Most vulnerable pay highest price amid chaos of Libya's people-trafficking routes
The bodies of dead migrants have become an all too familiar sight on the picturesque beaches of Sabratha, a town on Libya's western coast that is home to stunning Unesco-recognised Roman ruins.
Usually the bodies wash ashore after the flimsy vessels the migrants board in a bid to reach Europe capsize in the Mediterranean. But last weekend was different.
This time, instead of corpses bloated from days in the water, local authorities had to remove the bodies of 22 migrants whose blood had seeped into Sabratha's white sands. They were shot dead in the middle of a confrontation between the people smugglers who make fortunes from the migrants' desperation to get to Europe, according to the Geneva-based International Organisation for Migration (IOM). The traffickers opened fire on the beach after the migrants refused to board their boat due to bad weather. The killings marked a new low for Libya, a key departure point for migration to Europe.
The numbers attempting to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean have tended to change with the seasons, with spring and summer bringing better weather and hence better conditions at sea.
But there are increasing signs that more and more migrants are prepared to risk the journey no matter the time of year.
On just one day last week, Italy's coast guard reported that almost 1,000 people had been rescued off Libya. Since the beginning of the year, some 20,000 have reached European shores, a rise of around 50pc over the same period in 2016.
The IOM estimates 521 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean so far this year, most of whom set sail from Libya. That marks a 13pc increase from last year, when an estimated 425 deaths occurred during the same period.
Last month, the bodies of more than 70 migrants were swept up on a beach near the town of Zawiya further along the coast from Sabratha. According to the European border management agency Frontex, more than 4,500 people met a watery grave while trying to get from Libya to Italy last year. Of those, Unicef estimates some 700 were children. Because smugglers are now trying to pack more migrants onto their rickety boats to make more money, drownings are expected to increase this year.
"The Central Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe is among the world's deadliest and most dangerous migrant routes for children and women," Unicef's Afshan Khan said last week.
"The route is mostly controlled by smugglers, traffickers and other people seeking to prey upon desperate children and women who are simply seeking refuge or a better life."
Most of those leaving from Libya are not Libyan, instead they have travelled from countries elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East. The smuggling gangs that have proliferated amid the turmoil that followed the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 are run by Libyans often working with other nationalities, but many of their compatriots lament the fact their country has become such a hub for the grim trade.
In a recent report, Unicef detailed how migrant women and children are subjected to abuses including sexual violence as they try to make their way to Europe. Many end up in overcrowded militia-run detention centres in Libya, where they endure atrocious conditions and are often denied access to medical care. Three-quarters of children surveyed by Unicef reported that adults had beaten or harassed them. Almost half the women interviewed said they had been raped or sexually abused.
Libya's key position in the people-smuggling chain stretching across sub-Saharan Africa has long been a headache for the EU. As the post-Gaddafi political and security vacuum deepened, with a patchwork of armed groups jockeying for power, the business of trafficking humans grew amid the chaos.
In Libya today, three entities claiming to be governments exist, but none of them actually governs in any meaningful sense. Only one government is recognised by the UN, but it cannot even impose its authority over Tripoli, the capital, let alone the rest of the country. Despite this, the EU is trying to follow through on a controversial deal with the UN-backed government aimed at stemming the flow of migrants to Europe. Widely criticised by human rights groups, the agreement basically aims to keep the migrants in Libya, while trying to improve conditions in detention centres there and helping establish assisted voluntary return schemes.
Apart from the question of how to slow the numbers leaving Libya for Europe, there is also the question of how to better secure Libya's borders to disrupt the smuggling networks that take advantage of its current instability in the first place. One of the biggest challenges is border security along the vast desert of Libya's southern flank.
While European governments may wish for quick fixes to the migration question, none exist when it comes to Libya.