No migrant deaths have been recorded in the Mediterranean in the last 20 days, the UN Migration Agency (IOM) has announced, coinciding with worrying reports of an Italian Government-backed deal with Libyan people-traffickers.
The overall flow of people making the journey from North Africa to Europe had dramatically reduced in August although a number of rescues were carried out by NGO boats in the past few days.
Speaking at a press conference in Geneva on Tuesday, IOM spokesman, Leonard Doyle, said: “Since August 9, IOM, the UN Migration Agency, has not received any reports of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean.
“The total count for Mediterranean Sea fatalities has remained at 2,410 for 20 days.
“Something is happening. We are not sure what is behind it all.”
It should be noted that “no recorded deaths” means the possibility that some people have died unnoticed in the Mediterranean.
While the IOM has drawn no firm conclusions on the reason for the drop in deaths reports suggest it may be largely due to potentially controversial political decisions made in Libya and Rome.
Under a deal backed by Italy, Libya’s struggling government in Tripoli has paid militias implicated in trafficking to now prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean to Europe, according to the Associated Press.
The policy has raised an outcry among some in the Libyan security forces and activists dealing with migrants, who warn that it enriches militias, enabling them to buy more weapons and become more powerful.
In the country’s chaos, the militias can at any time go back to trafficking or turn against the government, they say.
Mathilde Auvillain, Communication Officer for SOS Mediteranee, told HuffPost UK: “Maybe what we can observe is that the smugglers sent less people to an almost certain death in the last 20 days.
“Because pushing 120 to 180 people, including women and children, without life jackets, on unseaworthy dinghies is sending them to die at sea.”
Earlier this month HuffPost UK revealed evidence of the Libyan Coast Guard colluding with people-smugglers and NGOs warned the price to be paid for fewer migrants making the crossing was that more people would be trapped in horrific conditions in Libya.
Marcella Kraay, MSF-OCA Project Coordinator aboard the Aquarius, told HuffPost UK: “This may sound like a solution of the problem [of people-trafficking] but actually it’s more a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
“What this actually means is people are being returned to Libya which is not a safe place.”
The alleged new deal further cements the real power of militias, which since the fall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 have undermined Libya’s successive governments, including the current one of Fayez Serraj, which is internationally recognized but weak.
European support for the deal would also be startling. The European Union has given tens of millions of euros to Serraj’s government to help it stop migrants.
Mainly, the money is earmarked for beefing up Libya’s coast guard, reinforcing its southern border and improving conditions for migrants in detention centres.
Funds can also be used to develop alternative employment for those involved in trafficking — though enlisting them against migrants would be a significant stretch of that mandate.
The past two months have seen an exponential drop in crossings, a welcome sign for EU leaders desperate to stem the flow of migrants.
Arrivals in July were down by half from the previous year, while August so far has seen around 2,936 crossings compared to 21,294 in August 2016, an 86 percent drop. Rough summer seas and tougher Libyan coast guard patrols are believed to be in part the reason.
But the drop also appears to be in large part due to the deals struck with the two most powerful militias in the western Libyan city of Sabratha, the biggest launching point for the mainly African migrants making the dangerous voyage across the Mediterranean.
The militias, one known as “Al-Ammu” and the other as Brigade 48, are headed by two brothers from the area’s large al-Dabashi family.
At least five security officials and activists based in Sabratha said the militiamen were known to be behind smuggling of migrants.
One security official called the brothers the “kings of trafficking” in Sabratha. In its latest report in June, the United Nations Panel of Experts on Libya identified al-Ammu as main facilitators of human trafficking.
Bashir Ibrahim, the spokesman for al-Ammu militia, said that a month ago the two forces reached a “verbal” agreement with the Italian government and Serraj’s government to combat trafficking.
He said the al-Ammu militia, made up around 400 to 500 fighters, is affiliated with Serraj’s Defence Ministry while Brigade 48 falls under the Interior Ministry. Efforts to confirm his account with the Serraj government were not immediately successful.
Since then, the militias have stopped migrant boats from leaving the shores around Sabratha and have told smugglers to end their work….