Libyan coastguard vessels intercepted Monday four inflatable smuggling boats carrying in total over 500 illegal migrants. The captured migrants, off coast of the North African country, were returned to their Libyan departure point.
In 2017, about 119,000 migrants and refugees arrived in Italy from across the Mediterranean while more than 3,100 died making the crossing, according to the International Organization for Migration.
However, the number of those making it to Italy has dropped sharply since last July after a major smuggling group in Sabratha halted departures before being defeated in clashes.
About 6,660 illegal migrants have crossed to Italy from Libya so far this year, more than 80 percent fewer than the same period in 2017, according to the Italian interior ministry.
The EU and Italy are also supporting Libya’s coastguard to intercept more migrants, but NGOs say the migrants are returned to Libya against their will and endure serious human rights violations, including torture, beatings, rape and starvation.
Last year, Italy’s center-left government sealed an agreement with Libyan authorities. Under the terms of the deal, Italy agreed to train, equip and finance the Libyan coastguard as part of its effort to turn back vessels and return migrants to Libya.
The deal, endorsed by European leaders, has led to lowering the number of migrants arriving on Italy’s southern coast.
Libya is a hotbed for human traffickers, whose networks thrived due to the chaos prevailing in the North African country since the fall of the regime of former ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
According to Amnesty International, hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants trapped in Libya are at the mercy of Libyan authorities, militias, armed groups and smugglers often working seamlessly together for financial gain.
Tens of thousands are held in overcrowded detention centers, suffering abuse, ill-treatment and even slavery.