The Italy-Haftar agreement diverts boats to the Greek islands

Landings on the Aegean coasts have increased by 166% since the beginning of the year compared to the same period in 2023. The hypothesis is that the motorboats given by Rome to the warlords of Benghazi are slowing down departures from Tobruk towards the Italian coasts.

Last September, 30 asylum seekers made the 190-nautical-mile journey from Tobruk, Libya, to the Greek island of Gavdos and the southern coast of Crete, just above it. The number rose to 397 in December and surpassed 1,100 in the first two months of 2024 . The spike in migrant arrivals from the war-torn North African country is posing a new challenge for Greek authorities.

New routes?

One explanation for the phenomenon is that migrant smugglers are trying new routes after patrols on the Greek-Turkish maritime border were strengthened earlier this year following an agreement between Athens and Ankara . 

The numbers, however, do not support this thesis, as official data shows that the eastern Aegean islands have welcomed around 8 thousand asylum seekers since the beginning of the year, compared to around 3 thousand in the same period in 2023, an increase of 166 %. It is proof that the Eastern Mediterranean route is far from closed.

The consequences of the Italy-Haftar agreement

Another explanation for the surge in landings in Gavdos and Crete could lie in a series of contacts that have taken place in recent months between the Italian government and Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), based in Tobruk and who it controls eastern Libya and the port, the main launching point for migrant ships reaching the southern Aegean.

It is known that Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani met with Haftar in Rome last year to discuss migration flows from the North African country to Italy, as the number of arrivals increased between January and May 2023 up to approximately 16,600.

But also recently the Minister of the Interior Matteo Piantedosi went to Benghazi to pay homage to the Haftar family by praising the role of the Lna “in fighting terrorism and extremism, and for its significant efforts aimed at reducing illegal immigration”.

Criminal control

These talks by Rome with the warlords of eastern Libya have produced results. Immediately afterwards, in fact, a force of new motorboats managed by the so-called Tariq Ben Zeyad Brigade – a paramilitary and criminal organization led by Haftar’s son, Saddam – began chasing migrant boats leaving Libya for Italy. 

According to some reports, the boats are towed away and their passengers jailed and tortured. One of these chases was filmed by the cameras of Frontex, the EU border security force. Frontex reported a 70% reduction in irregular crossings along the Central Mediterranean route (from Libya to Italy) and a 117% increase in flows in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Pylos shipwreck

Furthermore, several media investigations ( Lighthouse Reports , Der Spiegel , El Pais , Reporters United ) have revealed that one of the most powerful migrant traffickers in Tobruk is acting under Haftar’s orders. His gang was actually identified as responsible for the shipwreck off the coast of Pylos , in the southern Peloponnese, last June, which led to the deaths of more than 600 migrants and refugees.

International media spoke to several survivors of the shipwreck and many named the main traffickers involved in organizing the trip. Some were citizens of eastern Libya with ties to Haftar. Survivors, insiders and analysts explained that the trip was organized with the vast support of powerful people reporting to Haftar.

Most of the migrants rescued off the coasts of Gavdos and Crete are taken to makeshift reception centers before being transported to Malakassa camp, north of Athens. According to the coast guard, most of them are Egyptians, Pakistanis, Palestinians, Afghans, Iranians and Iraqis.


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