Giovanni Isolino / AFP / Getty Images

EU plan to target Libyan smugglers too little, too late, experts say

Analysis: Migrant advocates say refugee crisis has grown too complex and ingrained for a simple solution

The Rev. Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean priest at the Vatican, takes calls at all hours from people following migrant routes across Africa trying to reach Europe.

After a series of shipwrecks this month left as many as 1,200 people dead in the Mediterranean Sea, some Eritreans called him from Libya. Stuck in holding camps controlled by Libyan militias, they told him they didn’t want to leave anymore, for fear of the dangerous sea route.

“They are afraid of dying, but they say they are forced to depart because those who keep them as prisoners decide when and how to make them leave,” Zerai said. “If these people had the possibility to travel legally, they wouldn’t have ended up in Libya.”

He said he has been fielding many equally harrowing phone calls that illustrate the complexity of tackling smuggling gangs that facilitate journeys across the Mediterranean. He runs the Habeshia Agency for Development Cooperation, a refugee assistance group and is a go-to contact for people desperate to reach Europe and caught up in the perilous trafficking web.

At an April 23 emergency summit, EU leaders approved a plan that focuses on reinforcing border control operations and systematically capturing and destroying vessels used by smugglers. “Our response is clear and unequivocal. Europe is declaring war on smugglers,” said EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopolous at a press conference in Malta on April 23. “Europe is united in this effort. We will do this together with our partners outside Europe. We will work together because smuggling is not a European problem — it is a global one.”

The Rev. Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean priest at the Vatican who runs a refugee assistance group, doubts that the new EU anti-smuggling plan will succeed.
Habeisha Agency

Zerai, however, believes the proposal is unlikely to succeed in saving lives or even stemming the flow of migrants. People can easily cross Libya’s porous southern border, and the absence of a functioning government has allowed ruthless smuggling networks to flourish unchecked for years. Eradicating these complex webs defies a simple solution.

“Once people have fallen in the hands of these guys, they are controlled by the traffickers, in collaboration with the militias,” he said. He and other analysts in the region describe a gauntlet of obstacles that migrants and refugees must navigate before they even see the water.

Many are held in detention camps for months, extorted for ransom or forced to work to pay their passage before being sent on the boats, sometimes to their deaths.

Experts agree the EU is right to look to the roots of this migration crisis but doubt the steps outlined in the plan, such as deploying military operations to the coast of Libya, will be enough to make an impact. “It’s more than a year, if not two years, too late to do this kind of thing,” said Tuesday Reitano, a policy analyst who directs the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime’s secretariat. “The window for expecting any easy fixes combating the migrant smuggling problem is closed.”

Smugglers who facilitate migrant journeys are part of an organized criminal chain with a wide reach across Africa — including Niger, Egypt and Algeria. What used to be fragmented, ad hoc gangs are now deeply entrenched networks.

“They are inciting migrants to move. They have established very flexible networks. They’re creative, and they’re entrepreneurial, as all criminal networks are,” said Reitano. “Take the issue of the boats, for example. We have been told that they are shipping containerloads of rubber dinghies from China.”

And she said targeting boats on the coast will not go far enough to alleviate the problem. Italy routinely prosecutes crew members of migrant boats as human traffickers, but this deals only with the small fry in the smuggler chain of command while the kingpin organizers of the ring stay safely in Africa — a strategy she likened to “squashing ants.” Crew members are often migrants who can’t afford to pay a few thousand dollars for the journey and steer the ships in exchange for passage.

Mark Shaw, the director of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, emphasized the powerful economic forces driving trafficking. Migrants looking to cross the Mediterranean provide a market for regular people to take advantage of a lucrative business opportunities where few others exist, and smugglers encourage migrants to head north to maintain their profits.

“Whole communities are entrenched around migrant trafficking, and it’s become a real revenue stream for many people,” he said. For example, he said he has met many young men in the south of Libya who have made what they consider small businesses out of driving migrants north. “This is seen as a viable way to make money. You make more money doing that than engaging in other forms of activities.” he said. “They don’t see what they are doing as wrong.”

Shaw thinks part of the fix has to be more international engagement with addressing Libya’s civil strife. “It’s really difficult, but there has to be a great attempt to solve the problem, if the EU is serious,” he said. Supporting African countries’ efforts to target criminal activities along the chain could help break up trafficking networks, and he also advised moving processing centers for asylum claims to the coast of Africa. Now it’s close to impossible to apply for asylum in Europe from the outside. EU leaders have discussed this strategy but have yet to put forth concrete initiatives.

Along with deploying military operations against Libyan smugglers, the EU will triple the funds of its border control operation Triton. Iverna McGowan of Amnesty International said it’s unclear how much this additional funding will contribute to life-saving missions. At a minimum, she said, Triton should take on the role of Italy’s humanitarian search-and-rescue operation Mare Nostrum, which ended last November because of costs, and patrol near Libyan waters. But that seems unlikely, considering the border control’s head, Fabrice Leggeri, said last week that searches and rescues were not and should not become part of Triton’s mandate.

But experts say as long as those facing war and poverty continue to flee, the lure of profit will foster the growth and professionalization of the smuggling business. Some argue that creating more legal pathways for refugees is the only way to break up money-making criminal networks. In its latest refugee resettlement policy, however, the EU is tentatively offering just 5,000 additional spots.

Zerai compared the plight of people trying to escape war and dictatorship today with his experience fleeing Eritrea almost 24 years ago, before the European Union introduced stricter border controls. He didn’t have to cross the desert or find a smuggler to send him on a rickety boat in order to reach Europe. Instead he took a plane to Italy on a family reunification visa. He applied for asylum in 2007 after Eritrea revoked his passport for his human rights work.

The type of access and permission Zerai received has contracted significantly since the European Union solidified into a zone of free movement, restricting access through its outer borders throughout the past two decades. Tourist visa requirements are more rigorous, and refugees on the run often have trouble obtaining passports from their home government.

Instead, those desperate to leave resort to difficult illegal routes, and even those options are shrinking. Bulgaria recently constructed a 20-mile fence reinforced with razor wire to hold back Syrian refugees coming through Turkey. Spain regularly pushes back people attempting to cross into its territory in Morocco — Ceuta and Melilla — without allowing migrants to make an asylum claim, in violation of international law.

“There’s been a total closing of all access,” Zerai said. “So the traffickers are there, ready for them, and they propose this alternative, which the institutions and the big international organizations haven’t been able to offer.”

McGowan agreed and said desperate migrants will continue to look for pathways until they find them — or die trying. “Imagine Libya is a burning inferno and people are jumping out of it trying to get to rescue,” she said. “If you destroy exits in that situation, then you are locking people in the inferno.”

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