The EU’s support for the Libyan coastguard has helped to dramatically reduce the number of refugees crossing the Mediterranean, achieving its aim. But there is a humanitarian cost. Aid agencies told WikiTribune that this is driving people into more dangerous routes, and contributing to an increased fatality rate.
Figures released by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) on May 29 show that so far this year the total number of attempted crossings in the Mediterranean have more than halved compared to the first five months of 2017.
However, the rate of people dying or going missing rose across the major routes, in part because of a sharp rise in the number of people trying to avoid Libya. According to IOM figures for the first quarter of this year, the number of people who died attempting to cross the Central Mediterranean has increased from one person in every 36 people in 2017, to one in every 28 people in 2018.
“A reduction in the number of people leaving Libyan shores or getting to Europe does not mean a reduction of suffering. The suffering is just out of sight,” Aloys Vimard, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) project coordinator on board the Aquarius, told WikiTribune by email.
On June 3, 48 people died off the coast of Tunisia when their boat capsized – aid workers in the Mediterranean told WikiTribune that less well-established routes avoiding Libya carry greater risk, and often put people out of reach of help.
EU support for Libyan coastguard gets results, but at a cost
In June 2016, the EU expanded the mandate of “Operation Sophia”, its program aimed at closing the traditional routes used by refugees to cross the Mediterranean, to include training for the Libyan coastguard. In July 2017, this support for the Libyan coastguard was again expanded.
The EU’s support mainly consists of training for the Libyan navy and coastguard. It includes providing military personnel and equipment from some EU member states and helping to monitor the progress of the Libyan services.
Joel Millman, a spokesperson for the IOM, told WikiTribune the success of the Libyan coastguard had contributed to around 30,000 refugees accepting help to return home after being rescued or detained in Libyan waters.
“There’s a lot of bodies that would have been on their way to Italy without the coastguard and the voluntary return program,” said Millman
But Vimard said the success of the coastguard had merely pushed the suffering of refugees out of sight of Europe, and out of the reach of aid groups.
“The consequence of EU deterrence policies is that people undertake greater risk,” said Vimard. The effectiveness of the EU’s deterrence, via its support for the Libyan coastguard, has created an “interception-detention cycle”, said Vimard, making people desperate to avoid Libya, where they often become the victims of human trafficking and other human rights abuses.
“Many told us that they would rather die than to stay in Libya,” said Vimard.
Due to the situation in Libya, refugees are increasingly trying to make the Mediterranean crossing to Spain, via Morocco and Tunisia, said Faure Atger, head of Migration at the Red Cross’s EU Office. In desperation they were taking more risks in crossing the sea, leading to the higher death rate there, she said.
“We understand that a number of migrants go missing as they attempt to avoid border checks along traditional routes. In our Red Cross Red Crescent experience, migrants face multiple risks that are increasing their vulnerabilities along migratory routes to the EU,” Atger told WikiTribune.
Millman suggested that the increased use of the Eastern route could mean that refugees and those trafficking them had realised this route cut the risk and associated costs of crossing the Sahara.
While the Libyan route has been in use for decades, the Western route to Spain is more dangerous and facilitated by less experienced smugglers, said Millman. The IOM had seen and heard of people using makeshift boats, even surfboards and jet-skis, to carry people across the water to Spain, he said.
Several aid organizations working in the Mediterranean declined to respond to WikiTribune’s queries, saying they do not operate on the Spanish route.
The office administering Operation Sophia did not respond to a request for comment.
An inevitable transit, that needs long-term thinking
The aid workers and advocates WikiTribune contacted agreed that deterrence and containment policies on specific Mediterranean routes are unlikely to prevent people trying to make the crossing in the long-run.
“We meet people that attempted the crossing up to six times,” said Vimard.
The IOM figures for the first quarter of 2018 showed the number of people dying attempting to cross the Central Mediterranean has increased from one person in every 36 people in 2017, to one in every 28 people in 2018, Vimard pointed out.
These figures show that the EU’s deterrence and containment policies “are not aimed at saving lives,” said Vimard.
Millman maintained that the figures showed that progress is being made. “There’s a tendency in the public, with every shipwreck, with every new horrible story, to see it as intractable, but we think the number support us. Loss of life has gone way down,” said Milllman.
“We’re trying to show Europe, and the world, that this can be managed,” he said, adding that addressing the vulnerability of refugees in Libya, or improving their access to legal immigration status in Europe may be among the only ways to effectively prevent the risk of death continuing.
“This transit is inevitable, nothing’s gonna change it so we have to manage it,” he said. “If you ignore it or just see it as a law enforcement issue people are gonna keep dying.”