Since 2017, the UNHCR estimates that more than 2,700 people have died or gone missing while trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean sea. In 2016, around 362,000 migrants and refugees took the risk of crossing the Mediterranean, and while these numbers have declined in recent years, at least 63,311 people have taken a similar risk so far in 2019.
The fact that large numbers of people from Africa are playing Russian roulette with their own lives is no secret. However, what’s less widely known is that Europe (and NATO) have been indirectly complicit in one of the most shameful features of the current migrant crisis: human trafficking.
What’s most startling about the current wave of people smuggling is that in Libya at least, traffickers have infiltrated coastguards and other public authorities. Not only that, but evidence suggests that certain NGOs have been cooperating with smugglers, who have even benefitted from EU-funded training. And more generally, they’ve been able to exist and operate not just because of the instability created by the 2011 overthrow of Gadaffi, but because of EU policy, which has stubbornly refused to open more European ports and to take a more decisive approach to the crisis.
For example, Avvenire reported last week that Abd al-Rahman Milad, the notorious leader of a trafficking gang, had attended talks in 2017 between Italian intelligence officials and the Libyan coastguard. The meeting was focused on migrant-crossing policy, following a memorandum signed in February 2017 between Italy and the UN-recognised Libyan government.
That al-Rahman Milad was included as a representative of the Libyan coastguard is testament to how far criminal gangs and people smugglers have penetrated Libya’s official structures, with al-Rahman’s Milad’s most heinous offences involving the deliberate “sinking of migrant boats using firearms.” But more importantly, it’s a testament to the vacuum of responsibility that has opened up in Libya and in the context of the migrant crisis, as the EU fails to confront the problem as fully as necessary.
Nicknamed “Bija,” al-Rahman Milad had reportedly asked Italian authorities during the 2017 meeting for funds. It’s not certain whether his request was accepted, but other reports suggest that certain other Libyan people smugglers have received EU finances. Back in February, Politico published leaked documents from the European External Action Service, which reported that some members of the Libyan coastguard trained and funded by the EU had been collaborating with traffickers. This is backed up by other reports, with a 2017 investigative feature in New Internationalist detailing how traffickers had likely benefitted from an EU training program worth millions of euros.
Just as alarmingly, a December 2016 report by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency – Frontex – observed that even NGOs had allegedly been collaborating with smugglers. The report suggested that contact (knowing or not) between smugglers and NGOs was such that individuals rescued by NGO boats were “not willing to co-operate with debriefing experts at all,” while some of them revealed, “that they were warned not to co-operate with Italian law enforcement or Frontex.”
There’s no indication that the situation has significantly changed in recent months, and while migrant crossing figures are down this year, it’s unlikely that smugglers no longer interact with or play an active role in the Libyan coastguard.
For instance, a Human Rights Watch report published this January stated, “The EU is providing support to the Libyan Coast Guard to enable it to intercept migrants and asylum seekers at sea after which they take them back to Libya to arbitrary detention, where they face inhuman and degrading conditions and the risk of torture, sexual violence, extortion, and forced labor.” This kind of description hardly accords with a law-abiding, well-trained and well-organised coastguard.
Of course, this isn’t meant simply to be an indictment of Libya and its inability to reduce human trafficking. For one, the emergence of people smugglers and militias is a direct consequence of the 2011 NATO-led overthrow of the Muammar Gaddafi regime, which rather than setting Libya on the road to stability, mostly created the opportunity for warring factions and militias to drag the country into chaos.
On top of this, the continued existence of human traffickers and their presence within Libyan authorities is also an indictment of European policy. For several years now, Italy has been calling for ports to be opened in France and Spain, yet these requests have been consistently rejected by various EU member states, while numerous Schengen members reintroduced border controls following the onset of the crisis. In other words, there’s a lack of alternative routes through which migrants could reach Europe, and in conjunction with the closure of the Turkey-Greece route in 2016, it means that too much power is concentrated in Libya and its criminal gangs.
Finally, the EU’s 2017 decision to focus Operation Sofia less on rescuing migrants at sea and more on cracking down on people smuggling has ironically helped to perpetuate the very issue it purportedly aims to solve. Because if a greater emphasis had been placed on actually rescuing people at sea and bringing them to European shores, migrants would feel much less of a need to turn to those who would exploit them.