The people traffickers making thousands of dollars ferrying migrants across the Mediterranean have laughed at EU plans to take their vessels by military force, saying the ships are easily replaceable, and that anyway migrants are starting to make the journey themselves using inflatable dinghies and other small craft.
Yesterday leaders of the EU member states gathered in Brussels to discuss ways to tackle the migration crisis which has claimed nearly 2,000 lives already this year. The figure, up 30 times on the same period last year, means that the Mediterranean has claimed the number one spot as most dangerous border crossing world wide.
Following the summit, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged that a Navy Warship, the HMS Bulwark, along with three Merlin helicopters and two border patrol vessels would be dispatched to the Mediterranean within the next week, as part of an EU effort to “smash the gangs and stabilise the region”.
But Libyan smuggler “Abu Ahmed”, who personally makes thousands of dollars a month by piloting vessels laden with migrants across the sea, told the Times that military force will not deter people from making the crossing. “Even if the EU threatens to strike our properties, destroy our boats, the issue will not stop. We are not the problem,” he said, speaking in the coastal trafficking town of Khoms.
“The migrants themselves are desperate to cross. Some of them , particularly the Syrians, have started buying their own boats and making the journey alone without our help. You can’t stop them.
“The coastline is nearly 2,000km long. If you target one small section, people will find another patch of beach and more boats to launch. Tell me how they plan to patrol the whole of Libya and stop us?”
Libya has been without a formal government since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011. Last summer, Tripoli was taken over by a group called Libya Dawn, which also controls most of the Western coast. They have said that any efforts by the EU to use military force will be viewed as an act of war.
“Taking out boats without our permission would be considered a declaration of war against Libya,” said Libya Dawn parliamentarian Abdel-Qader Huweily. He warned that Tripoli would be forced to “respond” accordingly, adding “Our government rejects the interference of a foreign country on our shores.”
Mr Huweily has stated that the EU cannot solve the crisis on its own, and has called for a UN Summit on the matter. “Only then we will resolve this,” he said. “Targeting boats would just drive the smugglers underground and potentially affect legitimate businesses like fishing.”
His calls for collaboration have been echoed by a Libyan navy spokesman, Colonel Ayyoub Qassem, who called the EU’s proposed solution “unrealistic”. He said that the Libyan navy was often outgunned by the smugglers. “I don’t think the EU realises how huge their weapons are. The Libyan navy cannot come close to the gangsters who have anti-aircraft guns, RPGs, 106mm cannon.”
Meanwhile, smugglers operating out of Egypt have said that their route will remain open as long as there is demand. The crossing from Egypt takes twice as long – around ten days – and is twice as expensive, but it is considered safer as the vessels used to make the crossing are more sturdy.
Mohamed, a Syrian smuggler, said that the business was a simple matter of supply and demand. “If the people want to travel through the sea our business will remain open. The only thing that will stop smuggling is when people have a decent place to live with peace and stability,” he added. “Crossing is currently the only option with hope.”
Cameron said that yesterday’s leaders’ summit was “about saving lives”. He went on to confirm that any migrants picked up by EU boats would be “taken to the nearest safe country – most likely Italy”, adding that Britain wil ensure they “don’t have immediate recourse to claim asylum in the UK.
“When these tragedies happen Britain is always there and this time will be no exception,” he said.