An increasing number of migrants are fleeing war-torn Libya with 20 boats leaving in a single weekend, according to intelligence relayed to newly-elected Prime Minister Robert Abela.

During his first day in office, Dr Abela was briefed by senior members of the Armed Forces of Malta about the tense situation in the North African country.

Some 20 rickety boats filled with migrants left Libya last weekend and the number of departures continue to increase, according to the briefing given to the Prime Minister.

It also detailed contingency plans should Malta be faced with a request for mass evacuation of Libyan nationals if the fighting were to escalate.

Government sources said Dr Abela had been given an overview of the AFM’s operations at sea and the unofficial agreement with Italy and Libyan authorities over who should be responsible for rescues.

Back in November, Times of Malta reported that the government had secretly negotiated an agreement with Libya that saw the AFM coordinate with the Libyan coastguard to intercept migrants headed towards the island.

The agreement for “mutual cooperation” was struck between members of the AFM and the Libyan coastguard, with controversial former government official Neville Gafà acting as an intermediary.

The situation in Libya has been deteriorating since military commander General Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive on Tripoli in April 2019.

After months of fighting, forces aligned with the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli, have been scrambling to hold the capital.

Talks in Moscow between the leaders of the two main sides of Libya’s civil war have so far failed to produce a formal ceasefire. Nonetheless, the joint Russian-Turkish initiative is widely considered to be the best chance at brokering a truce as the two countries are important supporters of the opposing sides in this conflict: Russia supporting the LNA and Turkey the GNA.

In 2011, about 21,000 foreign workers were evacuated to Malta by sea and air within two weeks of the crisis sparked by the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi.

Last week, Mikela Fenech Pace, who had served as the government’s head of Strategic Policy Secretariat during the 2011 evacuations, said that while there was nowhere near the levels of foreign workers in Libya that there was back in 2011, Malta should be on high alert for the eventuality.

Mark Micallef, senior Fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, cautioned against alarmist interpretations of recent arrivals.

“It’s true that over the weekend there was a spike in departures but, so far, the numbers are within the parameters of what is to be expected when looking at data from the past three months.”

Mr Micallef said that the most important factor to consider was that over the past two years there had been a systematic collapse of smugglers’ capacity.

“This happened for a number of reasons but the key takeaway is that most militias who have control over coastal areas moved away from protecting human smuggling. This is why we saw a dramatic drop from more than 180,000 people crossing the Central Mediterranean in 2016 to less than 15,000 last year,” he noted.

He said the vast majority of the militias formerly involved in this business were currently engaged in the war, making far more money than they were from human smuggling. This made a huge difference because while smugglers before were able to operate with complete freedom they were now very restricted.

Mr Micallef said one factor to consider should the ceasefire break down completely and the fighting restarted aggressively was a demand by Libyan nationals to leave the country. Living conditions for average Libyans deteriorated significantly on every front, from security to the economy to education.

“Still, while it is good to be on the alert and make plans, not least for a possible humanitarian fallout, there is nothing alarming about what happened this weekend.”

Mr Micallef leads an EU-funded programme conducting research on human smuggling in trafficking on the ground in Libya, Niger, Chad and Mali, conducting regular fieldwork in these countries.

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