The crossing between North Africa and Southern Europe has proved to be the most dangerous refugee passage. Concern has been raised by international agencies including the IOM and UNHCR by two fatal sunken boats over three days at the beginning of July 2018.
On the first boat around 103 people drowned off the coast of Libya, where the coast guard had limited capacity to rescue only 16 men. The mode of transport in which they were crossing was an “unseaworthy and overcrowded” rubber boat marking an example of the dangerous methods that migrant smugglers are using. Shortly following, a second boat capsized with 100 people still missing, 41 saved. This toll contributes to the statistics of over 1000 drowning on the Mediterranean crossing of this year alone.
The Libyan Coast Guard is continually intercepting boats with smuggled migrants who are attempting to cross the Mediterranean and turning them back to be held in detention centres. Although numbers arriving at EU shores are 5 times lower than it’s peak in 2016, over 10,000 people have been returned to shore so far this year, representing another significant increase in numbers. There is also concern over the human rights conditions in the detention centres, where women and children put at high risk of violation and exploitation.
On analysis, although this points to urgent need for action by the EU, this situation needs to be addressed carefully. Bureaucracy between Geneva and the Libyan government led to the 2018 EU backed anti-smuggling operations in Libya including tightening regulation of volunteer boats arriving on European shores, which inadvertently has impacted the increased death toll. The concern of agencies is regarding higher sanctions on boats already in transit, which will bread further desperation and in turn fatal impact if distress calls are not seen to. Hence, emphasis should be made on reinforcing search and rescue operations, assist the Libyan coast guard and a careful and collaborative approach needs to be made with the international community to curb migrant smuggling and the cause of more deaths during this crossing.
It is also important to highlight the increase of displaced and vulnerable migrants who are at risk of exploitation, given the complexities of the migrants’ journey, it is a frequent occurrence that the definitions of trafficking and smuggling become obscured. Often victims will believe they are being smuggled but become trafficked through transit or at their destination country. Factors such as political instability, economic pressures and environmental issues are often the catalysts for migrants seeking to come to Europe. Illegal migrants often rely on organised criminal networks to facilitate their passage to Europe, leading to higher risk of exploitation and further blurring of the distinction between trafficking and smuggling. The migrant crisis in Libya provides a unique yet unfortunate opportunity for clarification: the controls aimed at ending the smuggling of migrants to Europe has been the catalyst of human trafficking inland.
For Untitled Nations reporting on the migrant crisis see here: