On April 20, the Italian coast guard rescued 638 immigrants attempting to cross into Europe through Libyan waters. On the same day, another boat full of dozens of migrants ran aground on the Greek island of Rhodes, killing several individuals in the process. These incidents followed the deaths of possibly over 800 migrants on a boat carrying as many as 850 individuals that capsized this Sunday while en-route from Libya to Italy. One of the largest single migrant tragedies in recent memory, this incident has turned global attention back toward the growing (and increasingly deadly) trend of illegal migration across the Mediterranean Sea.
Migrants from all over Africa and Asia have long used the Mediterranean as a corridor to illegally enter Europe, using wide-open waters and porous island borders to evade detection. But the ports used by traffickers to take migrants across the waters, and the number of people using these services have shifted over the years. For much of the last two decades, routes through the eastern or western Mediterranean were more common, with tens of thousands making it across the seas via Greece or Spain. But as of 2013, an unprecedented 60,000 migrants used central Mediterranean routes to make it to Europe, suffering several hundred deaths. In 2014, the number crossing through the central Mediterranean, especially via Libya, jumped to 174,000 with 3,200 individuals dying in the process. And this year the numbers seem set to jump even higher, as migrants appear to be coming from further afield than ever before (some of those in Sunday's crash hailed from as far as Bangladesh), with 11,000 making a successful crossing within the first 17 days of April alone and 1,710 individuals dying in the process this year to date—all of these numbers are likely to spike as traffic increases in the summer months.
Last month, VICE News released a documentary called " Migrant Prisons of Libya: Europe or Die," which explores the factors that have contributed to Libya's rise as a center for illegal European immigration, and the terrible conditions those rescued by the local coast guard and subsequently trapped in immigrant detention facilities face there. Long before Libya became a way station on trafficking circuits, the wealth created by its oil reserves made it a destination for regional migration. However after the fall of the government of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the ensuing chaos (predicted by the dictator, before his fall) eroded the jobs and security immigrants had sought. But the country's borders and long coastline, hard to police and close to Italy, meant that the established to-Libya migration lanes could just transform into to-Europe lanes.
Related: VICE News travels to detention centers in Libya, where we hear migrants speak of torture and serious human rights violations.
The collapse of Libya's government and economy not only changed the equations for migrants, it also created incentives for locals to facilitate their migration to Europe by acting as human traffickers, facing the risks for the promise of incomes they couldn't get otherwise. Local militias, eager for income to fund the continuing struggle for power, joined this game as well.
Against these traffickers and the steady flow of migrants, VICE News found that the Libyan coast guard feels woefully mismatched. Visiting a coast guard station in Garaboulli, just outside of the militia-held capital of Tripoli, they witnessed footage of under-funded sailors in shoddy, small boats trying to save as many migrants as they could from damaged boats as drowned bodies bob in the distance. Soon after their visit, the coast guard had to suspend rescue operations for lack of resources.
Those migrants the Libyan coast guard did manage to rescue were transferred to any of the country's 22 detention centers. The two VICE News visited in Misrata and Zawiyah, just outside of Tripoli, were overcrowded and underfunded, full of migrants from the Middle East and Africa who spoke of rampant abuses and uncertain fates. VICE News could not confirm allegations of beatings and killings (a local detention center director instead claimed that his facility was doing quite well considering the lack of resources), but noted that Human Rights Watch reports have documented corruption-related abuses of prisoners in these centers. The fact that Libya is not a signatory to the Geneva Convention does mean that there are very few legal grounds in the nation to protect such migrants and refugees from unfair conditions like this.
"Here, we are always getting beaten," a Senegalese migrant told VICE News. "If I show you a photo of me before coming here, you wouldn't recognize me."
If past reports are any indication, many of these detainees would eventually be released—most pushed across Libya's southern border into Chad or Nigeria with no resources, a few escaping into Tripoli, and even fewer receiving temporary leave to remain in Libya. Many of those detained would go on to make a new attempt at crossing the Mediterranean to Europe.
In the wake of this weekend's migrant tragedy, leaders from across the European Union met to discuss new approaches for stemming this deadly flow of trans-Mediterranean migration.
"There is a new realization that if Europe doesn't act as a team, history will judge it very harshly," the New York Times quoted Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat (whose nation has, alongside Italy, born the brunt of Libyan migration in recent years) as saying at the start of the week, "as it did when it closed its eyes to stories of genocide—horrible stories—not long ago."
Attendees at the recent meeting agreed to step up their search-and-rescue campaign, known as Triton, to prevent further deaths of this magnitude. Italy and Malta called for the mobilization of a non-military intervention against trafficking networks in Libya. And further approaches will be discussed at an upcoming summit on the topic to be held before the end of the current week.
Most of the plans on the table in Europe in recent months have just focused on trying to dissuade migration by making it harder to get into Europe. This was the rationale for scaling back the previous search-and-rescue mission, Mare Nostrum, led by Italy through 2014—to make the crossing harder and thus less attractive. (Even if the EU doubles Triton, it will still be a smaller program than Mare Nostrum.) European officials previously reasoned that smugglers had begun to depend on rescue missions, abandoning their boats halfway through a journey full of battered and abused migrants. Yet this recent tragedy and the findings by VICE News and others demonstrate that making the crossing more dangerous had not dissuaded migrants—it has just made their journey more deadly and trafficker networks more professionalized and ruthless.
Unfortunately, new plans to improve search-and-rescue operations like Triton and urge better policing in Libya and other ports of call for illegal immigrants do not address the underlying drivers fueling immigration to the Libyan way station in the first place.
The vast majority of the migrants fleeing through Libya to Europe come from war-torn or chronically repressive and violent nations—the most common migrants today are Syrians fleeing their nation's civil war, followed by Eritreans, fleeing crackdowns by an unopposed repressive regime. Many more are fleeing endemic poverty. None of them have any incentive to stay in their home countries, and every incentive to attempt a Libyan crossing, no matter how risky.
"They are forced to escape," Italian Red Cross Chief Francesco Rocca recently told the BBC. "They are escaping war, they are escaping hunger, so this is something we cannot avoid. If we block one route, they will find another route, so this is something we have to face … not with only words or actions that don't match the concrete needs of the people."
VICE News heard similar sentiments from the migrants it encountered in Libyan detention centers, some of whom claimed they'd tried to cross the sea multiple times and would try again.
"Either I go to Europe or I die," one detainee said.
"We would prefer to die in the sea, that's better than dying in Syria," said another.
Traffickers doubt that the EU will manage to come up with any new policies targeting the root incentives for migrants and smugglers in their home nations following the recent tragedy.
"Last year the same thing happened when these tragedies occurred," a trafficker in Libya going by the name Hajj told the Guardian recently. "Human rights people came out and started talking, and politicians met and said they'd take action. But nothing happened. It'll be the same thing."
Hajj, a well-educated Libyan who might take a different job if his nation's economy were stronger, says that European policy makers ought to focus on destroying smugglers' boats, funding infrastructure and security in Libya (and migrants' home countries), and providing resources to Libyan coast guard facilities directly, without going through the weak government. This, he says, might start to cripple trafficking networks and the incentives behind them, saving more people from detention centers or death at sea than anything that's been suggested to date.
Yet the chance that Europeans will move beyond search-and-rescue missions, intervening in Libya or migrant homelands, seems slim. So until conflicts cool down around the world and regimes change in repressive nations, tragedies like those of the past few days and conditions like those documented by VICE News are likely to persist indefinitely, if not worsen.
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