The number of migrants reaching Italy’s shores fell dramatically in August, according to government data.
Italy has boosted cooperation with Libyan authorities to prevent migrants from making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. And the effort appears to be bearing fruit.
Arrivals from North Africa fell by more than 50 percent in July, and more than 80 percent in August, compared to the same period a year ago, according to data published by the Italian interior ministry.
Ahead of a national election due by next May, Italy has taken action to manage migrant arrivals, including by laying down stricter rules for non-government sea rescue organisations and providing training and equipment to Libya’s coastguard.
But Amnesty International warns that “outsourcing” border control and the fight against traffickers to Libya exposes migrants and refugees to abuse.
“We have documented a host of human rights violations committed by those agencies, and particularly the Libyan coast guard, that have been enlisted by the European governments to take control of the central Mediterranean,” Matteo de Bellis, Amnesty International migration researcher, told Euronews.
The Associated Press news agency reported this week that one reason for the whopping drop in traffic is that Libyan authorities have paid armed groups of traffickers to stop the migrants from embarking on the perilous journey – locking up men, women and children in grisly detention centers.
“Right now there are people who have been taken back to Libya, after being intercepted by the Libyan coastguard, and we don’t know what is going to happen to them,” de Bellis said.
“We’re talking about men, women and children who are most likely being detained in the infamous detention centres of Libya, where they are exposed routinely to torture and rape.”
Replicating the Turkey deal
Migrants picked up in Libyan coastal waters can be legally returned to Libya. Its coastguard has rescued over 500 migrants this week alone.
At a mini migration summit earlier this week, the leaders of Italy, France, Germany and Spain agreed to help Chad and Niger with border control and fight human trafficking, to stem the flow of migrants reaching the Mediterranean.
They agreed in principle to set up safe zones in Niger and Chad to identify legitimate asylum seekers fleeing war and persecution – as opposed to economic migrants fleeing poverty – and to use the United Nations to register them there so as to prevent them from falling prey to people-smugglers.
The goal is to discourage those whose claims are weak from trying to make the perilous journey.
During the summit, French President Emmanuel Macron hailed the cooperation between Italy and Libya as a model. It echoes a deal Europe struck last year with Turkey to stem the flow of refugees from Syria.
“Certainly the Turkey deal is seen as a precedent to be followed by several European governments,” de Bellis said.
“We have to consider that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach and we cannot apply past experiences to a situation like the current situation in Libya for example. Libya is in a situation of widespread human rights violations, affecting all parts of the population but particularly refugees and migrants,” he warned.
In recent years, hundreds of thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East have crossed the Libyan desert and taken to flimsy boats on the Mediterranean in the hope of reaching Europe.
International rights groups including Amnesty have documented horrific treatment of migrants in detention in Libya, including cases of torture, sexual abuse and outright enslavement.
On Tuesday (August 29), Libyan authorities, in coordination with the UN refugee agency, deported 75 Nigerian migrants back to Nigeria.
The migrants had been kept at a Tripoli detention center after the coastguard intercepted their boats at sea in recent months.
Some of the migrants whose travel documents were yet to be processed were seen crying outside of the detention center where they were being held.
According to Othman Belbeisi, the agency’s chief of mission for Libya, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) scheme is meant to offer a way out to those stuck in Libya without money, work, or a means to move on.