A spate of capsized boats and shipwrecks off the Libyan coast last week led to the deaths of more than 880 people trying to cross the Meditteranean Sea to Italy. It marked the worst week at sea for refugees since April of last year. Among those dead included an infant whose photo is being used by a German humanitarian aid group in an effort to force the European Union to pay attention to the human toll of the migration crisis.
Despite the heartbreaking nature of these recent drownings, however, refugees from African and Middle Eastern countries likely won’t stop using the near-failed state of Libya as a springboard into Europe on rickety boats.
Here’s why Libya has become the latest flashpoint in the European migration crisis:
Why Libya is so dangerous right now
Migration from Libya to Europe quadrupled starting in 2013. After rebel fighters killed Libya’s dictator, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, two rival groups have fought to seize control of the power vacuum in the country amid increasing lawlessness. Libya’s Islamic State militant group (ISIS) has also upped its presence in the area, as the 2011 armed conflict has continued to drive internal displacement within the country.
Why Libya is such a popular point of departure for refugees
Last year, 87 percent of the 900,000 migrants and refugees who crossed the waters into Europe arrived through Greece, according to The Guardian.
But after the European Union cut a deal with Turkey in March to resettle one refugee for every “irregular migrant” it turned away, entering Greece from Turkey was no longer a viable option.
Since the EU-Turkey deal, many migrants and refugees have instead turned to North Africa to cross through Libya. The relatively short distance between Libya’s shoreline and Italy’s island of Lampedusa has also made the trip appealing to people, BBC reported. This is likely why there weren’t any fatalities on the eastern Mediterranean route between Turkey and Greece in the first three weeks of May.
Who’s using this route through Libya
Migrants and refugees are leaving from more than 12 countries across the North African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian regions, including Tunisia, Syria, Algeria, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Somalia, Kenya, the Sudan region, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria.
Some migrants leave their countries for economic reasons. But others, like those fleeing Somalia, leave continued unrest borne from two decades of civil war and an Islamist insurgency brought on by the militant group al-Shabaab.
As of last November, one in ten migrants to Europe are from Eritrea, with about 5,000 people leaving the country every month. A lifetime of forced military conscription under Eritrea’s dictatorship was the most commonly cited reason that people fled the country. People who have been forced into national service have reported arbitrary detention, torture, sexual torture, forced labor, absence of leave, and poor pay, the Council on Foreign Relations reported. People from other countries report similar reasons for leaving.
Why refugees can’t stay in Libya
Migrants passing through Libya face great personal risk in the country, which is why it isn’t a viable option for them to stay there instead of embarking on the dangerous journey across the sea.
Libya has an expansive 1,100-mile coastline — the longest in North Africa — that has been left without border control because the country has lacked a centralized government since 2014. When Libyan Coast Guard members intercept migrants and refugees hoping to flee by boat, many of these individuals are put in overcrowded, terrible detention centers to await deportation proceedings back to their countries of origin. Migrants and refugees in these detention centers are subjected to torture, severe whippings, beatings, and electric shocks, according to a 2014 report by the humanitarian group Human Rights Watch.
Smugglers and gangs often force refugees to pay more to fund their water-bound trip into Europe by confiscating their passports and extorting them. Some Sub-Saharan migrants and refugees, including unaccompanied children, have been abducted by smugglers who try to coerce them and their family members to pay a ransom. People who are unable to pay are then often held as slaves without pay, according to Amnesty International.
“It is effectively a business that they are running,” one man told Amnesty International. “They detain you so that you have to pay… If you don’t answer their questions, they beat you…with rubber pipes.”
Refugees are also at risk of religious persecution. According to Amnesty International, people from Nigeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Egypt have been “abducted, tortured, unlawfully killed and harassed because of their religion” in Libya, particularly by ISIS. Last year, at least 49 Christians, mostly from Egypt and Ethiopia, were beheaded and shot in three group killings by the terrorist group Islamic State (IS).