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Libya's shameful people-traffickers
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 31 - 05 - 2016

Maybe as many as 900 migrants have drowned off the Libyan coast in a three-day period as a tidal wave of rickety boats and fragile rubber dinghies set off from western Libya carrying their hopeful human cargos toward Europe.
But of course none of these craft is ever equipped to make the whole journey to the Italian coast of Sicily. Some do not have enough fuel to actually take them out of Libyan coastal waters. Others, old unseaworthy fishing boats bought in Tunisia and Egypt, hardly even make it from the shore, each loaded down as they are, with hundreds of migrants, including many stuffed down inside the fish holds. When these boats sink or capsize, as has happened in recent days, the migrants below deck have little or no chance of escaping. In one particular incident, a migrant boat with 500 people aboard was towing another with a further 500. The tow was necessary because the second boat did not have a reliable engine. When this craft began to sink, panicking migrants, none of whom had life vests, leapt in the sea and clung to the rope for safety. The Sudanese captain of the towing vessel cut the rope and stopped the migrants on his vessel from helping those in the water.
The horrific truth was that had the Sudanese captain's fishing boat been able to take any more refugees, without itself sinking, they would already have been crammed aboard. He thus sailed on, leaving the survivors to drown. Turkish people-traffickers at least gave their "customers" life jackets before sending them toward the Greek island of Lesbos. Their Libyan counterparts dispense with such an unnecessary expense.
Ships from the Italian, German and Irish navies led a series of frantic rescues but the sheer quantity of migrant vessels in trouble or needing to be picked up meant that the location of some sinking could not be reached on time. This is of course of no concern to the Libyan people-traffickers who, just in the last week, are thought to have launched more than 13,000 migrants toward Europe. At $1,000 per person this has been a profitable week for them. $13 million buys a lot in a Libya that is descending into chaos. Despite local leaders protesting that they are trying to stop the criminals, it is clear that they and the local militias have to be involved. How could thousands of people, mostly Sub-Saharan Africans, hide up along the coast then trudge down the beaches to their waiting craft and uncertain future, without anybody knowing and intervening?
The Europeans have long vowed to stop the people-smugglers but their "Operation Sophia" has morphed into nothing more than a rescue service. But things may be about to change. A British warship is among a small force gathering to actually tackle the criminals. There will be protests that destroying tied-up fishing craft before they can be filled with migrants will mean violating Libyan territorial waters. But most of the EU-led rescues have been inside those waters and no Libyans have complained. The clear danger however is that if foreign special forces attack the people-traffickers' operations and maybe seize key players, there will be serious political blowback. Libya may be a criminal chaos of rival factions but nothing tends to unite the country so much as outside interference.


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