Migrant crossings of the Mediterranean have reached unprecedented levels, with the increasingly organized smuggling gangs producing primitive boats with greater ease, the head of the European Border Agency (Frontex) told AFP.
During the first four months of 2023, the number of crossings in the central Mediterranean region increased by almost 300 percent compared to the same period last year, with nearly 42,200 entries recorded.
“I’ve never seen that in the past,” Hans Leytens, head of the agency, said in an interview, adding that crossings using this route accounted for just over half of the 80,700 unregulated entry into the EU this year.
He added, “We now see an increase of 1,100 percent in the crossing of migrants, especially from Tunisia, compared to last year.”
Frontex indicated in a statement that the level of crossings of the central region of the Mediterranean is the highest since the agency began collecting data in 2009.
The significant increase, from Littens’ point of view, is related to the change in the way people smugglers work and the decrease in the cost of a single crossing.
“They are now using small metal primitive boats that can be produced on the beach within a day, 24 hours, at a cost of approximately 1,000 euros ($1,090),” he said.
He continued, “The lower prices mean that they need more numbers. So there is justification for them to push more. That might explain the current numbers.
Letins also pointed out that smugglers are becoming more organized and competing with each other.
“A real dilemma”
In at least one case, Liettens said, a rival smuggling group sank a boat.
Human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have accused Frontex of complicity in abuses committed against migrants in Libya by cooperating with the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept boats.
Littens indicated that the agency did not cooperate in any way with Libya and denied accusations that it had incited the deportation of migrants by informing the Libyans of the locations of boats in the European search and rescue areas.
He said, “What we do is we issue a distress call only when the boat encounters difficulties, and the Libyan and Tunisian authorities receive this call as well.”--
He added, “If the coordination center agrees that the Libyan coast guard will conduct the search and rescue operation, they will sail and save people’s lives. Deportation is a completely different matter.
He continued, “Although this may seem a little harsh, but we do not care who saves people’s lives if the process of saving them takes place.”
“Of course, we hope that they will not end up in the centers that the United Nations has mentioned in its reports,” he told AFP. For us, professionally, it is a real dilemma.
A UN fact-finding mission has warned that migrants stranded in Libya as part of their attempt to reach Europe are subjected to systematic torture and sexual slavery.
* Prevent deportations
After the resignation of his predecessor, Fabrice Leggeri, the new Frontex chief pledged in January to restore confidence in the organization and stop pushbacks at EU borders.
He also pledged to restructure the organization, which has been rocked in the past by allegations of involvement in human rights abuses.
But two months into his tenure, Mr. Lietjens said he “cannot confirm that illegal removals of migrants do not take place in the EU”.
“Of course, I can never prevent certain things from happening,” he said.
He added, “I can create conditions in which we can know something as soon as it happens and try to be there to prevent it from happening. We are trying to educate our people.”
Letiens confirmed that he had stayed in touch with NGOs that had previously denounced Frontex’s actions and tried to use his influence in talks with EU member states accused of allowing the expulsions.
When asked about the role of Russian President Vladimir Putin in destabilizing the borders of the European Union, Lytins said, “It is certainly within the rules of the game for them, and whether they use it or not, it is up to them. They have the capabilities to do so.”
And he added, “I cannot read the thoughts of Mr. Putin or anyone else, even if he will do so, but there is no doubt that the matter is within their rules of the game.”