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As Italy tries to close the Mediterranean

Monday, August 28th, 2017 | World News

Since July, significantly less refugees have come to Italy via the Mediterranean Sea. A new militia in Libya prevents migrants from leaving. What is the role of aid supplies from Italy?

The Mediterranean Sea is quiet in these summer days, there are hardly any waves between the Libyan coast and Italy. The weather is stable. Normally there would have to be daily crowded rubber boats with migrants – but in Italy there are hardly any refugees. Compared to the previous year, the figures decreased by almost 90 percent in August.

Experts: Reasons for decline lie on Libyan side
While the Libyan coast guard and the European border protection agency Frontex are selling the figures mainly as a success of the authorities at sea, experts see the reasons on the Libyan coast itself: A new militia should have changed sides. The reasons and the role of Italy are speculated.

  "We do not currently know what the reasons for the decline are," says Christine Petré, spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for Libya. But especially in July, the numbers of those refugees who had been taken up and returned by the coast guard in Libyan waters fell sharply. "It has to do with the fact that less refugees leave the Libyan coast."

The small town of Sabratha is one of the main exit points for refugees in Libya. The city is about 70 kilometers west of the capital Tripoli towards the Tunisian border. Italy and Europe are particularly close here. The backdrop of a monumental, ancient theater dominates the coastline.

"New armed group in the city"
"For some time, there has been a new armed group in the city, which obviously makes sure the smugglers are not leaving," says Mattia Toaldo, Libyan expert of the European Council for Foreign Relations (ECFR), a European think tank. There are indications that a militia and smuggling chief, who is powerful in the region, has changed sides, says Toaldo. "Perhaps he hopes to get more influence if he makes sure that the refugees are not leaving any more." Similar developments took place last year in Sabratha's neighboring city Suwara, as a kind of Bürgermiliz took over the control in the city and the city as far as it freed from human smugglers.

In Italy, the Social Democratic government is pleased with the current figures – also in the light of the need to be elected by next spring. And migration is the top theme that brings in the right and foreigner-hostile parties. "We are still in a long tunnel, but for the first time I started to see light at the end of the tunnel," said Interior Minister Marco Minniti in mid-August. He warned, however, that the "epochal" phenomenon of migration had not been solved.

Italy emphasizes commitment in Libya
The decline in refugee numbers is also attributed to Italy's commitment to land. It was very important to intervene on "the other side" of the Mediterranean, Minniti said. "We focused on Libya, it seemed very difficult, but today it seems as if something is going to happen."

Italy's Interior Minister Marco Minniti hands over a repaired patrol boat to the Libyan Navy in Tripoli. (Source: Ismail Zitouny / Reuters)

Among other things, Italy supports Libyan municipalities. Time and again, delegations are met with mayors and local politicians from all regions of Libya. Minniti was already in Libya. The municipalities are to receive more financial aid. "We want to offer alternatives to growth and development against the backdrop of dragging," a statement said.

Good intelligence networks in Libya
A few days ago, the Town Council of Sabratha proudly reported new supplies from Italy. A C-130 transporter of the Luftwaffe was standing with an open ladder on an airfield in Libya, before it representatives of the municipal council. In the Ladeluke stacked cartons, in which medicines for the hospital should be. The TV station of the neighboring town of Suwara reported a few days ago about new aid deliveries from Italy.

"It has been Italy's strategy to support local governments," says Libya expert Mattia Toaldo from ECFR. "Traditionally, Italy has good intelligence networks in Libya with good contacts to mayors." If this meant that fewer refugees are drowning in the Mediterranean, he considers this strategy to be meaningful. "The question is, however, what happens with the smugglers and whether they are not looking for other starting points – as before."

Migrants are seized in Libyan chaos
The development also means that the migrants are caught up in the chaos of the civil war country and partly inhuman conditions. Two of the United Nations' human rights commissioners recently signaled the developments: "The solution can not be to prevent access to international waters," criticized Felipe González Morales and Nils Melzer in a report. The two special rapporteurs expressed their concern that the EU was trying to move the European borders to Libya.

A UN Security Council's expert committee recently also published a nearly 300-page report, highlighting the complications between militia, smugglers and Libyan coastal guards supported by European states.

"Italy and the EU are not to blame for human rights violations," says Ska Keller, parliamentary group chairman and migrator of the Greens in the European Parliament. "Italy must disclose whether it supports militias that prevent the expulsion of refugee boats, and whether EU money is involved."

Faced with the chaos in Libya and the hundreds of rival militia, both experts and EU institutions are wondering how long the crossings will still be at such low levels.

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