Migrants in Libya face the greatest danger in years of being trafficked, exploited or enslaved by armed groups and criminal gangs — which are becoming stronger — as Europe clamps down on migration, the United Nations and analysts said Tuesday.
Rising numbers of migrants trapped in Libya are prey to smugglers and traffickers and sold for labor, said the U.N. International Organization for Migration (IOM), amid a security vacuum created by the 2011 toppling of leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Of the more than 650,000 migrants in Libya, at least 9,000 are in detention centers — a number that has doubled in recent months due to increased coast guard returns — while the IOM estimates that thousands more are at the mercy of smugglers.
"Smuggling networks are becoming more organized, stronger," IOM's Libya head Othman Belbeisi told reporters in London. "More and more we are seeing migrants being sold from one smuggler to another ... being contracted for work but not being paid."
"Traffickers don't need detention centers, they can go on the streets, detain 100 migrants and take them to a farm [to work]," he added. "This is regular business for armed groups."
Many people in Libya become smugglers because the networks are well established and unlikely to be dismantled or prosecuted, as well as due to a lack of other sources of income, Belbeisi added.
The number of migrants reaching Italy has dropped since last July, when smugglers on Libya's coast were partially disrupted under Italian pressure, while rising numbers of migrants are now being intercepted and returned by Libya's EU-backed coast guard.
This year, just over 11,400 arrivals from Libya have been registered by Italy's interior ministry — at least 80 percent fewer than during the same period in 2016 and 2017.
Eight migrants were found dead in west Libya on Monday in a lorry after suffocating from petrol fumes, authorities said, in the latest of a string of incidents in which migrants have been injured or died being smuggled or trafficked in Libya.
And the plight of migrants may worsen as the country struggles with a deepening economic crisis, said Jalel Harchaoui, an associate at North Africa Risk Consulting.
"This erodes whatever scruples some armed groups may have when faced with migrants whose presence they need to monetize," Harchaoui told Reuters, adding that migrants are in greater danger now than two or three years ago.
"At sea, migrants die at a higher rate," he added. "And in the desert, there is less information [on the fate of migrants], which means more aberrations and more abuses are possible."