Routes and organisation of migrant smuggling
Several factors play a role in the dynamics of irregular migration patterns and migration controls. In 2009, increased surveillance by the Italian government through the adoption of agreements and strengthened cooperation with several North African countries, most notably Libya, were among the key factors which contributed to the drastic decrease in the number of irregular migrants landing on Italian coasts. From nearly 37,000 people arriving in 2008, strengthened border control measures, increased cooperation with southern Mediterranean countries intended to stop departures and facilitate return procedures and, most notably, the implementation of a push-back policy aimed at intercepting migrants’ boats on the high seas and returning them, collectively, to Libya led to a significant decrease in arrivals from 37,000 in 2008 to 9,600 migrants in 2009 and 4,400 in 2010 (Council of Europe 2013: 5).3 With the explosion of the so-called Arab Spring, however, and the revolutions which led to the dissolution of the long-standing regimes in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, thousands of people again started to flee from conflict and uncertainty about their future. In 2011, as a result of the tensions in the southern
Mediterranean countries, a total of 62,692 non-nationals managed to land on Italian shores mainly from Tunisia and Libya causing the so-called ‘North African Emergency’ which saw Italy confronted with large-scale arrivals (Council of Europe 2013: 6).4 In August 2011, following the end of the Gaddafi regime and the displacement of Libyan smugglers close to his apparatus, the migratory pressure along the central Mediterranean route dropped off greatly (Frontex 2013). A few months later, in Autumn 2011, the Tunisian route was also dismantled due to a lower demand for smuggling services coming from young Tunisians, the implementation of the strict repatriation policy between Italy and, most notably, the free movement agreement signed by Tunisia and Libya which facilitated migration of Tunisians to the neighbouring country (Del Grande 2013). However, although arrivals went down in 2012, they picked up again in 2013 and reached their highest peak in 2014.
Since 2011, unstable political conditions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have influenced the overall organisation of migrants smuggled by sea to Italy. This has resulted in an increased differentiation and diversification of migration routes, often due to the counter-effects of migratory policies implemented on both sides of the Mediterranean, with the usual routes often being replaced by longer, more dangerous and more expensive routes. Although Libya is not the only country of embarkation, it still plays a crucial role as the main country of departure. It is, however, just the last stop on a journey which is particularly hard and tortuous, can last several months and, most notably, includes the often traumatic experience of desert crossing. As stressed by a member of the Eritrean community living in Rome, when migrants arrive in Libya ‘it seems that the worst has already happened, you have already left so many people dead along the journey that the risk of dying on a boat looks like nothing’ (Del Grande 2013). The following paragraphs outline - on the basis of data collected during interviews with 30 migrants arrived by sea - the routes taken by migrants, mostly through sub-Saharan countries, to Italy.