When more than 800 people drowned this day last year on an overcrowded ship bound for Italy’s southern isle of Lampedusa, the EU deployed a round-the-clock flotilla that saved thousands of lives on what remains one of the world’s most perilous journeys.
But one year after Europe’s deadliest migrant disaster, humanitarian and security efforts off the lawless coast of Libya face a growing challenge to catch smugglers and bring asylum-seekers to safety.
Experts say crackdowns on migration at other EU borders mean that the southern Mediterranean crossing plied daily by smugglers operating out of Libya already is busier now than it was 12 months ago.
So far this year, 24,000 migrants have arrived in Italy via this route and tens of thousands more are waiting in the pipeline, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
Rescue officials seek to ensure no repeat of the night of April 18, 2015, when a boat packed with an estimated 850 mostly African passengers capsized as a civilian freighter approached.
Most were locked below decks; only 28 survived. Several other smuggling vessels sank in the first months of 2015, some without trace at a cost of untold lives, before EU naval reinforcements arrived that June to cast a safety net. Experts say that net is fragile.
“There could be a shipwreck tomorrow. Two boats could collide on the high seas. Even a strong multinational presence can’t provide a 100% safety net,” said Federico Soda, director of the IOM’s office in Rome, which oversees the central Mediterranean and North Africa.
Soda said about 350 people have died so far this year trying to cross the southern Mediterranean route, nearly as many deaths over the same period as the far busier smuggling routes between Turkey and the eastern islands of Greece.
Now, as EU authorities work to halt that eastern Mediterranean flow of migrants and deport them from Greece back to Turkey, analysts anticipate that asylum-seekers from the Mideast and Asia may see Libya once again as the most temptingly open gateway to Europe.
They note that Libya’s paramilitary chaos may make the North African nation a particularly attractive launching point for Europe-bound migrants because EU authorities won’t deport migrants back to such a danger zone.
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