Libya’s Growing Role in the Migrant CrisisMay 13, 2016 in Libya
Libya has always been a tragic part of the Mediterranean migrant crisis. Over the past several years, thousands of lives have been lost as overcrowded boats make the dangerous crossing to Italian islands. Over this time, the Libyan and Italian Coast Guards have also saved many more lives. In more recent months though, Turkey has received the majority of migrant-related coverage. Horrific images, particularly of young children, galvanized public opinion across the world. Migrants attempting to enter Europe from Turkey not only placed enormous pressure on Greece, but also sparked a wider political discussion within the European Union.
After the EU-Turkey Agreement on migrants was officially signed, various reports began to emerge about the increasing number of migrants traveling to Libya. In late March, France’s Defence Minister warned that hundreds of thousands of migrants were in Libya preparing to make the ocean crossing to Europe. On March 27, the Libyan Coast Guard prevented 600 migrants on three ships from heading out to sea. A trend began to emerge in May as Libya become the centre of even more people smuggling operations. On April 20, witnesses reported that up to 500 people may have died when an overcrowded ship sank off the Libyan coast near Tobruk. A smaller scale tragedy occurred on April 29-30 when an estimated 80 migrants downed after their ship sank near off the Libyan coast.
There is a prominent difference between migrants crossing from Libya and Turkey. Most of the migrants from Libya are predominantly from Somalia and sub-Saharan African. Compared to Turkey, the Libyan state is weak and highly fractured. This would make any attempted EU deal with Libya (similar to the current one with Turkey) very difficult. Though the Italian Coast Guard has made rescuing migrants a priority, search-and-rescue is still extremely challenging. The Libyan Coast Guard, which should be a close partner in addressing the issue, lacks leadership, equipment and trained personnel. As the media coverage returns to Libya, one thing is almost certain. Large, overcrowded vessels making the long journey to Italian territory will likely result in many more tragedies over the months to come.