People Smuggling In Libya: Drownings In The Mediterranean Sea And EU Policy Failures

250 people are feared to have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, after two partially submerged dinghies were found 30km off the Libyan coast. On Thursday 30th March, the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms spokeswoman Laura Lanuza, said its boat Golfo Azzurro had recovered five floating bodies, found close to the dinghies. The actual dinghies have not been recovered but Proactiva Open Arms assumes that 120-140 would have been on each vessel. The bodies recovered were of African men aged between 16 and 25 years, who drowned in the 24 hours prior to them being discovered in the waters north of the Libyan port of Sabratha. In response, Proactiva Open Arms issued the statement on Facebook: “It is a harsh reality check of the suffering here that is invisible in Europe.”

This tragedy has occurred in what has already been a disastrous year for deaths in the Mediterranean Sea, where most migrants set off from Libya in the direction of Italy’s Lampedusa, a 300km trip. Over the first nine weeks of 2017, more refugees had died in the Mediterranean (521 deaths) than during the same period in 2016 (471 deaths), according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). In 2016, there were 5000 recorded deaths by drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.

The IOM has also stated that 6000 people have been rescued on the central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy during the past few days. Last month, the EU and Libya had been in discussion about forming a plan to stem the flow of African migrants to Europe. Part of this deal would include the European Union giving $215 million to Libya’s government to stop boats entering the territory. The EU had also promised to provide support for Libya to set up “safe camps” and promote the “voluntary repatriation” of refugees who want to return to their countries of origin.

This plan has been criticized by several aid groups. A statement from Gauri Van Gulik, Amnesty International’s Deputy Europe Director reads: “The latest tragedy on this deadly crossing highlights the shameful failure of European governments to address the global refugee crisis. It is clear that putting up walls and fences is not deterring desperate people from trying to reach safety – it is simply putting more lives in peril and filling the pockets of smugglers.”

The statement goes on to explain that refugees in Libya face horrific human rights abuses, although European governments have continued to prioritize keeping refugees out of Europe. Recent measures to cooperate with the Libyan coastguard, known for returning refugees it intercepts to Libya, have resulted in these same refugees being tortured, raped and subject to horrific conditions in detention centres. The Libyan government of UN-backed Fayez Serraj is shaky, and he only maintains a partial hold of the country. Libya is not a safe place for refugees.

Last week, during talks with European officials in Rome, Serraj asked for an additional $862 million in military, rescue and emergency equipment to stop illegal migration across Libya’s border into Europe. Italy and Greece are the only two countries currently pursuing a policy of rescue and shelter of illegal migrants, in opposition to their European neighbours that are rejecting or sealing off their borders to illegal immigration. Most refugees who arrive in Italy, later try to move onward to other EU countries, again resorting to smugglers.

Rome had also pursued a solution to the political stalemate in Libya, so that the UN-backed Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) signed in 2015, would allow the Tripoli government to establish control over its border and migrant routes. A court in Tripoli has since suspended the deal between Libya and Italy, stating: “The justice ministry of the Government of National Accord confirms that the court is still examining the issue in order pending a ruling, and that no final judgement has been issued.” As Libya does not have a unified legal system, these types of decisions have frequently been rejected or unacknowledged depending on whether the court represents the Toruk-based ‘House of Representatives’ (HOR) or the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which was formed by Serraj, but is currently not recognized by Libya’s Toruk-backed parliament. Since the fall of Dictator Moammar Gaddafi in 2011, smugglers have taken advantage of this lawlessness and political upheaval in Libya and this is why the country has become a major people trafficking route.

Humanitarian groups are urging for European leaders to save lives at sea by establishing safe and legal routes to Europe. The human rights of refugees and migrants in Libya must be protected. The current political situation in Libya and its human rights record means that this country cannot accommodate refugees and humanitarian aid is needed. The EU must recognize that their current policies are not working, as evidenced by the number of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea.