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Migrant flows slow to trickle in Libyan former smuggling hub

There has been a marked decrease in the number of migrant-laden boats from Sabratha, formerly Libya's biggest people-smuggling centre, to Europe since a security crackdown was applied on the city’s top smuggler.
There has been a marked decrease in the number of migrant-laden boats from Sabratha, formerly Libya's biggest people-smuggling centre, to Europe since a security crackdown was applied on the city’s top smuggler.

Departures of migrant-laden boats to Italy from Sabratha, formerly Libya's biggest people-smuggling hub, have slowed to a trickle thanks to a security crackdown triggered by European pressure that ejected the city’s top smuggler.

But the local branch of Libya's coastguard feels neglected. It says it is still starved for resources, unable to run its own patrols with only one broken-down boat, one car and no uniforms.

Sabratha, 75 km (47 miles) west of the capital Tripoli where people smugglers exploited gang lawlessness for years, was the main launchpad on Libya's Mediterranean coast for Italy-bound migrants, with the flow peaking in 2016 and early 2017.

Crossings fell off abruptly in July 2017 after the city's top smuggler, Ahmed al-Dabbashi - also known as Al-Ammu (the Uncle) - struck a deal with Tripoli authorities under Italian pressure to desist from trafficking migrants.

Rival militia ejected Al-Ammu and his followers in fighting two months later, and have since consolidated their position, fending off an attempted comeback by Al Ammu earlier this month.

With European Union and Italian support, Libya's coastguard has increased interceptions of migrants in an area stretching 155 km (95 miles) off the coast, while charity rescue ships that once guided many of the migrants to Italy have retreated.

Migrant embarkations from Sabratha, a city of 120,000, have all but ceased. While thousands once set sail every week, 35 would-be migrants were detained in October in houses before they departed, officials said.

"We don't have human traffickers any more. The militias are gone," said General Omar Almabrouk Abduljalil, head of a Sabratha operations room for military and security forces.

But the local Sabratha coastguard said it was not benefiting from EU support being channelled through Tripoli, where naval and interior ministry units have received nine patrol boats.

Sabratha's coastguard has 150 members but just one car and a broken inflatable that was previously used by smugglers.


"We don't even have uniforms," said Ayman al-Dabbashi, a navy officer dressed in civilian clothes, who said he was transferred to Sabratha from Tripoli as some coastguard personnel who had collaborated with smugglers were pushed out.

"We can't do patrols. We can't fix the boat's engine," he said. "The radar is broken."

By way of explanation, Dabbashi said coordination between Tripoli and smaller coastal towns remains limited.

In Sabratha, local security forces include veterans of the uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 as well as Salafists, an ultra-conservative Muslim group that has expanded its influence across the vast North African country.

"They support the army as volunteers in these exceptional times Libya is passing through," said Abduljalil, the Sabratha security coordinator.

With this year almost over, 22,541 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea since January, well down from the 119,369 in all of 2017, says the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

But many migrants are still dying when overladen, unsafe inflatables founder en route. A total of 1,277 are recorded to have drowned on the central Mediterranean route so far in 2018, compared to 2,786 in the same period last year, according to the IOM.

While officials say boat departures from Sabratha have stopped, migrants are sometimes detained trying to reach other coastal cities such as Zuwara near the Tunisian border.

"There is a new trend of Libyan families smuggling migrants from Tripoli to Zuwara for 500 dinars ($129)," said Basim Bashir, who runs the Sabratha unit fighting illegal migration. "So now we are also searching families at checkpoints." 

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