Over 100 migrants are feared dead
BY: TOM ROLLINS
8 October 2014
Over 100 migrants are feared dead off the coast of Libya after their boat, which reportedly sailed from on October 2, sank. Several bodies washed up on beaches close to the western Libyan city of Zuwara, many of them Syrian refugees, over the weekend.
"The ship has sunk two days ago, and according to the survivors there were more than 250 illegal immigrants on the ship, most of them from Syria or sub-Sahara," an official at the press centre for the local town government said, quoted by Reuters.
Around 70 migrants were rescued, while 30 bodies were recovered by Monday evening, Libyan authorities said. This could mean at least 150 people are still missing.
Although the Malta boat tragedy, in which smugglers deliberately drowned an estimated 500 people off the coast of Malta on September 10 after sailing from Egypt’s coastline, has re-focused Europe’s attention on the plight of migrants leaving northern Africa, despite the fact incidents like this – although rarely on the same horrifying scale – are routine.
Smugglers have made use of Libya’s political instability to ferry tens of thousands across the Mediterranean since 2011. The route is popular with refugees because the distance to Italy is not as far as from Egypt, for example, although it is believed smugglers may be taking more risks as a result; loading boats past capacity and increasing the chances of fatal capsizes.
An Italian investigation into an Eritrean-run smuggling network working between Libya and Lampedusa, which was uncovered by police in Rome recently, has also stated that Libyan officials may be complicit with smugglers operating off the country’s coastline.
This is all consistent with smuggling in other countries on the Mediterranean. However, in Libya there are also added risks, borne out of a combination of more advanced networks and deteriorating security conditions. Stories of human trafficking, forced labour and extortion are becoming commonplace, as highlighted in a recent US State Department report:
"Trafficking networks reaching into Libya from Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, and other sub-Saharan states use a variety of techniques to hold people in forced labor and forced prostitution, including fraudulent recruitment practices, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or nonpayment of wages, and debt bondage."
According to the testimonies of Eritrean refugees kidnapped from eastern Sudan this year, the Rashaida tribesmen who became an essential cog in the deadly post-2009 Sinai Peninsula trafficking trade may also be involved with Libyan networks.
At the same time, deaths at sea remain a growing concern - and a bigger killer. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) now estimates that over 3,000 people have died trying to reach Europe by sea in 2014 alone. A recent reported suggested the figures could be much higher because sinking boats and ensuing deaths can simply go unreported.
Fears are meanwhile growing that deaths at sea could increase after the Italian government announced plans to phase out Operation Mare Nostrum (Latin for “our sea”), a search-and-rescue initiative which has reportedly saved the lives of 90,000 people in the Mediterranean this year.
“We are proud of the lives we saved,” said Italian Interior Minister Angelina Alfano in an August press conference. “But Mare Nostrum won’t live another year, because however commendable, it was meant as a short-term operation. Responsibility for the Mediterranean frontier rests with Europe. These migrants don’t want to come to Italy, they want to come to Europe.”
A new operation run by the European Union’s Warsaw-based border agency Frontex, initially dubbed “Frontex Plus” but referred to as “Operation Triton” in an interview with a Frontex spokesperson in September, is being prepared as some form of replacement.
However, migration experts and refugee organizations are warning that Frontex is in no position to take on the day-to-day workings of Mare Nostrum. The agency has no boats, for one.
EU officials, among them Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, have also openly stated that Frontex Plus/Triton “is not a replacement for Mare Nostrum.”
Details about what will happen next are few.
But if tragedies like Lampedusa, Malta and Zuwara continue to occur as Mediterranean migration enters its most dangerous time of year, Italy and the European Union will come under yet more pressure to stop people routinely dying at sea in an attempt to reach Europe.
This article originally appeared on Beacon.
Tom Rollins, is a freelance journalist currently based in Alexandria, reports on Mediterranean migration, smuggling and refugee rights on Beacon, a crowd-funded journalism platform.