ROME—Late last summer, the traffic of migrants across the central Mediterranean dropped by around 80 percent when the smugglers stopped sending boats filled with desperate people. The sudden halt came thanks to a $5 million deal between Italy and the Libyan militias that control the smuggling trade, as first reported by the Associated Press last August.
The plan was fronted by a newly minted Libyan coast guard, trained and kitted out with patrol boats donated by the Italian government on the pretense that the Libyans alone had stemmed the migrant crisis. Italy poured nearly a quarter of a million dollars in aid into Libya’s recognized government, and the worst of the migrant crisis, which brought more than 180,000 people to Italy last year, seemed to be over, at least for the moment.
Italian government officials initially denied they had struck a deal with militias, but Interior Minister Marco Minniti has since gone on the record admitting that they have dealt directly with Libyan tribes who are well known to be involved with militia groups that run much of Libya’s detention and prison system, calling it a “matter of perception whether they are militias or not.”
Italy’s former foreign minister Franco Frattini told The Daily Beast last week that the deal is working. “Progress is being made,” he said. “Even though sadly it is often at the expense of the migrants.”
“We discussed a pact,” Minniti told journalists in a series of small meetings in September meant to clarify Italy’s dealings, admitting he called various tribal leaders to Rome, and comparing it to old deals made with Col. Muammar Gaddafi by past governments that amounted to the same thing. “It was quite simple: engage yourself against the trafficking of human beings and we will help you to build an alternative economy. The problem at the moment is that trafficking has been the only industry in Libya capable of producing revenue.”
The smuggling then stopped and the only boats that got through were those sent by rogue groups working outside the main smuggling rings. They were easy to spot. The oversized rubber dinghies made to spec by the usual smuggling rings were suddenly replaced by old wooden fishing boats and vessels with fiberglass bottoms.
The fate of the migrants is easily summed up by the language used in Italy to describe what happens to them. Those on the boats that get through are “rescued” by nongovernmental rescue ships or the very Italian navy and coast guard vessels that trained the Libyans.
Those stopped by the Libyans are instead “intercepted” and taken back to Libyan detention centers where humanitarian aid groups warn there are serious violations of human rights. The nuanced language seems minor, but the reality is often a matter of life and death. Those rescued live, those intercepted often don’t.
The United Nations Human Rights Council wrote directly to Minniti and then published its letter in which it warned him that “handing over migrants” to Libyan authorities was ethically wrong. “The fact that such actions would be carried out in Libyan territorial waters does not absolve Italy from its obligations under the convention,” the head of the council wrote. “Handing over individuals to the Libyan authorities or other groups in Libya would expose them to a real risk of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Still, the boats didn’t come. But all of that changed earlier this month when more than 2,500 migrants were rescued by the few NGO ships that remain on patrol and the Italian navy which both helps the Libyan coast guard and rescues migrants if they make it past Libyan international waters.
Several hundred of the unlucky migrants were turned back by Libyan authorities. Since late October, the more traditional rubber dinghies sent out by the usual smugglers are back on the horizon after recent clashes between smuggler groups in Sabratha where most of the smugglers are based and where most of the detained migrants are being held.
Many of those rescued interviewed by The Daily Beast last week spoke of the destruction of the detention centers where they were being held, apparently by armed groups which pulled down a wall and then shot over their heads as the terrified migrants ran to the sea and were forced on boats.
The boats may be back, but the new scenario at sea is far more combative. Migrants who are rescued say the Libyan coast guard and the smuggler groups work together to essentially recycle them by sending them out and turning them back to demand more money for subsequent journeys.
Several people who were rescued the week before told The Daily Beast that they had been sent out by smugglers in August and September directly into the path of the Libyan coast guard, captured, and turned back and placed in detention centers where they were raped, sold into labor, and tortured until they could raise enough money to pay smugglers to again get them through.
A young man named Osama showed the small black burns on his fingers from being electrocuted. An older man named Mohammed showed the entry point of a bullet wound that had healed on its own. Several women were pregnant from rape. Others were clearly psychologically scarred from the abuse.
A Nigerian migrant named Josef rescued last week told The Daily Beast that he had paid three times to leave Libya. The first two times, the Libyan coast guard seemed to know exactly when the boats were leaving and picked them up just a few miles off the coast. The third time he used a different smuggling ring which left from a different area and evaded the Libyan coast guard. “They are working together,” he said. “The coast guard is in business with the smugglers.”
Several Libyan news sources have also reported that the militia groups tied to the smuggling rings demanded more money from the Italian government, which apparently refused to pay, so far, which led to clashes between the smuggling groups trying to re-establish authority and resulted in an uptick in migrant boat departures
Around 8,000 migrants are thought to be held in official and unofficial detention centers, according to humanitarian groups working in the region. Most of the NGO boats have docked for the winter or ceased activity entirely, citing security concerns with the Libyan coast guard and the decline in migrant rescues, which makes it too expensive to patrol the seas. Recent investigations into several NGO rescue organizations by Sicilian prosecutors have also led to a drop in donations to the NGOs, which has caused several to suspend operations.
On Monday, the German NGO vessel Sea Watch, which patrols the western fringe of the central Mediterranean route, was dispatched by the Italian coast guard’s maritime rescue command center (MRCC) which coordinates all rescue activities in the Mediterranean from Rome. They were asked to assist a rubber dinghy in distress in international waters about 30 nautical miles off the Libyan coast. The Libyan coast guard arrived at the same time as the NGO and tried to take the migrants away from the German rescuers, according to Sea Watch and the Italian navy spokesperson.
A scuffle ensued with migrants jumping off the Libyan coast guard vessel to try to reach the German ship. Images of migrants being beaten and whipped by the Libyans were caught on one of the ship’s surveillance cameras while an Italian navy helicopter can be seen overhead and a voice can be heard saying, “This is an Italian navy helicopter, channel 16, we want you to stop now, now, now,” presumably to the Libyan guards. Sea Watch has posted a video of the encounter, in which the organization shows the Libyan coast guard throwing potatoes from their kitchen at their vessel as they tried to pull migrants from the water.
Through it all, migrants continue to die at sea. Five bodies were recovered after the Sea Watch incident on Nov. 6, including that of a 2-year-old child. The Libyans took around 50 people back to Libya, Sea Watch brought 58 to Italy, and the rest, around 40 or 50, are missing and feared drowned according to the International Organization on Migration.
Three days before that, the bodies of 26 Nigerian teenage girls were found floating near a sunken dinghy. Prosecutors in the southern Italian city of Salerno where their bodies were brought say they were all between the ages of 14 and 18.
The Daily Beast, onboard the Aquarius rescue vessel earlier this month, witnessed several others drown when they couldn’t reach lifejackets after a dinghy overturned during a rescue.