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MISRATA, CATANIA, Aug. 29, 2016 – Kristy is IRIN Migration Editor. Tom is a freelance journalist based in Libya and a regular IRIN contributor
“I was very scared in the sea. The boat was overcrowded. I could barely move. I was afraid of dying, but even more afraid of being caught by the Libyan police.”
Ali*, a 21-year-old from Ghana, spoke to IRIN shortly after disembarking from a search-and-rescue vessel in Catania, Sicily.
“The traffickers tell you when you get in the boat that in three hours you’ll be arriving in Italy,” he said, adding that by the following morning, when they were rescued, their boat had only moved 12 nautical miles from the Libyan coast.
Ali survived, but three of his friends who attempted the journey before him did not. They are among 2,726 migrants who have lost their lives in the stretch of the Mediterranean between North Africa and Italy so far this year, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Over the last two years, search-and-rescue efforts in the Central Mediterranean have been ramped up significantly and have undoubtedly saved countless lives. On Sunday alone, the Italian coastguard rescued 1,100 migrants from a total of 11 different vessels. And yet, the first half of 2016 saw a 67 percent increase in the number of migrants who died or disappeared trying to cross the Mediterranean compared to the same period last year, according to figures released in a report by IOM last week.
Far deadlier route
The vast majority of deaths occur in the Central Mediterranean, where one in 29 migrants lost their lives attempting the crossing between January and June. This is compared to one in 410 who used the much shorter Eastern Mediterranean route between Turkey and Greece.
But the longer length of the Central Mediterranean route is not the only reason it has become so risky. Experts say smugglers are using increasingly dangerous strategies to maximise their profits.
Libya remains the main gateway to the Central Mediterranean, and officials there claim the country’s severe cash crisis is driving a surge of new entrants into the migrant smuggling trade.
“Every day, we see more young people are getting involved in smuggling,” a senior official from Libya’s Department for Combatting Illegal Immigration told IRIN on condition of anonymity. “There is no work, no cash in the banks, and all the young people know that they can get easy cash from this type of work.”
The official said ordinary people with an empty garage, farm, or house near the coast are starting to use these as holding places for migrants, while waiting for favourable sea conditions.
“There are smugglers currently operating all along the western coast from Tripoli to Zuwara, and, as soon as the sea is good, they are ready to quickly transfer the migrants from these holding places to the sea,” he explained.
The migrant trade on Libya’s Mediterranean shoreline has always operated on the basis of supply and demand, but, with black market exchange rates for foreign currency soaring to more than double the official exchange rate, smugglers have also now dropped their prices, making the journey more affordable.
“A journey that once cost around $1,000 now costs as little $200 or $300, and we are hearing that some new smugglers are accepting as little as $100 per person,” Amjid told IRIN.
“There are so many migrants waiting to go that often smugglers are now putting five or even 10 boats out to sea at a time from one departure point, where before it was maybe one or two.”
This practice of launching multiple boats at once is complicating search-and-rescue efforts and has contributed to this year’s higher death toll, according to the IOM report.
Last Sunday (21 August), a vessel operated by Médecins Sans Frontières was in the process of rescuing migrants from a wooden boat that was taking on water when it received word that another boat carrying migrants, this time a small inflatable one, also needed saving.
“We took in a total of 551 people in one combined operation, instead of two operations. It was more difficult and made the situation more urgent,” said Jacob Goldberg, a medical coordinator with MSF.
Not only are more boats being launched simultaneously, but they are also being packed with more migrants.
“They’ve gone up from 100 [people] on the rubber boats to 150 or 160. On the wooden boats, from around 450 to 550 [before], we’re now seeing 550 to 800,” said Peter Sweetnam, director of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, a Malta-based NGO that operates two search-and-rescue vessels in the Mediterranean.