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“This is why we take the boats to the sea”

Migrants planning their intended routes. Once in the hands of smugglers many migrants lose control of how and where they go. Photo credit: Sven Torfinn / Panos.

“This is why we take the boats to the sea”

June 18, 2014. Written by: Melissa Phillips / RMMS

Another week, another boat arrives in Lampedusa. But what are the origins of these vessels and who is on board? Going behind the headlines of huge increases in the number of people using boats to cross the Mediterranean, push backs at sea and drowning of unseaworthy vessels, a new Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS) report, Going West: contemporary mixed migration trends from the Horn of Africa to Libya & Europe highlights the growing importance of the ‘westward’ smuggling route through Libya to Europe. It details the antecedents of current arrival trends and reveals the complex nature of movement patterns that see people go from Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia, through Sudan and across the Saharan desert into Libya.

In a region where people smuggling movements are highly dynamic and fast changing, this RMMS report uncovers what happens to migrants and asylum seekers who find themselves thwarted when trying to use alternative (and previously extensively used) routes that take them east (Yemen to Saudi Arabia) and north (through Egypt into Israel). Taking the westward route across Sudan and Libya in the hope of reaching Europe, people face a lack of protection measures en route with an unknown number dying during the Saharan crossing from thirst, lack of food or vehicle accidents. Even reaching a city like Sabha or Benghazi offers little safety - one Ethiopian man interviewed by RMMS for this report told of being held by smugglers and beaten when he could not find the money to pay for his onward journey. Stories of extortion, beating and kidnapping are potentially just the tip of the iceberg as this smuggling route grows in size and importance.

People smuggling also funds a growing trade in Libya that is destabilising peace and governance efforts. Since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has been plagued by insecurity and instability which has led to a proliferation of smuggling operations inside the country taking advantage of porous land and sea borders. Smuggling, be it of people, weapons or other items is a big business, as a recent United States Institute of Peace report indicated. It is no wonder then, that the Frontex fourth quarter report for 2013 showed the number of people detected along the so-called Central Mediterranean route was more than four times higher than in Q4 2012.  Deteriorating conditions in Libya for migrants and asylum seekers are also driving people to take boats out of the country. These deteriorating conditions include the absence of any legislative framework for asylum and migration, the risk of arbitrary detention, insecure housing, the prevalence of armed groups and deep-seated racism. As one Somali man explained to RMMS, “This is why we take the boats to the sea. Even I go to the shops (in Tripoli) they call out at me, even if I stay at home they jump over the gates (of the house) to rob you”. It will take time for the transitional government in Libya to develop asylum and migration systems, until then more vulnerable people will face similar experiences of abuse and exploitation.  

With greater barriers in place along the eastern and northern routes, the movement of migrants have not stopped, merely shifted to the westward route. While accurate arrival and departure figures are impossible to calculate, thousands of people have been taking advantage of better than average weather conditions and arrived in Italy in 2014 alone. The largest group of African arrivals in Europe originate from Eritrea, a country described by Human Rights Watch in its 2014 report as among the most closed countries in the world with indefinite military service, torture, arbitrary detention, and severe restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and religion. UNHCR estimates that more than five percent of the population has fled in the past decade. Somalis comprise another large group of people risking their lives by taking dangerous boat journeys in the hope of reaching Europe. Pushed out of Somalia due to conflict, and out of neighbouring countries like Kenya, Somalis are also looking westward in search of permanent protection.

A spate of boats capsizing in late 2013 brought much needed attention to the plight of people trying to reach Europe. If current debates in Europe about asylum, migration and border control are to be successful, they need to incorporate regional dimensions south of the Mediterranean. Worryingly, RMMS’Going West report notes that the profile of people leaving now includes single women, unaccompanied minors, pregnant women and families. Yet the wave of sympathy has not brought sufficient attention on the nature and dimension of people smuggling in this region. Rather than simply focusing on people ‘arriving’ in Europe, a fuller picture of this issue must draw in how people leave their homes in the Horn of Africa and the conditions in Libya as a country of transit. Going West adds to a growing body of knowledge on this issue and brings strong and repeated qualitative information on the modalities of movement, the political economy of the smuggling / trafficking activities between the Horn of Africa and Europe and the severe human rights deficits facing those on the move.  



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