Today’s media report of 6,500 refugees being rescued from numerous unseaworthy and sinking small ships off the coast of Libya. This, not long after another 1,100 refugees were saved near Sicily. More than 100,000 refugees have now reached Italy after crossing the Mediterranean in the past year, most coming from Libya. Libya remains the main gateway to the Central Mediterranean, and officials there claim the country’s severe cash crisis is driving a surge in the number involved in migrant smuggling trade.
The Mediterranean is becoming even more deadly for migrants. The first half of 2016 saw a 67 percent increase in the number of migrants who died or disappeared trying to cross the Mediterranean compared to the same period last year, according to figures released in a report by IOM last week. The vast majority of deaths occur in the Central Mediterranean, where one in 29 migrants lost their lives attempting the crossing between January and June. This is compared to one in 410 who used the much shorter Eastern Mediterranean route between Turkey and Greece.
Experts say smugglers are using increasingly dangerous strategies to maximise their profits.
“Every day, we see more young people are getting involved in smuggling,” a senior official from Libya’s Department for Combatting Illegal Immigration told IRIN. “There is no work, no cash in the banks, and all the young people know that they can get easy cash from this type of work.” The official said ordinary people with an empty garage, farm, or house near the coast are starting to use these as holding places for migrants, while waiting for favourable sea conditions. “There are smugglers currently operating all along the western coast from Tripoli to Zuwara, and, as soon as the sea is good, they are ready to quickly transfer the migrants from these holding places to the sea,” he explained.
The migrant trade on Libya’s Mediterranean shoreline has always operated on the basis of supply and demand, but, with black market exchange rates for foreign currency soaring to more than double the official exchange rate, smugglers have also now dropped their prices, making the journey more affordable.
“A journey that once cost around $1,000 now costs as little $200 or $300, and we are hearing that some new smugglers are accepting as little as $100 per person,” Amjid told IRIN. “There are so many migrants waiting to go that often smugglers are now putting five or even 10 boats out to sea at a time from one departure point, where before it was maybe one or two.” This practice of launching multiple boats at once is complicating search-and-rescue efforts and has contributed to this year’s higher death toll, according to the IOM report. Not only are more boats being launched simultaneously, but they are also being packed with more migrants.
“They’ve gone up from 100 people on the rubber boats to 150 or 160. On the wooden boats, from around 450 to 550 before, we’re now seeing 550 to 800,” said Peter Sweetnam, director of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, a Malta-based NGO that operates two search-and-rescue vessels in the Mediterranean. “People aren’t normally wearing life jackets and the rubber boats often start to deflate when there are so many people on them,” Sweetnam added.
Smugglers began using inflatable boats last year when the supply of wooden, former fishing boats started running low. The EU’s Operation Sophia, launched last year with the aim of disrupting smuggling networks, destroys wooden boats following a rescue operation so they cannot be retrieved and reused by smugglers. But the smugglers have simply switched to using cheaper, rubber boats.
“These boats are meant for 10 people maximum, but the smugglers usually put 100-120 people into each one,” he said. “They don’t care about what happens to them at sea. They are just thinking about the money.”
The majority of migrants who set off from Libya are West Africans like Ali, who came to Libya in search of work. During 10 months there, he said he endured torture, imprisonment and being sold by traffickers. "In Libya, you can be killed at any second. Everybody has a gun. I just wanted to go out from there,” he told IRIN. Migrants from the Horn of Africa, particularly Eritreans, appear to have already started steering clear of Libya and increasing numbers are now attempting to set off for Europe from Egypt. Arrivals from Egypt now make up about 10 to 15 percent of all arrivals to Italy, said Flavio di Giacomo, a spokesman with IOM in Italy.