Libyan smugglers are importing rubber boats used in their Mediterranean trade of people all the way from China, a leaked report penned by the head of the EU’s main intelligence operation targeting smuggling in Libya has revealed.
The report, published this week by Wikileaks, reveals that Customs authorities on the island of Malta stopped a container with a cargo of 20 packaged rubber boats similar to those used to carry people from Libya to Europe.
The cargo was destined for the coastal city of Misurata, which though no longer a major departure zone, is known to be home to smuggling kingpins with connections to influential militias.
The cargo was actually released as there was no legal basis on which to seize it. However, sources said there’s no question that the boats inside were identical to the type used by smugglers operating in Libya and the find was used to gain intelligence on the end user.
Typically, the boats are about 6 to 9 metres long and are loaded with between 100 and 200 people; well over capacity.
“This interception confirmed something we suspected for a long time, that at least a part of the rubber rafts that eventually end up on our side are being imported,” a military source told Migrant Report.
The development is an important one, since, as the report itself points out, two-thirds of all trips are made on rubber boats and smugglers are facing constant shortages of the larger and more robust wooden vessels – believed to be supplied from nearby Tunisia and Morocco besides the occasional Libyan fishermen.
The revelation was one of several nuggets contained in the confidential report, which was intended as an internal six-monthly update for Operation Sophia, the EU’s military operation in the Mediterranean launched in October with the intent of “disrupt the business of smugglers” operating in Libya.
So far the operation only has a mandate in international waters, however, EU leaders hope an eventual Western-backed government in Libya would invite cooperation on border patrol and allow the Sophia to enter its territorial waters, possibly even eventually carry out operations on land.
Smugglers Turf War Leads to Drop in Number of Migrants
The document, dated January 29, 2016 was written by the Italian Rear Admiral Enrico Credentino, who leads the operation, for the EU’s military and political and security committees and the European External Action Service (EEAS).
Sources confirmed that the document is genuine. It starts by pointing to some trends in the flows of migrants; in particular the sustained pace of crossings in the Aegean, from where more than 1 million people crossed in 2015, but also the reduction for the first time in three years of nine per cent over the number of arrivals coming from the central Mediterranean route, where Operation Sophia operates.
Credentino suggests Sophia is somewhat responsible for the drop, but later delves into more probably causes for the shift.
“In the area west of Tripoli, in particular in the smuggling hub of Zuwara, smuggling activities significantly reduced since the beginning of September. A number of contributing factors have been identified including rising tensions between local militias of the GNC (General National Congress) and the House of Representatives (HOR, the Parliament based in the East).
Shift in Smuggling Launch Sites
Research carried out by Migrant Report over the past months on the ground in the area gives a different picture of the situation. There are no militias affiliated to the HOR as such in the Zuwara area.
The tension referred to is largely connected to a turf war that was prompted by the crackdown implement in Zuwara, which in turn forced smugglers to move eastwards towards Sabratha.
A tragedy off Zuwara in August of last year in from which 187 bodies were recovered from the beaches acros the coast, shocked the coastal town and provoked a crackdown (which is acknowledged by the Credentino report).
“This (the crackdown) has created some tension that required some adjustment. We may see a bit more disruption over the coming months. However, the situation seems to have settled down now,” a Sabratha source told Migrant Report.
The logistical situation has also been complicated for smugglers by the fact that main coastal road linking Tripoli to the main launching sites in the West has been blocked for more than three months.
The only remaining links from the capital are either by sea, air or through secondary roads controlled by gangs. “This has inevitably impacted smugglers’ ability to shift people form the capital to the coastal towns in the West,” the source said.
Though the numbers plummeted in the last three months of 2015, the numbers for January of this year were actually higher than they were in the same month last year: 5,273 people moving in January 2016 as opposed to 3,528 last year.
The numbers for this month are still very low, standing at some 750, as opposed to more than 4,500 in February last year. However, that could change in a matter of days.
‘46 Smugglers Arrested’
The report claims that Operation Sophia contributed to the arrest of 46 suspected smugglers and the destruction of 67 boats over it’s five month span so far.
However, it is not clear whether these were suspects were caught red-handed in the high seas trying to recover boats after they would have been emptied of migrants following rescues or whether they were indicated to the authorities by migrants on board as potential go-betweens.
Typically some migrants are allowed to embark for free (or in some cases paid) if they accept to navigate the raft and in certain cases, authorities have considered these individuals to be part of the smuggling chain.
The document says that “due to the effectiveness” of the operation it has served as a deterrent against smugglers acting with impunity on the high seas. Still, the report acknowledges a gap in the situational awareness inside Libyan territorial waters and on the ground.
In his report, the admiral says the operation is ready to move into Phase 2B which would entail patrolling and possibly carrying out arrests in Libyan waters. In theory, this would be followed by phase three, which would then involve some sort of ground operation with Libyan counterparts.
However, all of this hinges on the formation of a government of national accord and on this government eventually inviting this sort of cooperation with the EU.
As things stand right now, that prospect is not looking imminent. Just this week, a new list of Cabinet members was announced for approval by the internationally-recognised Parliament the House of Representatives, based in the east.
Aside from the fact that the HOR could also reject this line-up as it has done in the past, it is unclear how the new government and the international community are planning to overcome opposition form the rebel government seated in the capital, Tripoli.