By Nikolaj Nielsen
Fewer refugees and migrants are leaving by boat from Libya to reach Italy – a development viewed by the EU as a partial success in terms of destroying the business model of people-smugglers.
But three years after EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos announced that “Europe is declaring war on smugglers”, it is unclear if the strategy really has worked.
Italy’s deal, cut early last year with Libyan tribal leaders, has had the most dramatic impact in reducing crossings.
Yet those joint efforts have also led to other more sinister forms of exploitation by a criminal network that now seeks to monetise their investments in humans by other means.
Senior officials at the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have all shed doubt on some aspects of the EU’s grand anti-business smuggler plan, issued in mid-2015.
“When we say we want to disrupt the smuggler business model, we talk about destroying boats in Libya, we talk about destroying the boats, all this makes the smuggler richer,” Eugenio Ambrosi, the IOM’s EU regional director told this website.
He says the business model will continue so long as there is no regular legal channel, and that efforts to stop the informal economic sector in Europe from hiring cheap migrant labour are missing.
“If you attack that, if you manage to avoid that in the agricultural sector in the south of Italy, [so] small and medium entrepreneurs do not employ African and sub-Saharan Africans at one euro and a half a day to work 18 hours a day to pick up tomatoes in the field, if we hit that, then the smuggler runs out of business,” he says.
The EU, meanwhile, says it is up to competent national authorities, including the labour inspectorates, police and judicial authorities, to ensure rules are enforced and workers are protected to prevent exploitation of migrants in Europe.
It says “a future European labour authority” will also help, and notes that since 2015, EU operations were able to contribute to saving over 600,000 lives in the Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, in Libya…
Meanwhile, people rescued at sea are returned to Libya where some end up paying multiple times for the same trip.
A spot on a wooden boat in 2013 and 2014 went for around $1,000 [€865], then dropped to $250 in 2015 and 2016, and then to around $90 in June last year.
The drop was reportedly due to infighting among rival militia leaders, eager to thwart one another’s trade. But those figures now appear to be increasing again.
“At one point in 2016 prices had really really dropped and now they are sort of creeping up again. We are still making an assessment about this,” said Mark Micallef, an investigative journalist and researcher at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime.
“There is much more diversity in the way departures are being organised now than there was before, and so it is not as easy as before to determine a pattern,” he said.
The EU’s naval operation Sophia seized over 500 vessels up to the end of 2017, forcing some smugglers to revert to cheap Chinese-made rubber dingies, which at one point were reported to have been shipped through ports in Turkey and Malta.
Last May, Avramopoulos lobbied China directly to stop these sales. The EU’s foreign affairs council on Libya had also introduced restrictions on the export and supply to Libya of inflatable boats and outboard motors.
But it is unclear how it is being monitored.
The UN refugee agency recommended that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to help support the inspection of containers destined for Libya, via countries such as Malta and Turkey, through its ‘Container Control Programme’.
But the UNODC says it has no funding to carry out such probes, given it is a donor-driven organisation. It also says that Malta as an EU member state, and as a container hub, probably would not need their assistance anyway.
“We will assess the situation, should we receive any funding for Libya,” said an UNODC spokesperson, in an email.
Yet an undisclosed customs authority of an unnamed EU member state, through which many such vessels are reportedly shipped, had told the UNHCR that only around five percent of cargo, including that destined for Libya, is actually inspected.
Around half of the boats used to ship migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean are now wooden, sourced locally in Libya.
Those caught by the EU-trained Libyan Coast Guard are still sent back, many to detention centres where their fate is well-known and documented.
In September alone, some seven in 10 were caught and brought back, another one-in-five died or went missing, making it the deadliest month on record.
“What we have seen is that the business model of smugglers and traffickers has changed in the last years, people are no longer put in seaworthy boats, so the journey is becoming more and more treacherous and the accidents are happening closer and closer to foreign shores,” an European Commission spokeswoman told reporters earlier this week.
The UN refugee agency also no longer has access to many of the 18 detention facilities run by DCIM, Libya’s migration police force, or their supporting militias.
Vincent Cochetel, the UN refugee agency special envoy for the central Mediterranean, says a pattern has since emerged whereby traffickers now try to monetise their investment by selling more detainees to people who then exploit them in the agricultural and construction sectors.
“It is an unintended side effect of the reduction of departures that leads to more exposure to slavery for the men and more risk of sexual exploitation for the women,” he told this website.
“They cannot keep the people in detention forever,” he noted.
Although some have escaped, due to DCIM staff abandoning their posts, a rough estimate of 7,000 are thought to be locked up. Some 30 percent of the detainees are subject to forced labour.
The Libyan state has laws that criminalise irregular migration. Those caught are subject to fines, jail, or forced labour.
One militia group had used them for landmine clearance, according to a UN panel of experts.
A flare up in hostilities in August and September has compounded the suffering, both of migrants and Libyans caught in a cross-fire between warring militia factions.
Only last week, Gahssam Salame, the head of the UN’s support mission to Libya, announced that the reign of armed groups remains entrenched.
“Human trafficking is routine in towns dotting up through the country. The smuggling of fuel is out in the open, as demonstrated by the convoys of trucks moving to the border,” said he said, in a statement.
The EU’s response on fuel smuggling has also been limited. Operation Sophia is only mandated to monitor and observe such trafficking, said to cost the Libyan state billions in lost revenues.
Asked why Sophia is not more proactive in tackling fuel smuggling, an European Commission spokeswoman said the information gathered is being shared with EU states and other agencies.
“Discussions about expanding the mandate of the Operation in regards to oil smuggling are ongoing in the context of the strategic review of the mandate,” she said. Sophia’s mandate is set to expire before the end of the year.
Nikolaj Nielsen is a Danish-American journalist working for EUobserver in Brussels. He won a King Baudouin Foundation grant for investigative journalism in 2010.