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UNHCR Calls for Sanctions on Smugglers, Traffickers in Libya

  • Lisa Schlein

Migrants are rescued from a rubber boat by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO, in the Mediterranean sea, about 56 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, April 6, 2017. With the Greek smuggling route largely closed off, the path of least resistance drifted to Libya _ a sprawling lawless country with a huge coast and competing rebel and government factions. Migrants have flooded into Libya from across Africa, producing a bonanza for smugglers.

The U.N. refugee agency is calling on the U.N. sanctions committee to extend international sanctions on the sale of weapons to Libya to include financial and travel bans on human smugglers and traffickers responsible for gross violations against refugees and migrants.

“We need absolutely to take radical action,” said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean.

A new UNHCR study issued Monday documents the abuse and exploitation of refugees and migrants in Libya that push them to make the journey in smugglers boats across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy.

Nearly 85,000 migrants

The United Nations reports there have been 84,830 arrivals in Italy this year, an 18 percent increase over 2016. It estimates at least 2,070 people have died making the crossing.

“We need also to disrupt the wider smuggling economy of Libya," Cochetel said. "A number of countries are purchasing smuggled oil from Libya from the very same community that protect the traffickers.

“We need to do more in terms of naming and shaming; on freezing the assets and imposing travel bans on some of the traffickers in Libya,” he said.

The study, which was conducted between August 2016 and March 2017, found most of the African refugees and migrants in Libya are young men traveling alone, and women, particularly from West and Central Africa, are victims of trafficking.

Many of the masses of refugees and other migrants from the Middle East and Africa, like these in Opatovac, Croatia, escaped extremist groups and are traveling in search of what they call just "normal lives." (Credit: Heather Murdock/VOA)
Many of the masses of refugees and other migrants from the Middle East and Africa, like these in Opatovac, Croatia, escaped extremist groups and are traveling in search of what they call just "normal lives." (Credit: Heather Murdock/VOA)

It reports the number of unaccompanied and separated children traveling alone is rising and now “represents some 14 percent of all arrivals in Europe via the Central Mediterranean route.” It notes these children mainly come from Eritrea, the Gambia and Nigeria.

While most of those arriving in Libya are considered economic migrants, the Libyan authorities have acknowledged the lives of people from seven areas would be at risk if they were sent back. They come from Syria, the Palestinian territories, Eritrea, the Darfur region of Sudan, the Oromo region of Ethiopia, Somalia, and Iraq.

”However, we are trying with the authorities to advocate for the right of asylum for everyone who seeks asylum with respect to some nationalities, such as Malians on the account of vulnerable women in Boko Haram,” said Nisreen Rubaian, UNHCR Assistant Representative for Libya.

Nigerian migrants

She said Nigerians, who comprise the largest number of people on the move, should not be dismissed as simply economic migrants.

“We cannot disregard the fact that there might be some minority of these groups who could come from areas ruled by Boko Haram or al-Shabab and be at risk of persecution if they could return back to their countries of origin.”

The International Organization for Migration reports that 70 percent of those going to Libya intend to stay in that country, while the other 30 percent consider Libya a transit to Europe.

FILE - Refugees and migrants from many different African nationalities sit aboard an overcrowded rubber boat leaving Libyan territorial waters early March 5, 2017.
FILE - Refugees and migrants from many different African nationalities sit aboard an overcrowded rubber boat leaving Libyan territorial waters early March 5, 2017.

Marie-Cecile Darme, Co-Author of the UNHCR study said the results of interviews with 140 people found that 55 percent intended to stay in Libya. She added, however, that this sample survey focused only on the seven nationalities at risk and did not include the wider community of migrants.

”It must be noted though that whereas many of them intend to stay in Libya when they first arrive there, once they experience the reality on the ground and are detained, are being stolen, robbed, there is a very significant amount of racism from the general population, especially for sub-Saharan Africans, many of them change their mind."

“Some of them that we interviewed also reported that they had intended to stay in Libya, but then were detained, tortured so their family would send extra money and then forcefully put on boats,” she said. “So, their first intention may not actually be what they end up doing.”

Multibillion-dollar industry

Vincent Cochetel told VOA the multibillion-dollar smuggling enterprise has morphed into a transnational criminal industry.

”You have operators that are from the nationalities of the migrants or refugees operating in Libya with Libyan smugglers,” he said.

”The militia that controls the road in Libya, that goes to a beach ... is the same militia that controls or prevents the traffic on that road to allow for smuggling operations to take place from the beach or that allows from an oil tanker the purchase of smuggled oil.

“This is going to go to the same pocket,” he said.

Cochetel noted that human trafficking was a trans-national crime and as such could be dealt with under both the U.N. and European Union sanctions committees.

”It kills as much as weapons in Libya today, so those that are involved in that human trafficking should be named and listed.”

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