Sunday 25 September 2016

Mary Fitzgerald: As temperatures rise, so too will the refugee death toll

Mary Fitzgerald

Published 02/04/2016 | 02:30

German Navy sailors help a migrant to board on the German combat supply ship ‘Frankfurt am Main’ during Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya last Tuesday. Photo: AP Photo/Matthias Schrader
German Navy sailors help a migrant to board on the German combat supply ship ‘Frankfurt am Main’ during Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya last Tuesday. Photo: AP Photo/Matthias Schrader

This is the time of year when the bodies begin to wash up on the sandy beaches of western Libya.

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During winter, rough weather conditions make the Mediterranean crossing from Libya more difficult for those desperate for a new life in Europe. The flow never stops completely, and with the approach of better spring weather and calmer seas, more rickety boats crammed with migrants will set off.

Many such vessels capsize en route - their human cargo returned, bloated and lifeless, to the picturesque shores along Libya's western flank. Almost 100 migrants may have drowned off Libya on their way to Italy this week after their dinghy sank, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). They said two vessels, one with 140 on board and the other carrying an estimated 120 people, left the Libyan coast the day before. The larger dinghy was intercepted by Libyan naval authorities, but the other capsized.

"Thirty one migrants were saved by the Libyan authorities, so that leaves 89 possible victims," an IOM spokesman said.

The Italian coastguard said it had rescued almost 1,500 migrants - including many women and children - in a dozen operations off the coast of Libya over just two days this week.

This follows figures released by the UN refugee agency UNHCR last week, showing that nearly 14,500 migrants had arrived in Italy via the perilous sea route from Libya since the beginning of the year, up 42.5pc on the same period in 2015.

After the controversial migrant swap deal between the EU and Turkey came into effect this week, aiming to stem the flow of people taking the Aegean Sea crossing to Greece, there are fears more will now attempt the even more dangerous route from Libya.

The Greek government has reported falling numbers of people arriving on Greek islands this week, though it is not clear whether this is a direct result of the EU-Turkey agreement, or other factors like inclement weather. Similarly, it is too soon to detect the impact of the deal on the numbers crossing from Libya.

Last month, French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian claimed that 800,000 migrants were waiting in Libya to get to Europe, but Libyan sources rejected the number as exaggerated, saying the figure was less than half that.

Most of those attempting the journey from Libya are not Libyan - in fact, most are from sub-Saharan Africa mixed with a number from other parts of the Middle East. Libya's role in the multi-million dollar human trafficking business goes back to the Gaddafi era.

Many of the networks and personalities involved today existed under his rule. After Gaddafi was ousted in a popular uprising aided by a Nato-led intervention in 2011, the turmoil that followed allowed smugglers of all sorts to flourish - but the business of trafficking humans was considered one of the most lucrative.

Today, Libya's smuggling networks are, in several cases, entwined with powerful local figures, including militia bosses.

EU officials hope that better management of migrant flows from Libya may come with the establishment of a unity government aimed at ending an almost two-year-old power struggle between the country's rival parliaments.

The resulting political and security vacuum has empowered an array of unsavoury elements - including smugglers and Isil, which has built a stronghold in Gaddafi's home town of Sirte.

Reports from Libya suggest Isil is trying to muscle in on the human trafficking business - as well as claims they have tried to lure desperate migrants into their ranks by paying them to join the group. Isil has already carried out a number of attacks in Libya, including a suicide bombing that killed more than 60 people earlier this year.

This week, the first layer of that UN-backed unity government, known as the presidency council, arrived in Tripoli after being based in Tunis since its inception. The unity government faces a host of challenges as it tries to take shape and attempts to impose its authority on a capital - and a country - where several armed groups are hostile to it.

The fact the presidency council was forced to travel to Tripoli by sea, after factions there prevented its members from flying in, shows the challenges they face.

It will be some time before this unity government will be in a position to meaningfully tackle the question of migration flows from Libya. In the meantime, Europe can expect more reports of deaths in the Mediterranean.

Irish Independent

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