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More than 2,500 refugees and migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe so far this year, UN reveals

The first five months of this year have been “particularly deadly” for migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, the United Nations said, as Libyan officials admitted that they were powerless to stop the tide of humanity leaving the country’s desert shores.

More than 2,500 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean in rubber dinghies and rusting fishing boats so far this year, the UN’s refugee agency said in a report released on Tuesday.

That number represents a significant increase compared with the same period last year, when 1,855 migrants lost their lives after their boats capsized and sank.  In 2014, the figure for the same period was just 57.

"2016 is proving to be particularly deadly," said William Spindler, a UNHCR spokesman.

He said that in the past week alone, at least 880 migrants had died in a series of shipwrecks – significantly higher than the 700 cited by other humanitarian agencies at the weekend. Even that figure was “a conservative estimate," he said.

The odds of dying on the route between Libya and Italy, which is longer and much more dangerous than the crossings across the Aegean, is now one in 23.

So far this year, nearly 47,000 migrants have reached Italy, the vast majority of them sub-Saharan Africans from countries like Senegal, Nigeria and Gambia, who are classed as economic migrants, as well as many from Eritrea and Somalia, who are more likely to be viewed as asylum seekers.

With smuggling gangs operating along the Libyan coast with apparent impunity, the country’s ambassador to Italy admitted that the country is, for now, powerless to stop them sending their human cargo across the Mediterranean.

Ahmed Safar, who was brought up in London and studied at Oxford, said the fledgling Libyan government of national accord (GNA) lacked a functioning coast guard, navy, police force, army and intelligence network to begin taking on the smuggling syndicates.

He said the GNA, which is based in Tripoli, did not have “full control over certain territories”, referring to the myriad rebel groups operating in the country, as well as the presence of Islamic State in the coastal city of Sirte.

It was impossible to say how many migrants were in Libya waiting to cross to Italy, the ambassador said. A fleet of five or six coastguard vessels is being re-fitted in Tunisia and would be delivered soon, but for now Libya has no functioning coast guard at all, Mr Safar conceded. “There are no vessels operating at the moment.”

Confronting the migration crisis would involve the challenging task of securing Libya’s southern desert borders, receiving help from the EU to re-establish the coast guard, and establishing facilities within the country where migrants would apply for asylum in Europe, without risking the dangerous passage by sea.

Islamic State is heavily involved in the smuggling business, working with local gangs to make money out of sending migrants across the Mediterranean in frequently unseaworthy boats, the ambassador said.

Libyan forces, allied with some rebel groups, had “surrounded” the IS stronghold of Sirte and had killed or captured around 600 IS fighters, the ambassador claimed – a figure likely to be greeted with skepticism by independent experts. “The battlefield is clearly in Sirte and progress has been evident in the last few days,” he said.  Libyan regime forces were within 12 miles of the city centre.

“This is an important moment for Libya. The battle for Sirte has brought together the government and other armed groups.”

Libyans would “resent” any large-scale foreign military intervention, the ambassador said, but he tacitly acknowledged that small numbers of British, French and American Special Forces are operating in the country, referring to them as “international advisors”.

Islamic State took advantage of the security vacuum in Libya to seize control of Sirte last year, extending its presence along about 150 miles of coastline either side of the city.

The group is being gradually pushed back, the ambassador said, adding that he thought that reports of 6,000 to 8,000 IS fighters in Libya were wildly exaggerated. The UN’s special envoy to Libya said on Tuesday that the country would not be able to defeat IS unless the various military and militia groups joined forces.

A unity deal, struck in December, was supposed to end the divide between rival governments in Tripoli and Tobruk who have vied for control over the country and its oil resources since 2014.

The competing factions helped oust Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Martin Kobler, the envoy, said a united command structure was needed under control of Fayaz Seraj, the head of the UN-backed GNA, which arrived in Tripoli in late March and is still trying to establish its authority.

"One point must be very clear. The fight against Daesh must first be a Libyan fight and a united fight," said Mr Kobler, referring to the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. "Nobody acting alone will succeed. That's why it's important that all security actors in the west and east unite their forces.”

Fonte: http://www.telegraph.co.uk  - 31.05.2016 


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