When more than 800 people drowned last year on an overcrowded ship bound for Italy's southernmost isle of Lampedusa, the European Union deployed a round-the-clock flotilla that has saved thousands of lives on what remains one of the world's most perilous journeys.
But one year after Europe's deadliest migrant disaster, humanitarian and security efforts off the lawless coast of Libya face a growing challenge to catch smugglers and bring asylum-seekers to safety. Experts say crackdowns on migration at other EU borders mean that the southern Mediterranean crossing plied daily by smugglers operating out of Libya already is busier now than it was 12 months ago.
So far this year, 24,000 migrants have arrived in Italy via this route and tens of thousands more are waiting in the pipeline, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Rescue officials seek to ensure no repeat of the night of April 18, 2015, when a boat packed with an estimated 850 mostly African passengers capsized as a civilian freighter approached. Most were locked below decks; only 28 survived. Several other smuggling vessels sank in the first months of 2015, some without trace at a cost of untold lives, before EU naval reinforcements arrived that June to cast a safety net.
Experts say that net is fragile.
“There could be a shipwreck tomorrow. Two boats could collide on the high seas. Even a strong multinational presence can't provide a 100 percent safety net,” said Federico Soda, director of the IOM's office in Rome, which oversees the central Mediterranean and North Africa.
Most of those 24,000 migrants were scooped up by Italian coast guard and EU vessels from recklessly overloaded vessels that were left drifting, engines dead, between Libya and Italy in a body of water dubbed the Lampedusa Triangle. Even if their amateur pilots had the requisite navigation skills, few vessels carry enough fuel to complete the approximately 300-kilometer (185-mile) crossing to Lampedusa from Libya.
Soda said about 350 people have died so far this year trying to cross the southern Mediterranean route, nearly as many deaths over the same period as the far busier smuggling routes between Turkey and the eastern islands of Greece.
Now, as EU authorities work to halt that eastern Mediterranean flow of migrants and deport them from Greece back to Turkey, analysts anticipate that asylum-seekers from the Mideast and Asia may see Libya once again as the most temptingly open gateway to Europe.
They note that Libya's paramilitary chaos may make the North African nation a particularly attractive launching point for Europe-bound migrants because EU authorities won't deport migrants back to such a danger zone. Virtually all of this year's arrivals from Libya have been Africans - but observers say that could be about to change.
“We should expect tens of thousands to attempt to depart this spring and summer bound for Lampedusa. With the closure of the EU-Turkey border to migrants, we may learn once again how closing one route pushes people to another route,” said Matteo de Bellis, an Amnesty International researcher who just completed a fact-finding mission to Italy's main migrant processing center on Lampedusa.
“Even with the best search-and-rescue framework in place, we must expect hundreds of more deaths this year. When you pack 100 people or more into a rubber dinghy for what is arguably the most dangerous crossing of them all it will never be possible to save everyone,” de Bellis said.
EU nations are maintaining a fleet anchored primarily in Lampedusa that operates under the codename Operation Sophia. It includes Italy's largest warship, the aircraft carrier Cavour, and is commanded by an Italian rear admiral, Enrico Credendino. It uses surveillance aircraft and satellite imagery to identify boats leaving Libya's shores, particularly Zuwara west of Tripoli and Misrata to the east, and pounces on them once they exit Libyan territorial waters.
The fleet's official mission is to confront smugglers and deter illegal immigration to Italy, but in practice the effort has become one of the 28-nation bloc's biggest rescue missions in its history. It works in tandem with an older search-and-rescue effort codenamed Operation Triton overseen by the EU border agency Frontex, which deploys ships to rescue migrants from the seas nearer Sicily and Malta.
On Monday, these two operations rescued more than 2,000 people from eight boats that had been spotted by a Luxembourg-provided surveillance plane. A Norwegian vessel took 898 migrants to Sicily, including 224 children, while a German ship delivered 738 others to Lampedusa. Doctors on board the Cavour performed a life-saving abdominal operation on an African man airlifted onto the carrier.
The U.N. Security Council in October empowered the EU fleet to begin arresting smugglers and seizing their craft in international waters north of Libya. The force temporarily grew to nine ships, a submarine, three surveillance aircraft, five helicopters and a drone as it destroyed 67 smuggler boats and arrested 46 smugglers, according to Credendino's January report on the fleet's first six months.
Credendino suggested that smugglers were increasingly relying on rigid inflatable craft - many of them ordered from China and shipped to Libya via Turkey and Malta - rather than larger wooden vessels, because of the fleet's seizure and destruction of larger craft. He noted that around 8 percent of the smuggled travelers had started their sea journey on Egypt's coast, choosing to travel west for rescue by the EU fleet.
His report pointed to the need to rebuild a credible Libyan government that would allow EU ships into Libyan waters and EU law officials into the ports themselves to confront smugglers more decisively. He wrote that the EU naval force could not safely end its deployment before helping to create “a capable and well-resourced Libyan coast guard.”
Analysts, however, say Libya is nowhere close to being a stable partner, with three rival governments still feuding in Tripoli and the eastern port of Tobruk. The United Nations-backed “unity” government has only recently returned to Tripoli from exile in neighboring Tunisia but remains confined to a naval base defended by a militia and can enter and leave the country only by boat.
“Europe cannot solve the problem in the central Mediterranean on its own. It needs a stable government in Libya,” Soda said. “Until that day comes, this migrant route will keep producing tragedies.”