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With One Boat, Libyan Coast Guard Under-Equipped for Migrant Rescue

ROME, Italy—As the number of illegal African migrants leaving from Libyan shores reaches biblical proportions, the coast guard in the Libyan port of Zuwarah finds itself distressingly unprepared, as it has just one old boat in its entire fleet.

Zuwarah is Libya’s closest port to Italy, at a tempting 180 miles from the small Island of Lampedusa, which is already overcrowded with African migrants awaiting processing.

While the coast guard languishes with a boat that often breaks down, human traffickers in Zuwarah are growing rich off the burgeoning business.

One anonymous smuggler said that he never imagined this kind of income. “The amount of money is phenomenal,” he said.

“A fishing boat worth 40,000 dinar, ($30,000) can be sold for smuggling for $150,000. It’s an unimaginable amount of money.”

The man said that the boats are brought in from Egypt. “They’re bad quality and you load it with 90 or 100 people, and some of them get there and others will die,” he said.

Zuwarah is reportedly under the control of smugglers, who use the official sea ports for smuggling immigrants in full view of everyone.

“We have only one boat left over from the old regime, which often breaks down, to monitor the entire coastline of Zuwarah,” said Anwar al-Atushi, the head of the local coast guard.

“Only 15 coastguards work, with their own means, to rescue migrants at sea and bring them to port before handing them over to the security services,” he said.

The coast guards’s lone craft can only carry 10 people, so the guard often has recourse to borrowed boats to bolster their rescue capabilities.

“When the number of migrants is high, we ask permission from the owners of the fishing boats to use them,” al-Atushi said.

The self-styled Tripoli government, which is not recognized by the international community, has launched a public relations campaign appealing for help to deal with the immigrant crisis, bringing journalists to visit detention centers overflowing with would-be migrants stopped before they could embark across the Mediterranean.

As Italy vies for EU funding for its immigration emergency, authorities in Tripoli similarly jockey for financial support to deal with the steep rise in migrants passing through their territory.

Rida Issa, the head of the coast guard service for central Libya, said that their current situation, with several boats and small inflatable dinghies, is far from satisfactory. “We need another 10 equipped boats” to do the job properly, he said.

Still, illegal migration is not Zuwarah’s only problem. It also has to deal with skirmishes between forces of the official government and the Fajr Libya militia alliance in control of Tripoli and much of western Libya.

“Our mission is essentially to protect the city and all security threats,” said Mohamed Salem, a member of Zuwarah’s security forces.

“We have nothing left over for the fight against illegal migration,” he said.

In Zuwarah, “we only have one car” for patrols and arrest operations,” he said. “Our methods are very primitive and the government is doing nothing.”

After an emergency summit in Brussels, the European Union agreed to triple its budget for European border patrols, but observers see the figure as a drop in the bucket when compared to the size of the mission.

Salem said that “even if all the boats from all the countries in the EU were deployed, they would still fail to stop illegal migration to its shores.”

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.

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