Smugglers say the European decision to end rescue operations in the Mediterranean has had no effect on migrant demand for their services, despite EU hopes that the numbers of boat trips and deaths at sea would be reduced.
Traffickers responsible for putting migrants to sea in inadequate vessels say the growing death toll is not their fault and that they do not force refugees to board any boat against their will.
After another deadly incident at sea this weekend, the spotlight is shifting towards the networks of people traffickers who charge as much as $10,000 for an entire journey, from blighted homeland to Europe, including the perilous Mediterranean crossing.
“We don’t force people to pay and go on a boat – that’s not our intention,” says Ahmed, who does not wish to give his full name. Drinking coffee on the shore in Tripoli, with his back to the sea and to the tragic events taking place on it, he adds: “We go to extreme lengths to make the trip worthwhile and with as little tragedy as possible.”
That comment appears questionable given the events of the past week in which more than 1,000 people have died, or are missing feared dead, in two separate tragedies.
Smugglers say the demand for their service remains high, despite the discontinuation last autumn of Italian search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean called Mare Nostrum.
Ahmed said he was not aware of it in the first place.
“I’ve not heard of that. What is that – from 2009?” he said. “Many people would go on the boats, even if they didn’t have any rescue operations. It’s not going to stop. It’s simply not going to stop. The borders in the south [of Libya, where most migrants first enter the country] are open, and there is always going to be an appetite for it.”
Interviews with migrants this week in Libya, the primary springboard for illegal boat-trips to Europe, also suggest that the high demand continues. In a migrant detention centre east of Tripoli, Eritreans rescued from the Mediterranean in recent days claim they simply had no other option.
Last year, Eritreans were the second largest group, after Syrians, to take to the sea. And Bayin Keflemekal, a 30-year-old Eritrean nurse, argues that the brutality of the dictatorship at home, and the failure of neighbouring countries and international organisations to provide Eritreans with a safe haven, will continue to drive his countrymen to make the same trip.
“If the government won’t help us, if UNHCR won’t help us, if no one can help us, then the only option is to go to the smugglers,” says Keflemekal.
Elsewhere in Tripoli, a Ghanaian reckons some of his friends would have stayed in Libya if the country was stable. He says they’re not political refugees, but people who in fact came to Libya to find better paid, if illegal, work. But with their host country wracked by civil war for nearly a year, they’ve had to make other plans.
“We come here to search for a better life and to search for money,” says 32-year-old Abdo. “But when we get here, we realise things are not OK – so we have to find another way. And the only way out is by the sea.”
And the Libyan coastguards say they need help to stop the flow. Down in Misrata, east of Tripoli, coastguard captain Tawfiq al-Skail stands next to one of the three inflatable boats of migrants his team rescued this week. They’re doing their best, he says. But they have just three boats to patrol the whole of western Libya, where most of the people-smuggling to Italy takes place. A fourth is broken-down, and four more are in Italy for repairs – and he says they won’t be returned until Libyan peace talks end.
“We need support from the EU,” says Skail. “We don’t need men to work with us – we have very well experienced men. We need boats, we need directional positioning equipment. Europe has all this equipment and still can’t overcome the smuggling. How can we do it when we don’t have half what they do?”
The number of patrol missions that Skail can organise tells its own story. He says they only have the resources for three patrols a week. But just one smuggling network might run 20 trips in the same period.
And down on the shore in Tripoli, the start of another one seems to be under way. “Hey,” smiles Ahmed at a passing Ghanaian waiter. “Want to go to Italy?”
Additional reporting: Yaseen Kanuni