The grim story of migration off the shores of Libya
Tunis - About 219,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean in 2014 in search of a better or safer life in Europe. In 2015, with months to go, the figure is 315,000, according to the International Organization for Migration. The migrants are mostly from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and west Africa.
There is a perception that most make the journey via Libya. In fact, more than two-thirds crossed to Greece and never set foot in Libya. However, most of the migrants who have died in the crossing set out from Libyan shores. That is mainly because the journey is longer, more dangerous and the crafts used by unscrupulous smugglers are crammed with more people than they can safely hold. In some cases the boats are unseaworthy in the first place.
About 3,400 migrants drowned in 2014 heading to Europe. In August 2015 the figure was put at more than 2,500, the bulk of them heading out from Libya.
That figure did not include the most recent tragedies. About 200 people drowned August 26th when a boat capsized off Zuwara, 100 kilometres west of Tripoli. Another 37 bodies were found August 30th after a boat sank off Khoms, 100 kilometres to the other side of the capital.
The political crisis in Libya permits smugglers to flourish. As well as Zuwara, the main smuggling centre on the Libyan coast, almost all the other departure points are in the western Libya, beyond the control of the internationally recognised government based in the eastern city of Beida.
But they are also beyond the control of the rival unrecognised government in Tripoli, although it has tried to use the disasters to obtain recognition from Europe, offering to collaborate with the European Union to rein in smugglers.
Although allied to the regime in Tripoli, Zuwara is an independent city-state and its officials are said to do more than turn a blind eye to the trade. Journalists managed to get into the port in 2014 but were quickly discovered and instantly removed by angry senior local officials said to be concerned that the scale and involvement of the city in the illegal trade would be reported.
At other departure points, smugglers are similarly left untouched and officials again widely believed to be taking a cut from the business.
It is big business. Would-be passengers have told of having to pay $1,000 per person for the crossing. With several hundred migrants packed into boats and more than one boat departing a day, smugglers are making millions of dollars a week.
They train two or three migrants to sail the boats and it is all the easier now that so many foreign navies are waiting off the Libyan coast to rescue migrants in distress. The smugglers are even reported to provide migrants with telephone numbers so that they can contact rescuers.
With so much money coming in, smugglers can easily afford to import additional vessels, mainly from Turkey, Italy and Tunisia. Without these, the entire business would stop. However, neither the European Union nor the United Nations has sought to ban sales of boats to Libya or pressure other countries into halting deliveries.
There have not even been threats to identify and track down smugglers, bring them to justice in international courts or seize their assets, which in many cases are widely believed to be invested outside Libya. There is another side to the grim story that almost never gets reported. It is not just in the Mediterranean that migrants are dying. It is in the Sahara as well, in the crossing from Niger and southern Algeria where again there are well-organised smuggler chains. They involve Tebu and Tuareg groups and those from local tribes.
Reporters, in 2014, came across a 19-year old Ghanaian working in a supermarket in Tripoli trying to earn enough money to pay the $1,000 to travel to Europe. He said his father had long disappeared and when his mother had died, he decided to go to Europe in hope of a better life.
His journey to Libya had taken him nearly a year, travelling to Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger. From Niger, he said, he had travelled in a group of 130 West African migrants. Only three, he said, made it to Sebha. They had been left in the desert by smugglers. He did not say why but there have been many reports in Tripoli of migrants dying in the desert. Whether the young Ghanaian made it to France is not known. When the reporters returned to the supermarket to speak to him again, he had gone.
There are signs of changing attitudes in Libya to the smuggling issue. The disaster off Zuwara, with pictures of drowned children circulating on social media, has undoubtedly shocked many Libyans. Amid reports that a Libyan family was among the dead, the trade is seen as hitting fellow citizens and shaming the country. For the first time, there have been protests in Zuwara against it and as many as 11 smugglers are said to have been arrested.
But, with so much money being made, the smugglers are unlikely to change their trade.