Fewer refugees crossing the mediterranean: mediterranean instead of closing borders.

The number of refugees arriving in Italy is falling. A militia in Libya is preventing migrants from leaving. Aid shipments from Italy are also contributing.

A rubber dinghy carrying 129 people fleeing off the coast of Libya Photo: dpa

The Mediterranean Sea lies calm in these summer days, there are hardly any waves between the Libyan coast and Italy. The weather situation is stable. Normally, overcrowded rubber boats with migrants should be leaving every day now – but hardly any refugees are arriving in Italy at the moment. Compared to last year, the numbers in August have dropped by almost 90 percent. While the Libyan coast guard and the European border protection agency Frontex sell the numbers primarily as a success of the authorities at sea, experts see the reasons on the Libyan coast itself: A new militia is said to have changed sides. There is speculation about the reasons and the role of Italy.

"We don’t currently know what the reasons for the decline are," says Christine Petre, spokeswoman for Libya for the International Organization for Migration (IOM). But especially in July, she said, the numbers of those refugees apprehended and brought back by the coast guard in Libyan waters dropped sharply. "It must have something to do with fewer refugees leaving the Libyan coast."

The small town of Sabratha is one of the main departure points for refugees in Libya. The town is located about 70 kilometers west of the capital Tripoli toward the Tunisian border. Italy and Europe are particularly close here. The backdrop of a monumental ancient theater dominates the coastline.

"For some time now, there has been a new armed group in the city that seems to be making sure that smugglers don’t leave," says Mattia Toaldo, a Libya expert at the European Council for Foreign Relations (ECFR), a European think tank. There are indications that a militia and smuggling chief powerful in the region has switched sides, Toaldo says. "Maybe he’s hoping to get more influence by making sure the refugees don’t leave." Similar developments already occurred in Sabratha’s neighboring town of Suwara last year, when a kind of citizens’ militia took control in the town and cleared it of people smugglers as much as possible.

Intervention "on the other side

In Italy, the social democratic government is pleased with the current figures – also against the background that elections must be held by next spring at the latest. And migration is the top issue that is bringing right-wing and xenophobic parties to the fore. "We are still in a long tunnel. But for the first time, I have begun to see light at the end of the tunnel," Interior Minister Marco Minniti said in mid-August. However, he warned at the same time that the "epochal" migration phenomenon has not been solved.

The decline in refugee numbers is also attributed to Italy’s onshore commitment. It has been very important to intervene on "the other side" of the Mediterranean, Minniti said. "We focused on Libya, it seemed very difficult, but today it seems like something is moving."

Among other things, Italy is supporting Libyan municipalities. Time and again, Rome hosts delegations with mayors and local politicians from all regions of Libya. Minniti has also been to Libya for this reason. The municipalities are to receive more financial aid. One wants to offer alternatives for growth and development against the background of trafficking, it said now in a statement.

A few days ago, the local council of the coastal town of Sabratha proudly reported new aid deliveries from Italy. An Air Force C-130 transport stood with its cargo hatch open at an airfield in Libya, with representatives of the local council in front of it. Inside the cargo hatch were piles of boxes containing what were supposed to be medicines for the hospital. The television station in the neighboring town of Suwara also reported a few days ago on new aid deliveries from Italy.

Stuck in the chaos of civil war country

"This has been Italy’s strategy for a long time, to support the municipalities through this," says Libya expert Mattia Toaldo of ECFR. "Traditionally, Italy has good intelligence networks in Libya with good contacts with mayors." If that means fewer refugees drown in the Mediterranean, he said, the strategy makes sense. "But the question is what happens to the smugglers and whether they don’t look for other starting points – as they did once before."

But the development also means migrants are stuck in the chaos of the civil war country and in sometimes inhumane conditions. Two United Nations human rights officials recently sounded the alarm over the developments: "The solution cannot be to prevent access to international waters," Felipe Gonzalez Morales and Nils Melzer criticized in a report. The two special rapporteurs expressed concern that the EU was trying to shift European borders to Libya.

A UN Security Council panel of experts also recently presented a nearly 300-page report, which also revealed the involvement of militias, smugglers and the Libyan coast guard supported by European states.

"Italy and the EU must not be complicit in human rights violations," said Ska Keller, group leader and migration policy spokeswoman for the Greens in the European Parliament. "Italy must disclose whether it supports militias that prevent refugee boats from leaving and whether EU funds are involved."

Given the chaos in Libya and the hundreds of rival militias, both experts and EU institutions wonder how long crossings toward Europe will remain at such low levels.