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Unofficial armed group stops migrants from leaving Libya for Europe

August 22, 2017 at 1:38 pm

Refugees are seen after being rescued from the Mediterranean Sea on 15 June 2017 [Marcus Drinkwater/Anadolu Agency]

An unofficial armed group is stopping boats used by people smugglers from setting off from Libya to cross the Mediterranean Sea, resulting in a fall in the number of migrants making the perilous journey.

There has been a noted decline in migrants arriving in Italy from Libya this year. Libya is the main route for migration to Europe but there was a fall of more than 50 per cent in July compared with 2016. Even fewer have made the journey this month, despite this time of year being a peak period due to more favourable weather and sea conditions.

The EU’s Frontex border control agency said last week that “clashes in Sabratha” contributed to July’s migrant decline. The agency also cited changeable weather and an increased Libyan coastguard presence.

According to sources in Sabratha, the sudden drop has been due to a new group operating in the city which is preventing migrants from leaving and in some cases locking them up in detention centres instead, reports Lebanon’s Daily Star. The group is made up of several hundred “civilians, policemen and army figures” who conduct a “very strong campaign” that was launched by a “former mafia boss,” local sources told Associated Press.

Read: Over 300 refugees rescued off Spanish coast

Italy has been trying to bolster the ability of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) to stop people smuggling by giving cash incentives, training the coastguard and sending a ship to help repair coastguard and naval vessels.

Over 600,000 migrants have reached Italy by sea from North Africa since 2014; more than 12,000 having died trying to make the journey. Italy will be looking to replicate a deal with Libya like the one struck by the EU with Turkey last year to shut down migrant routes through Greece and the Balkan states.

The UN-backed GNA has little control over armed groups in western Libya, including the capital, and none at all over militant factions which control the east of the country under the leadership of the Libyan National Army’s Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar. Smuggling networks are likely to keep on operating as along as the country suffers from a lack of a strong central authority, the absence of which has worsened Libya’s security situation.