Migrants in a boat arrive at a naval base after they were rescued by Libyan coast guards, in Tripoli, Libya, this week.Picture: Reuters
THE abuse of African migrants and refugees in Libyan detention centres and the high numbers of refugees who continue to drown at sea as they try the perilous crossing across the Mediterranean from the North African country to Europe continue to make headlines and provoke international outrage.

The relatively good news is that there has been a decline in the number of attempted crossings across the Mediterranean and the United Nations and some African states are stepping in to repatriate migrants from Tripoli.

However, future developments depend strongly on the behaviour of Libya’s notoriously influential militias. They have a history of relying on human trafficking and other illicit business dealings for their income - as well as the internal politics of both Libya and Italy.

Over the past few days another 50 people, mostly African migrants, were reported drowned, and another 100 missing, following a shipwreck off the Libyan coast, about 100km east of the capital Tripoli - the latest of many such tragedies.

On Sunday, the Libyan navy said it had rescued 272 migrants trying to reach southern Europe.

The UN’s International Organisation of Migration estimated that over 171300 migrants entered Europe last year, compared to a little over 363500 in 2016.

A down-tick in the number of Africans trying to reach Europe followed the February 2017 Memorandum of Understanding between Italy and Libya’s UN-sanctioned Government of National Accord.

“Rome pledged training, equipment and investment to help the Tripoli government improve border security and combat the smuggling of people.

“It engaged local government in smuggling hubs, promising investment in return for help with migration control,” an article by Mark Micallef and Tuesday Reitano, from the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, and Senior Research Consultants at Pretoria’s Institute for Security Studies (ISS) stated.

Italy, which has borne the brunt of the refugee burden, needed to take political action to prevent a backlash by its electorate as returning the migrants to Libya was not an option after it was declared unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights in 2012. Italy’s political considerations have tied in with the ambitions of the various Libyan militias controlling large swathes of the country in the absence of one central functioning government.

After the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, militias created a protection market around human smuggling and, in some cases, took over the business, said Micallef and Reitano. “The industry is interdependent with other illicit trade as militias and smuggling kingpins exploit the full smorgasbord of smuggling markets, from fuel, to people, drugs and weapons.

“However, after threats of International Criminal Court indictments, there is no greater liability than being labelled a human smuggler or terrorist. Militia leaders want to be on the right side of important brokers and donors and they found an opportunity in Italy’s migrant crisis,” stated Micallef and Reitano.

But rights groups fear the measures could also leave tens of thousands of migrants stranded in restive Libya. Survivors have recounted starving in Libyan detention centres and other abuses.

Large parts of the coastguard, detention centres, and other key branches of the fragile Libyan state’s security apparatus are run or controlled by militias, some deeply involved in the smuggling economy.

And there are other problems.

“Libya lacks a central government to claim control over the capital, let alone the whole country and its borders. The country is politically divided, and the functions of the military, police, coastguard and customs are largely provided by a shifting spectrum of militia groups,” the ISS consultants said.

“The role of militias in derailing the peace process is well documented. Communities, armed groups and tribes that felt marginalised or insufficiently rewarded in the political process have been especially motivated to turn to the illicit economy,” they stated.

“Cutting off the sea crossing risks worsening the mistreatment of migrants and asylum seekers, as smugglers find alternative ways to monetise their investment.

“Therefore, militias must not be allowed to reinvent themselves in a new cloak of legitimacy while forgiving past transgressions.

“Rather, the current climate should be exploited to achieve true disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration into a planned and managed national security apparatus.” - African News Agency (ANA)