Libyan armed group preventing migrants from crossing Mediterranean – media report

The group is said to be responsible for the sudden drop in migrant arrivals to Italy in recent months

Migrant crossings to Italy from Libya have fallen by more than 50% in July and August when compared to the same period last year
Migrant crossings to Italy from Libya have fallen by more than 50% in July and August when compared to the same period last year

An armed group is stopping migrant boats from making the journey from Tripoli in Libya to Europe, according to a report on Reuters.

The city has been a key point of departure for human smugglers and the group’s activities are believed to be behind the recent drop in migrant arrivals, which have falled by more than 50% in July and August.

Citing sources on the ground in Sabratha, located some 70km west of Tripoli, the report said the armed group was preventing migrants from leaving Libya, often locking them up in the process.

“[The group] works on the ground, the beach, to prevent the migrants leaving on boats towards Italy,” one civil society organizer from the city was quoted saying, adding that it was made up of several hundred “civilians, policemen and army figures”.

A second unidentified source is also quoted as saying that the “very strong campaign“ being undertaken by the group, had been launched by a “former mafia boss”.

The sources said the unnamed group was also running a detention centre for migrants who are turned back or taken from smugglers, with one having “sent a picture with hundreds of migrants sitting in the sand in front of a high wall”.

Moreover, one of the sources also told Reuters that he believed the group was seeking legitimacy and financial support from Tripoli. In recent months, the European Commission has tried to work with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) to stem migrant flows.

Last month, Fayez al-Serraj, the head of the GNA, was reported to have requested Italian naval support in its battle against human smugglers operating in its territorial waters. Despite Serraj’s subsequent denial, GNA foreign minister Mohamed Siala is reported to have said that a request for “logistical, technical and operational support to the Libyan coast guard” had in fact been made.

Italy has been trying to bolster the GNA's ability to stop people smuggling with cash, training and by sending a ship to help repair Tripoli's coastguard and navy vessels.

In February, during the Malta Summit, EU leaders agreed on a plan to forge ahead with a €200 million package – modelled on the EU-Turkey deal - that was to include stopping refugee boats from Libya by offering training and support the Libyan coast guard and intensifying defence on the North African state’s southern border.

The agreement was described by Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat as the European Union’s “first decent shot at a proper management of migratory flows in the central Mediterranean”.

Libya has remained in a state of conflict since Muammar Gaddafi was ousted six years ago, with rival governments and groups across its territory all vying for power.

Last month, the country’s two leading political rivals, Serraj and General Khalifa Haftar, who control much of the the east of the country, agreed to a ceasefire and fresh elections next year.