The double tragedy of Libya's floods for migrants

On the edge of European waters, the port city of Derna has an advantage that human traffickers will continue to exploit

Reuters/Nick Donaldson
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The floods that hit the Libyan city of Derna were so severe that little attention was paid to the illegal migrants who were passing through the city on their way to Europe. Derna, once known as the city of poets, lies on the Mediterranean. It is a gateway the Greek islands and, if you turn west, to Italy. Local authorities are overwhelmed by the tragedy, and published casualty figures have not been detailed. Some local sources estimate that around 10 per cent of the victims were of foreign origin, while other sources deny it. The truth is difficult to ascertain, as most of the victims have been buried, some in mass graves.

The only certainty is that the tragedy will affect irregular migration channels. The first victims were migrants who were in Derna at the time of the tragedy. The port was partially spared and the boats at sea were unharmed. It will still be possible to reach Europe by sea, but given the disorganisation on land, it will mean leaving without the possibility of returning if things go bad. Already this summer a boatload of migrants attempting to return to land was turned away by Libyan smugglers. The law of the sea requires ships in distress to be assisted. In this case at least 250 migrants were pushed back out to sea. Their fate is unknown.

The Derna region is a hunting ground for criminal organisations and militias regularly criticised by international NGOs for illegal activities, particularly human trafficking. The floods are likely to have affected its accommodation facilities, often unhygienic warehouses used to hide migrants, as well as its means of transport.

The Derna region is a hunting ground for criminal organisations and militias regularly criticised by international NGOs for illegal activities, particularly human trafficking

This is likely to discourage migrants from going to Derna, at least temporarily, while the city reorganises. However, its geographical location on the edge of European waters will remain an advantage that traffickers will exploit. The journey across usually costs about $6,000. It is unlikely that the temporary cessation of illegal activities in Derna will have the effect of raising prices much. Beyond $8,000 or $9,000 dollars, few migrants would be able to pay.

The choice of a migration route is a decision made long before a migrant physically enters Libyan territory. There are two options. The western route (Derna) is currently compromised. Boat departures are still possible from 20 kilometres towards Benghazi, but there is no indication that the logistical capacity of criminal organisations would be able to cope with a sudden influx of migrants. The second route turns east and climbs the Zliten-Misrata axis. This is likely to be the preferred option in the coming weeks. It should be noted, however, that criminal organisations have no interest in a bottleneck on the Libyan coast. A saturation of the holding areas where the migrants are kept would create logical problems (food, water, availability of boats). The smoother and faster the journey, the more money the criminals make.

Tunis is closely monitoring the situation. The possibility of a mass migrant movement crossing its borders is unacceptable. Tunisian President Kais Saied has taken a very tough stance on migration. In February 2020, he shocked public opinion by declaring the urgent need to halt the flow of migrants, arguing that they were spreading a climate of insecurity and risked “changing the demographic composition of Tunisia”. Moreover, this summer he refused to budge when 140 sub-Saharan migrants from Libya tried to cross the Tunisian border. They were stopped by Tunisian security forces.

It is, therefore, highly likely that Tunis will restrict the passage of migrants. This decision may be both tactical and political. Controlling the flow of migration could be seen as a gesture of goodwill from to the EU. Smugglers are being arrested, migrants are being rescued at sea and channels of dialogue are being opened with the European countries concerned. This change of direction has been welcomed by Brussels, which has just agreed to allocate 67 million euros ($70.6m) to a Tunisian migration aid programme. The project to create a search and rescue zone in Tunisian waters is under way.

The only route left for migrants from Africa trying to reach Europe is Libya. And pressure is increasing with numbers. According to the International Organisation for Migration, a UN agency, the number of would-be migrants rose from 635,051 to 706,062 from January 2022 to February 2023. The death toll is high. At least 780 irregular immigrants have drowned off the Libyan coast since the beginning of the year.

The future of migration routes will depend on the political situation. For now, the soldiers of the 603rd Infantry Reconnaissance Battalion are continuing their work to secure Derna. Soon it will be up to local authorities to use the reconstruction of the city to cleanse it of criminal activity and turn their backs on old grudges between militias.

According to local sources, the President of the House of Representatives, Aguila Saleh, intends to organise local elections and entrust the huge task of reconstruction to a "Provisional Management Council". The aim is to restore order in the city. It remains to be seen how the criminal organisations will react to this desire to regain control. They have always been adept at exploiting political tensions and personal rivalries to buy complicity, bribe the right people in the right places and make their business flourish.

Amid the current drama, Derna finally has a chance to start afresh, after a devastating tragedy. History will tell whether the traffickers will allow this to happen, and whether they will get away with it again.

Published: September 29, 2023, 6:00 PM