Twenty-two people have been killed and more than 100 injured in shootouts between rival people trafficking gangs in Libya over the last week, an intergovernmental agency has said.
The victims are believed to be migrants rather than gang members, as they were sub-Saharan Africans, International Organization for Migration spokesman Joel Millman told reporters at a press briefing in Geneva, Switzerland, Reuters has reported.
Citing figures from his colleagues in Libya, Millman said the deaths are in addition to the 140 bodies found washed up on Libyan shores so far this year.
The migration route from Libya to Italy has seen a surge of people this year, following the success of the European Union (EU), working jointly with Turkey, in stifling the migrant flow into Greece.
The more westerly route has seen a 50 per cent increase in the number of migrants setting off by boat to Italy this year. This is driven in part by EU and NGO rescue operations acting as a draw for migrants as they appear to offer a safety net for those making the crossing.
Perversely, the rate of deaths at sea has consequently risen as the smugglers, reliant on European rescue vessels to carry their human cargo, are willing to use ever less sea-worthy craft to ferry migrants northwards.
Italy has reacted by vowing to return those who do not qualify for asylum – with or without their consent.
“This is creating all kinds of activity in the smuggling industry, and apparently that activity has reached the level of violent shootouts that left 22 killed in the last couple of days,” Millman said.
The deaths come just weeks after the bodies of 74 migrants were washed ashore in Libya, apparently after the engine in their inflatable dinghy was stolen. All but three of the migrants were men. Some of the bodies were still inside the boat.
According to Millman, a local staff member had reported that “traffickers came and removed the engine from the boat and left the craft adrift”.
“This is not only a horrible number of deaths in one incident, but it strikes us as something that we haven’t really seen much of, which is either deliberate punishment or murder of migrants,” he said.
Libya has struggled to remain intact since the death of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. More than 1,700 militias are now vying for territory, including Islamic State which is believed to count between 5,000 and 8,000 fighters in the country among its ranks.