We have seen far fewer grim accounts of rescues and drownings of would-be immigrants in the Mediterranean in recent weeks, as the human trafficking route-of-choice between North Africa to Europe shuts down. But another dangerous route appears to be opening up right next door.
The recent efforts to crack down on traffickers operating along the Libyan coast have led to a major decline in arrivals from a country still facing political instability and unrest. While the 3,900 people rescued during the month of August is still troubling, it's a major drop from 21,000 in August, 2016, Le Monde reports.
The first question is how has the migrant flow been reduced so drastically? Milan-based daily Corriere della Seraquoted local Libyan authorities saying that the Italian government, with the approval of the "national unity" government in Tripoli, paid "at least 5 million euros," to a local crime boss nicknamed "Uncle" to shut down the trafficking along the coastal region where he reigns.
You have to deal with the forces dominating on the ground, which often are often ambiguous.
"This is the reality of Libya," Hussein Dhwadi, mayor of the coastal city of Sabratha in western Libya, told Corriere della Sera correspondent Lorenzo Cremonesi. "If you want to take action, you have to deal with the forces dominating on the ground, which often are often ambiguous and even criminal."
But another source in Sabratha told Le Monde noted that other local crime bosses may want a piece of the action, and that "Uncle can change his mind at any time."
These reports raise serious questions about Italian and European policy in dealing with the unstable situation in Libya. But even slowing the flow from that country, inevitably, is far from a permanent solution to the crisis. Turin-based daily La Stampa reports that migrants are now beginning to flock to Libya's neighbor, Tunisia, which is even closer to the Italian island of Lampedusa, just 70 miles away.
"News is spreading among migrants in Libya that the coast guard and militias are blocking departures from the Libyan coast, so many are now looking to Tunisia instead," said Reem Bouarrouj, head of immigration at the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights (FTEDS), a Tunisian NGO. "Many are making the journey alone without the help of smugglers."
Tunisia shut its border with Libya after an assault by Islamic State fighters on the frontier town of Ben Guerdane last year. But according to La Stampa, Tunis reopened the border under pressure from locals who depend on cross-border trade — and the last few weeks have seen a surge in migrants arriving from Tunisia in Lampedusa and elsewhere on the island of Sicily. La Stampa also reports that the Tunisian coast guard has stopped several would-be migrants across the country.
The European Union has doubled its annual aid to Tunis to $1.4 billion over the next four years in a bid to support the government's efforts at reform and shore up its stability in a volatile region. Brussels hopes that this investment will help halt the formation of a new "Tunisian route."