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Migrant Arrivals in Italy Soar as Amnesty Warns of Libya Abuses

Migrant Arrivals in Italy Soar as Dangers Increase in Libya
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WATCH: EU officials say the sharp rise was not caused by the closure of the route further east through Greece and the Balkans, but rather by an increase in migrants traveling from across Africa. Henry Ridgwell reports.

The number of migrants arriving in Italy from North Africa more than doubled from April to May, according to the latest figures from the European Union.

Some 19,000 migrants arrived in Italy last month. More than 13,000 people were rescued in the central Mediterranean region in a single week — the highest weekly total ever reported.

The EU's border agency, Frontex, says the rise was mainly due to an increase in migrants from Africa, and not the closure of the route through Greece and the Balkans.

The European Union recently opted to extend for another year its Operation Sophia, targeting smugglers and migrant boats. However, the patrols have not had an immediate effect, says analyst Riccardo Fabiani of the Eurasia Group consultancy.

"Migrants and, most importantly, smugglers are adapting to the new policy taken by Europe,” he said. “They're just adapting to the different environment, which means basically that the problem is not receding."

FILE - African illegal migrants wait to receive medial assistance after being rescued by coast guards, in Tripoli, Libya, April 11, 2016.
FILE - African illegal migrants wait to receive medial assistance after being rescued by coast guards, in Tripoli, Libya, April 11, 2016.

Over 2,100 people have died so far this year crossing the central Mediterranean. Earlier this month, the EU revealed plans to enhance cooperation with key countries on migration routes, especially Libya. But with the country still fractured between rival administrations and militias, Fabiani says finding an effective partner is all but impossible.

"The Libyan coast guard will nominally cooperate with the National Unity Government and Europe on this issue,” Fabiani said. “But then, effectively, what will happen is that behind closed doors, they actually strike deals with the militias handling these smuggling routes, and will turn a blind eye or will turn back some of the migrants to these militias."

Amnesty International accuses the Libyan coast guard of widespread abuses against the migrants. The group interviewed dozens of people who had survived the crossing — and who described horrific treatment.

"We have documented cases of shootings, abandonment, beatings by the Libyan coast guard themselves as they were rescuing people. And even more importantly, horrible cases of torture and abuse of people in the detention centers where these refugees and migrants are taken," Amnesty’s Gauri van Gulik told VOA.

In one case, several migrants described being abandoned at sea by the coast guard after their boat engine broke down.

Van Gulik says Europe must not seek to strike a deal with Libya to stem the flow of migrants, similar to the agreement signed with Ankara in March.

"What's crucial is that the European Union doesn't treat Libya as it has been treating Turkey, and pretends that Libya can somehow hold back refugees and migrants who are trying to make their way to Europe," Van Gulik said.

The United Nations says more than 7,000 unaccompanied children made the journey from North Africa to Italy in the first five months of the year — many of them at huge risk of exploitation.

The UN estimates there are another 235,000 migrants trying to reach Europe who are currently waiting in Libya, tens of thousands of them children traveling alone.