TRIPOLI — Earlier this month at least 200 people drowned when their boat caught fire and sank in the rough waters off the coast of the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa. The deaths focused renewed attention on the trafficking of migrants from Libya to Europe and prompted urgent talks between Libyan and European authorities on how to staunch the migrant flow and prevent the smuggler’s rickety boats launching from the Libyan coast.
So far this year more than 30,000 migrants and asylum-seekers have reached Italy on traffickers’ boats launched from the Libyan coast.
While crowds of migrants, mostly from West African countries jam entry points into Tripoli and huddle under bridges in the Libyan capital they are now being joined by Syrians who have come overland from Egypt as well as increasing numbers of Eritreans and Somalis.
Of the 30,000 migrants who have braved the dangerous crossing from Libya this year, more than 7,500 were Syrians with roughly the same number of Eritreans. Three thousand Somalis also managed to cross. According to Frontex, the EU agency that coordinates European border management, Libya is the main departure point for migrants heading across the Mediterranean to Italy.
Smugglers demand about $1500 for the trip from Libya to Italy although the charges can be much higher. They also charge based on where the migrants come from, with Syrians reportedly paying the most. Sometimes boats leave without crews -- there have been reports of migrants just being taken to a boat and told to navigate themselves.
Libya seeks assistance
After holding migrant talks with Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat recently Libya’s Prime Minister Ali Zeidan told reporters his government had asked the European Union for more assistance including: “training, equipment, and help in allowing us to access the European satellite system to help us better monitor our shores, our southern land borders and inside the country as well. If we manage this, it would be important for our surveillance,” he said.
Just two days before Zeidan’s plea and his acknowledgement of the difficulty of policing 1700 kilometers of coastline and a 4000 kilometer land border, dozens of migrants, many of them Syrians, drowned off the coast of Sicily when their boat capsized. About 180 migrants survived the ordeal and told a harrowing tale of being shot at as they tried to leave Libyan waters. It was unclear whether warring trafficking gangs were behind the shooting or whether Libyan militiamen acting in some quasi-official capacity were trying to force the boat to turn back.
Just two years ago the migrant spotlight was on Tunisia. Tens of thousands of Tunisians managed to get to Europe before the Tunisian government agreed to take back 100 Tunisians a week from Europe, largely ending the exodus. But so far there is no such agreement between Libya and EU immigration authorities. Instead the Libyan focus is on lobbying for more European assistance to police the land borders and patrol coastal waters.
Libyan authorities say they have deported about 25,000 migrants in the past year. Frontex is helping Italy to intercept migrant boats, but with a total of four ships, two helicopters and couple of planes, the resources don’t match the challenge, according to the agency’s spokesman Michal Parzyszek.
Since June the EU has also posted to Libya an Italian-dominated border team of more than 100 security advisers to help the Zeidan government set up an “integrated border management system” but little has been accomplished so far. Speaking on condition of anonymity members of the team said they rarely leave their Tripoli hotel because of security concerns that prevent them from traveling around the country to assess what is needed to secure Libya’s land borders.
Rights groups concerned
Meanwhile all the focus on border management and enforcement issues is worrying rights groups, who say the humanitarian aspect of the large migration wave isn’t being acknowledged enough.
In June, Amnesty International called on Libyan authorities to end the indefinite detention of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants, including children, who are detained after arriving in Libya. The Amnesty report condemned the “treatment of thousands of foreign nationals, many from sub-Saharan Africa,” saying they are subjected to arbitrary arrests and held for long periods in deplorable conditions at immigration detention facilities.
To compile the report Amnesty investigators visited seven of Libya’s 17 holding centers and found “evidence of ill-treatment, in some cases amounting to torture” with many detainees denied medical care.
Amnesty’s Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui said the “abuse of Sub-Saharan foreign nationals was a hallmark of Gaddafi’s rule and risks becoming a permanent feature of the country.” The Amnesty report urged EU nations not to enter into migration control agreements with Libya until Tripoli was able to show that it respects and protects the human rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.
With no agreements in place to regulate migration beyond Libya and not enough assistance being provided to enable Libya’s fragile state to control its borders, migrants are continuing to flock to a country they see as a stepping stone to a better life for themselves and their families. The flood of migrants has now filled Libya’s 17 holding centers prompting authorities to use Tripoli’s Zoo as a detention center.