Over the past three summers, tens of thousands of migrants piled into boats to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. This summer, though, the sea was unusually empty.
Since the European Union and Turkey struck a deal in 2016—in effect closing the eastern route to Greece—Italy has been the main destination for migrants. But the number of arrivals there in July was down by more than half compared with last year. In August it fell even further: fewer than 4,000 people came ashore, against more than 21,000 in August 2016. It was the lowest monthly figure recorded in nearly two years.
No one quite knows why. Italy has provided equipment and training to Libya’s coastguard, which has stepped up patrols. The seas have also been rough. But two militias in the western city of Sabratha, thought to be behind much of the people-smuggling, have a different explanation. They claim that Italy offered them money and equipment to stop migrant boats from setting sail.
Italy denies that it is talking with the traffickers. But it does work closely with Fayez al-Serraj, the head of the UN-backed government based in Tripoli, the capital. The EU has given him tens of millions of dollars to improve the coastguard and provide new jobs for those involved in trafficking. Mr Serraj, in turn, reportedly struck deals with the militias and brought them onto the government payroll.
“I don’t think anyone came from Europe with a suitcase full of money and gave it to Libyan warlords,” says Mattia Toaldo of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank. “It’s more complicated than that.”
Any such deal would be unpopular in Libya, because it would strengthen the armed groups that have plunged the country into chaos. But it is unlikely to meet much criticism in Italy, where the arrival of so many migrants has created a political crisis.
Over a four-day period in June, rescue boats pulled 12,000 people out of the water. Some mayors have refused to accept new arrivals. Their more welcoming colleagues have been punished at the polls. In April, the mayor of Lampedusa won a UNESCO award for helping migrants. In June, voters on the small island tossed her out of office. She came third out of four candidates, with less than 24% of the vote.
Italy has also tried to seal the far end of the people-smuggling route, in Fezzan, a vast area of desert that borders Algeria, Chad and Niger. It is Libya’s poorest region. Though it has oil wells capable of producing 400,000 barrels per day, residents receive few benefits; producers fly in staff from the north. A large state-run farming complex has fallen into disrepair since the civil war in 2011. With few chances for legal employment, tribes in Fezzan have turned to smuggling. The migrant trade brings in perhaps $1bn annually.
In April, the Italian interior ministry negotiated a peace deal between two warring groups in the region. In exchange for money, they agreed to stop fighting and work to close the borders. There is little evidence that they have done the latter. With so few Mediterranean crossings this summer, aid agencies believe tens of thousands of migrants are stranded in Libya. Some are kept in detention centres run by militias in the north, or held for ransom in grim “safe houses”. Others stay in the south and find ill-paid informal jobs.
There is one other explanation for the reduced flow, and it may be the most compelling. “The smuggling business is a business. It’s all about money,” says Claudia Gazzini of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank. The traffickers may have simply found a more lucrative business. Petrol is heavily subsidised in Libya: a litre costs $0.12 at the official exchange rate and just two cents at the black-market rate. Smugglers can sell it in Europe (or neighbouring Tunisia) at a huge mark-up. The business is thought to be worth $2bn annually—a sum that dwarfs any aid on offer from Europe.
The western port of Zuwara, once a hub for the migrant trade, has lately switched to smuggling fuel. Residents complain of petrol shortages because so much of the supply is stolen. Libyan ships are thought to bring the petrol out to international waters, then transfer it to non-Libyan tankers.
A team of UN investigators said in June that they had seen “vessels showing suspicious navigational patterns” near the city. But stopping petrol-smuggling is not a high priority for the European navies that patrol the Mediterranean. “It creates a lot less social alarm than the migrants or drugs,” says Mr Toaldo. “You won’t see people complaining about smuggling petrol.”