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Libya war paves way for deadly migrant boat trips

Libya’s civil war, resulting security lapses and complicit security forces have paved the way for African migrants to make often-deadly boat trips to Italy, a social worker and migrant workers say.

A boat carrying up to 600 people from Libya to Italy is missing and reportedly capsized off Tripoli’s coast , the latest in a string of accidents involving overloaded boats carrying migrants hungry for a brighter future in Europe.

A Tripoli-based social worker who works with African migrants and requested anonymity for fear of retribution said that before authorities usually prevented migrants from sailing for Europe, until war between rebels and Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi’s forces broke out in February.

“Before the conflict, you had no access; you couldn’t do that, because there was a high patrol around the shores,” she said.

Now, members of Libya’s security forces “are the ones arranging all this,” she said of the dangerous voyages that can cost passengers from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

And “naval officers who have boats … even accompany them to international waters and teach the captain how to take the boat” in exchange for money.

The boats can depart from Libya “because of the crisis,” said Mary Anne, a 35-year-old Nigerian who has lived and worked in Libya for ten years and knows various people who have departed for Italy by boat.

Libyan authorities usually blocked the boats before, but police will now help arrange passage in exchange for money, she said.

Mary Anne said she knew several people who were passengers on the boat that is missing, which a woman whom she knows named Ada, who disembarked just before it set sail, said had sunk.

Ada “said the boat is shaking, shaking, shaking” when it was still moored, so she got off along with an unknown man, Mary Anne said.

The boat continued to rock after it left port, as passengers chanted, “Blood of Jesus, blood of Jesus, blood of Jesus!” before it sank beneath the waves off Tripoli’s coast, she said, citing an account from Ada, who could not be reached for comment.

Mary Anne also knew a man named Ike, his wife Aisha, their eight-month-old daughter Marian and two of their friends who were not as lucky as Ada — they did not get off the boat before it went to sea.

Adam, a 31-year-old Nigerian construction worker who came to Libya with his wife to work and save up enough money to open a business back home, generally blamed the conflict for the deaths of migrants trying to reach Europe by boat.

“People wouldn’t die in the sea if it weren’t for the conflict,” Adam said.

There is “no more work” because of the unrest, he said, and criticised strikes carried out by an international coalition on forces loyal to Kadhafi, saying “this country needs peace.”

He has compiled a list of some of those who are missing by talking with people who knew those on the boat. It included a friend of his named Teju.

“All these people are dead,” he said stoically.

Both Mary Anne and Adam said that though there is no work and they want to leave Libya, they would not take one of the boats to Europe because of the danger.

When asked about the large number of boats carrying migrants from Libya, Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said that “everyone knows now that the army is overstretched, and the police also.”

“We’re still ready and willing to work again with the European countries to deal with this problem,” he said, but Libya needs assistance from Europe to do so.

“I assure you that this is not the policy of the government,” he said when asked about allegations of security forces being involved in facilitating the migrants’ trips, but added that it was possible that some members acted alone.

The most recent missing boat is by no means the first, the social worker said, mentioning two other incidents she knew of in recent months.

“The first boat was with 350 Eritreans and Ethiopians” who left around February 23 or 24 for Italy. “We have no information what happened to them, where the accident took place.”

The missing from that boat include an Eritrean girl who had stayed with the social worker.

“We have no news about her,” she said.

Another boat carrying 72 Ethiopians and Eritreans set out for Italy around March 23, she said, citing accounts from survivors.

The boat became lost, ran out of fuel, and was blown back to Libya by the wind three weeks later.

“They were just left without any hope,” she said.

The 11 survivors were detained by government security forces when they landed near Misrata, and another two died during three days in detention, she said.

They were eventually released and aided by the social worker, who arranged for a doctor to see them.

Three went to the Tunisian border, but despite their ordeal, the rest decided to try again to reach Italy by boat. Their fate is unclear.

There are daily reports of boats leaving from the Tripoli port, the social worker said, and frequent rumours of them having sunk.

“They use Libya as a transit country to cross to Europe,” she said of African migrants, adding that maybe 25 percent come to work in Libya, while the rest have their sights set on Europe.

W.G. Dunlop / AFP / Expatica