30 April— Last week, the European Union agreed to triple the funding dedicated to patrolling the Mediterranean for illegal migrant ships. The EU has also doubled the emergency aid to front-line member states Italy, Greece and Malta, which deal with a massive influx of migrants coming across the Mediterranean. The new allocation of 50 million euros per year will be dedicated to reception centres for migrants, medical aid, or additional staff dealing with the influx. It is part of an overall EU fund for migration and asylum issues.
The EU also will send more naval ships from its member states to the region stem the growing migration crisis that has left countless dead as they seek to reach Europe from Africa. The governments also agreed to develop plans to combat the smuggling rings that have made a lucrative trade of bringing people to Europe. The UK offered to send a warship to patrol between Sicily and the Libyan coast. Germany, France, Ireland and other nations have offered ships as well.
EU leaders said the Frontex mission— which secures the external borders of the union, including from illegal immigration, human trafficking and terrorist infiltration— would now have the authority to conduct rescue missions in international waters.
The decision was made days after one of the deadliest migrant shipwrecks in the sea. Last Sunday, a ship carrying 550 people capsized. The Italian Coast guard recovered 9 bodies and 144 survivors. Nearly 400 people reportedly remain missing. If this number is confirmed, it will be the single worst refugee catastrophe in history. Yet despite the dangerous incident, the next day, ships from the EU’s Triton rescue programme clashed with people smugglers over the rescue of 250 migrants 110 kilometres off Libya. The smugglers reportedly fired on the Icelandic Coast Guard vessel Tyr in their attempt to recover the empty wooden boat from which the migrants had been rescued. An Italian tugboat was trying to take the wooden boat in tow when the smugglers raced in on a speedboat and sped away with the empty migrant boat.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports that since the start of the year and 21 April, approximately 1,750 have perished in their attempts to illegally migrate to Europe over the Mediterranean. In the same period in 2014, that number was 56. Joel Millman, a spokesman for the IOM, says that smugglers appear to be loading each boat more migrants, and are operating without fear of punishment.
Smuggling has become increasingly lucrative, and in Libya, which is divided by opposing governments and spiralling ever deeper into chaos, the market is thriving. One anonymous smuggler says, “A fishing boat worth 40,000 dinar, (£20,000) can be sold for smuggling for £100,000. It’s an unimaginable amount of money. The boats are brought in from Egypt, they’re bad quality and you load it with 90 or 100 people, and some of them get there and others will die.” The operations are run through a complex criminal and tribal network; the UN estimates that smuggling is worth over £100m a year. Despite the dangers, new migrants–“cargo”– arrives daily.
The migrants often originate in sub-Saharan Africa. They pay repeatedly to be taken to the next stage of migration. The migrants are often hidden in cargo trucks and not given food or water for days. In the dessert the smugglers use hidden trails, and will sometimes abandon the migrants in the middle of the desert, telling them, “follow these power lines and eventually, you’ll reach a city”. Many die en-route.
For those that do make it, many aim for Libya’s coastal waters. The anonymous smuggler reported that the areas of Sabratha and Zuwarah, west of Tripoli near the Tunisian border, are under the control of smugglers. They use the official sea ports for smuggling immigrants, and load people from the port docks. He says he tells each migrant the risk before they embark. If they pay more, they are allowed onto a better quality boat. They are offered discounts if they choose to get on an overcrowded or less seaworthy boat.
EU Foreign Affairs Chief Federica Mogherini was tasked to ask the United Nations for permission to use air and naval power to destroy smugglers’ boats along the Libyan coast before they can use them. Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, disagrees with plans to mount military strikes against the boats. He argues that while smugglers use the boats to conduct criminal activity, targeting them could unintentionally harm Libyan fishermen, further weakening Libya’s economy. Although Ban has vocalised his opinion, he cannot prevent the UN Security Council from approving the strikes.
In Libya, the groups controlling Tripoli have said they will confront any EU operation that seeks to attack sites used by people smugglers. Muhammed el-Ghirani, Foreign Minister of the unrecognised Tripoli-based government, says his group has repeatedly offered to help deal with migrants, but their proposals had been rebuffed. International governments recognise only the Tobruq based government, led by Libyan President Abdullah al-Thani. It is so far unclear what the Tobruq government can do in a region that is controlled by opposing forces. It is likely that stemming the flow of migrants is incumbent upon finding a peaceful solution to Libya’s political chaos.