While the European Union is holding meetings today with Turkey aimed at stopping the thousands of people crossing the Aegean Sea to Greece, experts say that the flow of people attempting to cross from Libya has far from dried up.
The Italian coastguard reported Wednesday that more than 2,400 people have been rescued from smugglers’ boats since Tuesday. This represents a pickup in the number of people hoping to reach Italy via Libya, after a lull during the winter months.
“We are coming closer to the season when the weather is better and the water is calmer so we expect that more people will be thinking about crossing the Mediterranean”, Samer Haddadin, the Chief of Mission for UNHCR in Libya, told RFI.
A significantly larger number of people— up to 143,000—have used the Eastern Mediterranean route (across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece) since January 1 (as opposed to the 12,000 people through the Central Mediterranean route). However experts say that it is important not to forget the thousands traveling through Libya.
“The media has been focusing on those travelling through Turkey, but arrivals to Italy never stopped”, said Flavio Di Giacomo, the Italy-based expert for the International Organisation for Migration.
For Di Giacomo, the pressure on the two routes is different. He highlights the the reasons that push people travel through Libya to migrate are extremely varied.
“Most of the refugees and migrants arriving in Greece are people fleeing the Syrian war”, he said. “When the war ends, hopefully very soon, this flow will stop. However, the migrants traveling to Italy are coming for all different reasons. There are people fleeing oppressive regimes, like Eritreans and Somalis, or political instability, like those from Somalia or Sudan. There are others who left their country of origin because of economic instability or climate change. These diverse reasons will not be solved in a matter of months or even years. So this migratory pressure from Africa to Europe won’t stop anytime soon”.
The people travelling from Libya to Europe will also continue to face risks. The Italian coastguard said they had also recovered three bodies this week, alongside the 2,600 people saved. Previous years were marked by huge death tolls when boats sank.
Di Giacomo said that the rescue network led by Frontex and the Italian coastguard has been effective.
“We’ve only had about 100 deaths this year, as opposed to about 400 this time last year”, he said. “So it means that something has changed in terms of rescue operations”.
The decrease in deaths is especially striking and testifies all the more to the improvement in rescue operations because, Di Giacomo says the conditions in which people make the crossing are even more dangerous than in years before.
“When I started, in 2006, we used to rescue migrants in Italian waters, right off the coast of Italy”, he said. “Now, they call for help as soon as they leave Libyan waters because they are forced to travel on these unstable rubber dinghies. Those boats are so bad, they’d never make it across all the way”.
He blames the smuggling gangs that are flourishing in Libya amidst reigning political chaos, saying that “there is no respect for human life”. Haddadin reported that he had seen more people rescued wearing life jackets than before.
Many factors may affect the numbers of people crossing from Libya in the coming months. European efforts to close the migration route through Greece could result in a surge. Also, if Europe decides on military intervention in Libya, that will also surely have an effect.
Di Giacomo and Haddadin agreed that it’s almost impossible to predict how the numbers of people travelling through Libya will change. But they also agreed that, despite dangers, people will keep coming.