“If someone prevents us, we will find other solutions. Migrants have always found a way to escape. And we have always found a way to let them leave,” said a 32-year-old smuggler to journalist Francesca Mannocchi during an in-depth investigation she conducted in Libya, earlier this year, for The New Arab.

The study is yet another confirmation of what people working with asylum seekers have known for several years:  human smugglers make speedy big cash on the migrant trade, but nonetheless many desperate people remain willing to pay any price to escape.

Mannocchi writes that the smuggler, who got into the business in spite of having a degree in civil engineering, told her that he has a “price list”, like everyone else.

The seats on the rubber boats cost the same for everyone, and they hold up to 80 or 100 people. When the sea is calm, he crams up to 120 on each. A rubber boat costs traffickers about 20,000 Libyan dinars.

There is also the option of finding a place on a wooden boat, which in some cases could take a few hundred people. A similar “ticket” to cross the Mediterranean costs “at least $500”. However, the price increases if one wants to choose “the safest place on the wooden boats”.

It is very easy for human smugglers to adapt their operations according to circumstances.

This is also because, as recorded by a study conducted by Paolo Campana, from Cambridge University’s Institute of Criminology, transnational smuggling routes were highly segmented: each stage a competitive marketplace of “independent and autonomous” smugglers.

“The smuggling ring moving migrants from the Horn of Africa to Northern Europe via Libya does not appear to have the thread of any single organisation running through it,” says Campana, whose findings were published in January in the European Journal of Criminology. 

There was a clear separation between those providing smuggling services, those kidnapping for ransom, and those, like the militias, ‘governing’ spaces and supplying protection.

“Criminal justice responses require the adoption of coordinated tactics involving all countries along the route to target these localised clusters of offenders simultaneously. This is a market driven by exponential demand, and it is that demand which should be targeted.

“Land-based policies such as refugee resettlement schemes are politically difficult, but might ultimately prove more fruitful in stemming the smuggling tide than naval operations,” Campana says.

The demand for Mediterranean crossings starting from North Africa went down during the past two years or so. However, it is extremely difficult to assess what might happen in the coming weeks. No one can be sure what smugglers might be tempted to offer to the apparently large numbers of migrants already in Libya, in the light of the current tense and complicated frame of mind in Europe, on the issue of migration.

The immediate response of the European community must be, without any shadow of doubt, to ensure shared responsibility for saving lives

Addressing the African Union-EU summit in Abidjan in November, the president of the African Commission, the Chadian Mahamat Moussa Faki, spoke of between 400,000 and 700,000 migrants held across dozens of Libyan detention centres. On its part, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that more than 423,000 migrants are in captivity in the North African country.

These are people fleeing man-generated afflictions and, sometimes, natural disasters. Few of them think of going back home in spite of what they have to face in Libya. Their aim remains to cross the Mediterranean and reach Europe, even if this means again risking their lives as many of them have already done during their desert crossing.

Whatever happens, the immediate response of the European community must be, without any shadow of doubt, to ensure shared responsibility for saving lives and for the management of Mediterranean migration in the values of justice, solidarity and compassion.

At the same time, however, the European states must understand that, if they really want to address the roots of the complex phenomenon of Mediterranean migration, they have to be much more prompt, concrete and proactive in their efforts to address the migration producing situations in Africa and the Middle East region.

What are required are genuine, durable, well-planned and efficiently implemented long-term solutions.

Priorities here must include coordinated action to truly and honestly take by the horns the scourge of the provision of arms or other forms of veiled support to despicable regimes and rulers, nations confronting each other, civil war factions, and ethnic groups fighting each other.

They also have to include fresh generous and effective development aid programmes primarily to countries with floods of young people reaching working age, year in year out, without any possibility of a reliable and dignified future at home. The phenomenon must be tackled at its source, also because the first to suffer are the children, who very often are left with indelible scars.

Around the world, 68.5 million people have been forcibly displaced. That’s the most since World War II, accord­ing to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Most people remain displaced within their home countries, but about 25.4 million people worldwide have fled to other countries as refugees. More than half of refugees are children.

The causes that trigger migrations in the countries of origin include wars, persecution, human rights violations, corruption, poverty, environmental imbalance and disasters. One cannot deal with such causes with wobbly or half-hearted solutions that very often tend to end up practically forgotten soon after they are signed with much pomp. 

Pope Francis hit the nail on the head when he stated, in his message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2017, that what is required, as a first step, was the commitment of the whole international community to eliminate the conflicts and violence that force people to flee.

“Furthermore,” wisely added the Pope, “far-sighted perspectives are called for, capable of offering adequate programmes for areas struck by the worst injustice and instability, in order that access to authentic development can be guaranteed for all. This development should promote the good of boys and girls, who are humanity’s hope.”

Action in this direction, quick, real and authentic action, is imperative.

Charles Buttigieg is Malta’s first refugee commissioner.

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