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Libya or the Economics of Migration

   Apart from Eritreans and some Afghans there are few genuine refugees among the migrants currently arriving in Italy. The stream of boat people taken to Italian shores is drying up because of measures taken by Italy and the government in Tripoli.

   Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Gentiloni, both faced with upcoming elections, should be happy. Less satisfied are those predicting heavy loss of life because of the withdrawal of NGO vessels.

   However, it is by no means sure that the numbers of casualties by drowning will increase. All depends on how the smugglers and the Libyan coast guard react to the new situation.

   According to a report carried by Huffpost, the coast guard now charges NGO ships between US$ 40,000 and 60,000 in cash for the permission to save a rubber boat full of migrants. This means another twist in the sad economics of illicit migration. If the report is true it means that the coast guard, authorized by a wannabe Libyan government, wants its cut in the profitable trade in humans.

   In all likelihood the smugglers on the Libyan coast are as furious about the new tax as the NGO operators in the Mediterranean. In economic terms, the new measures taken by Italy and Tripoli, already drastically reducing the flux of migrants, will raise the fees charged by smugglers. More than the danger of risking drowning, the increased cost of buying a place on a boat is going to make it impossible for most migrants already in Libya to afford sea travel to Europe.

   In past months, the smugglers’ work was easy. All they needed was a Chinese made inflatable for $250 from Alibaba. They took the rubber boat filled to the brim with migrants to where the rescue ships were cruising, removed the valuable outboard engine and themselves, and told the migrants to call emergency numbers. Now the rescue ships are disappearing and the so-called Libyan coast guard is taking over. Faced with this situation, the smugglers are forced to return to their origins. Again they need expensive wooden boats fitted with engines strong enough to perform the trip to Lampedusa, Malta or even mainland Italy. Because of the strong currents prevailing in the Canal of Sicily some knowledge of navigation is required. Higher tariffs are the consequence which means that most sub-Saharan Africans are priced out of the market.

   In practical terms, hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees on the Libyan coast are waiting in vain-for their trip to Europe. Like the people vegetating in the refugee hotspot camps on the Greek islands, these migrants in Libya are blocked where they are. With insufficient funds to continue their travel to Europe they are faced with the horrible alternative of somehow returning to Bangladesh, Nigeria or Eritrea. Since returning will in most cases be impossible they are kept in limbo in Libya.

   Once their misery has become known south of the Sahara and in Asia,  information will spread that the Libyan route to Europe has been closed. People still willing to migrate will look for alternative routes: through Egypt and the Mediterranean, through Turkey and the Black Sea, through Morocco and even Algeria to Spain. Since Morocco and Spain have jointly developed a robust system of dealing with migrants, and Bulgaria is busy strengthening its border fence with Turkey, few viable options are left.

   Despite all current efforts to discourage migration, there are still plenty of ways to get illegally into Europe. Crossing the Canal of Sicily at its narrowest point between Cap Bon in Tunisia and Mazara del Vallo in Sicily, for instance, takes a speedboat about four hours for the 78 miles distance. If you want to avoid immigration control  it is sufficient to skip Mazara and travel a few more miles to Marettimo, a tiny Sicilian island, and from there as a tourist by hydrofoil to Trapani on the Sicilian mainland.

   Europe is still wide open for those who can afford expensive travel. Current efforts to close the central Mediterranean route through Libya will only block cheap mass travel. Bangadeshis buying an all-in-one trip from Dhaka to the Libyan coast for US$2,500 or Senegalese traveling from Dakar to Libya for $500 will see their trip ending in a dead alley, being doomed to serve Libyans as slave labor, as pawns for extortion or being cut up for the organ trade.

   The Balkans route and the Central Mediterranean route offered unique opportunities for mass migration. Hundreds of thousands correctly anticipated that the time window for cheap travel would not stay open for a long time: that Europe sooner rather than later would overcome its humanitarian scruples and block the routes.

   Images of overloaded rubber boats and smugglers removing outboard engines in full view of NGO ships which are rescuing migrants from deflated boats will disappear. The smugglers will abandon the mass travel business and focus on high-value travelers. Less black Africans, more Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Iranians, Syrians, Iraqis, Turks. Already in past years the smugglers kept different tariffs for Arabs and Africans. Syrian refugees, for instance, paid three to five times more than Nigerians for a place on the same boat.

   However, there is no way of returning to the old days before mass migration started. The hundreds of thousands who made their way to Europe are acting as magnets for their families and friends at home. Ms. Merkel’s invitation to Syrian and other refugees has left a deep mark on the mind of millions. The glacier has started sliding and there is no way of stopping it. Millions are dreaming of Europe and have seen images which showed that the previously impossible has become possible.

   Already in past years the world was astonished to see how much money citizens of some very poor countries were able to raise for their travel to Europe. Eight thousand dollars for a trip from Turkey to Italy, for instance. Or through the Balkans to Germany, Sweden, UK. From remote African villages to Algeria, France, Belgium. The smuggling business is a way of levying taxes in poor countries which consider migration of their citizens to Europe a potentially profitable investment because of the expected remittances.

   Closing the mass migration routes means heating up a pressure cooker. Governments of poor countries are only too happy to get rid of young people and usually refuse to take them back when Europe tries to expel them. These countries, with the exception of Syria and perhaps Eritrea, experience strong population growth.  Sudan, Niger, Iran and Iraq are adding close to 1 million every year to their population. In Egypt, Bangladesh and Ethiopia the total increases by 2 million or more a year. Pakistan grows by 3.8 million annually, and Nigeria tops the list with 4.8 million more citizens each year. In the Arab world, according to World Bank data, births exceed deaths by 8 million annually, and in Sub-Saharan Africa population is growing by a stunning 27.9 million per year.

   Hence, year after year, the pressure in the cooker is rising. At the same time, economies are growing. Poverty is decreasing in most countries and more people are becoming able to dream the dream of Europe. Former hardscrabble subsistence farmers gain access to the money economy and learn to effect payments by smartphone. Money wired through Western Union and the like by successful migrants in Europe will encourage others to undertake the perilous trip of which crossing the Mediterranean is often the least dangerous part.

   Since Europe refuses to accept more than a tiny trickle of legal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, smugglers will remain pivotal by facilitating illicit migration. In fact, some migrants even praised their smugglers’ help despite the money they had to pay. In future, the relationship between tariffs charged by smugglers and the income levels in departure countries will determine how many people undertake the trip to Europe.

   By forcing smugglers to raise their tariffs, Europe and its helpers in Turkey and Libya are trying to minimize the flow of migrants. The pressure of refugees on Turkey is currently decreasing because thousands of Syrians are returning home whereas in Libya the pressure is rising because new migrants from Africa and Asia continue arriving while smugglers cannot handle them as before. A swelling population of desperate foreigners along the Libyan coast is likely to cause trouble, incredible suffering and possibly mayhem. But, strangely, it might help Libya to overcome its political fragmentation. 

Ihsan al-Tawil



Sabratha, Libya: An armed group is stopping migrant boats from setting off, causing a sudden drop in departures over the past month, sources in the area said. The group is made up of several hundred “civilians, policemen, army figures,” he said. It is conducting a “very strong campaign” that was launched by a “former mafia boss”... Another shift has been a clampdown on smuggling of Bangladeshi and North African migrants through Tripoli’s Mitiga airport, after a militia that controlled the trade was forced out.

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