be people attracted to taking this chance from Africa," she said.
The flow of migrants from Libya to Italy almost stopped after the two countries signed an agreement in 2008 for Tripoli to automatically take people back. That deal broke down when Rome joined NATO's effort to police the U.N.-mandated no-fly zone over Libya.
The U.N. refugee agency has asked countries to consider permanently taking in up to 6,000 migrants. So far it has received offers of 900 places from 11 countries. The United States has offered a "significant" but unspecified number of resettlement places, said Fleming.