First Published: 2017-09-13

Noose tightens on Libyan people traffickers
With stronger surveillance methods and increased pressure on people smugglers, some are closing for business.
Middle East Online

Migrants wait to be rescued from a sinking dingey off Libyan coast.

SABRATA - In Sabrata, Libya's main departure point for clandestine migrants hoping to reach Europe, people trafficking gangs are under so much pressure that some have closed for business.

The results have been noticed on the other side of the Mediterranean where the number of arrivals on the Italian coast has dropped dramatically.

Italy has registered 6,500 arrivals since mid-July, barely 15 percent of the average for the same period between 2014 and 2016.

Libyan officials say the falling number is due to stronger surveillance by the coastguards of both countries, as well as pressure on major people smuggling gangs in Sabrata.

Six years since a revolution and NATO intervention that toppled dictator Moamer Kadhafi, violence-wracked Libya has become a key gateway for clandestine migration to Europe.

But now traffickers in Sabrata, 70 kilometres (45 miles) west of Tripoli, are preparing to hand security forces thousands of migrants they had planned to put on makeshift boats heading for the Italian coast, Sabrata security officials told AFP.

"We are giving them a chance. It's an opportunity for traffickers to repent," said Bassem Ghrabli, commander of a force tackling clandestine migration.

Libya's unity government originally formed the force to battle the Islamic State group after it briefly occupied the centre of Sabrata in 2016.

"Since the creation of this cell, we have had support from the Government of National Accord. Before, we didn't have the means to fight the traffickers, who were better armed," Ghrabli said.

"We expect (the smugglers) to hand over more than 10,000 migrants to us."

- Threats -

Ghrabli said 90 percent of the city's traffickers had agreed to halt their illegal activities after negotiations with residents.

"We gave them an ultimatum: we will no longer tolerate such activities in the city. If they do not agree to abandon their trafficking, we will use force," he said.

In an eastern suburb, warehouses are being rehabilitated to house migrants.

"They are big enough to house thousands of people" waiting to be repatriated, Ghrabli said.

On the other side of the huge dust-swept yard, prefabricated building sites, initially set up as offices, will accommodate women, he said.

Migrants waiting to embark towards the Italian coast are usually held in warehouses the traffickers have set up along the beach.

"Those warehouses will be destroyed," the officer said.

Some trafficking barons, who control whole sections of the city, have even built their own jetties, from which dozens of boats loaded with migrants leave every day.

Sabrata mayor Hussein Dhawadi said residents and security forces had "sent a strong and threatening message to the traffickers: 'If the migrants do not leave the city, there will be clashes.' This message was well understood by the smugglers."

- 'Under the table' -

Ghrabli said the traffickers "understood the risks" they were taking.

Libyan security forces have a growing presence in the city, whilst across the Mediterranean, Italy has reinforced its maritime surveillance, he said.

He said that suspected IS jihadists are still present in the city and continue to benefit from human trafficking.

"The Europeans have also understood that they are under threat from terrorists" who can infiltrate Europe by hiding among migrants, he said.

Some traffickers have tried to adopt a new image so their criminal past is forgotten, Ghrabli said.

One of the best-known trafficking barons, whose forces control half of the city, a few weeks ago became head of a force tackling clandestine migration.

That came after an alleged "agreement under the table" with Italian officials at an informal meeting with major traffickers in July in Malta, according to widespread rumours repeated by officials in Sabrata.

"I asked the ambassador and the Italian interior ministry but they denied having been party to such an agreement. But even the traffickers themselves talk about" the meeting, the city's mayor said.

 

At least 235 killed in Egypt mosque attack

Saudi Crown Prince calls Iran supreme leader 'new Hitler'

Syrian opposition agrees to send united delegation to Geneva talks

Saudi-led coalition clears passenger flights to Sanaa

Baghdad's Shabandar cafe marks century since opening

Turkey says Trump pledged to stop arming Kurds

Turkey president sues main opposition party leader

Lebanon's Hariri brings status quo back with him

Activists say 'everybody knew' about Libya slave trade

Erdogan says no contact 'at the moment' with Assad

Lebanon's Jumblatt criticises Saudi Arabia, Iran

China says it will make efforts on Syria reconstruction

Turkey to detain 79 former teachers in post-coup probe

Hezbollah hails PM's suspension of resignation

Syrian opposition aims for unity at talks in Riyadh

Egypt police kill 3 Islamists in shootout

Turkey unsure if Assad to be part of Syria political transition

Migrant arrivals from Libya down since EU deal

Palestinian factions leave Cairo talks with little progress

Sudan’s Bashir looks to Putin for ‘protection’ from US aggression

China, Djibouti forge 'strategic' ties

IS propaganda channels fall quiet in 'unprecedented' hiatus

Kremlin to create Syria congress despite Turkey ‘reservations’

Netanyahu berates deputy minister for 'offensive' remarks on US Jews

Egypt PM heads to Germany for medical treatment

Egypt destroys 10 SUVs carrying arms on Libya border

Outrage in Iraq over 'child marriage' bill

Iraq launches operation to clear last IS holdouts from desert

Saudi-led coalition to reopen Yemen airport, port to aid

Turkey court rules to keep Amnesty chief in jail

France calls for UN meeting on Libya slave-trading

Egypt detains 29 for allegedly spying for Turkey

WTO panel to hear Qatar’s complaint against UAE blockade

Three dead as diphtheria spreads in Yemen

Lebanon’s Hariri suspends resignation

Israel seizes explosive material at Gaza border

Activists call for release of UK journalist held by IS

Bahrain upholds jail sentence for activist

Iraq attacks at lowest since 2014

Turkey continues crackdown in post-coup probe

Hariri back in Lebanon

Putin to hold Syria peace talks with Erdogan, Rouhani

US carries out air strikes against IS in Libya

Divided Syria opposition meets in Riyadh

Lebanon's Hariri in Egypt ahead of return home