Reuters Knows Why: Med Migration Slowdown [Weekly Report Aug 24]



Reuters stole the show this week with a report on August 21 by Aidan Lewis explaining that a new armed group stopping human traffickers in Libya is responsible for the decrease in seaborne migration to Italy. The article came out, funnily enough, three days after the New York Times published an article identifying the drop in migration and claiming that “nobody knows why” -- clearly they were only referring to their own staff.

The Italians, no doubt a driving force behind these abrupt changes, have refrained from popping the champagne just yet. On August 15 the Interior Minister Marco Minniti, regarded as the man in charge of managing the migration crisis, spoke with measured optimism at the end of a press conference about “seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”

“Italy has approached the migrant problem with a dual track strategy, strengthening Libya's efforts to fight smuggling and at the same time putting pressure on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in rescue operations,” Minniti said according to Reuters.

Although Italy has been heavily criticized for taking action on migration by the UN and aid groups, Minniti said that aid would be distributed to migrant hubs in Libya like Sabratha and Zowarah. How and how much remains to be seen.

The pressure that forced various NGO ships to quit their search and rescue missions over the last two weeks has not relented. On August 17, the Libyan coast guard seized the NGO ship Golfo Azzuro for two hours in Libyan waters, ANSA reported.

Other NGO ships are still operating, though at a reduced capacity. MOAS's Phoenix brought 235 migrants to Italy on August 19 according to the Times of Malta, and the MSF ship Aquarius carried over 121 to Italy the same week. However, the number are very low compared with previous months and it is reported that the Libyan coast guard has been turning back hundreds of migrants to Libya. 

The big question mark, now that migration has been drastically reduced, is what will happen to the hundreds of thousands of migrants waiting in Libya if they can no longer go to Italy. Having already paid for the trip to Libya, most will probably not want to go back home.

Deportations do not seem like a feasible solution, although on August 18 Libya deported 135 Nigerians. Some of the migrants will certainly change routes, as was seen on August 17 when over 600 migrants were rescued off the coast of Spain. This year, Spain may see more migrant arrivals than Greece.

But nobody knows what the migrants stuck in Libya will do (least of all the NYT).

Meanwhile, Italy's neighbor Austria continues to show solidarity by sending 70 soldiers to block migrants at the Brenner Pass in northern Italy.

In other news, the anti-immigrant ship C-Star has gone home after running out of batteries for their megaphone. Their mission was a resounding success or a humiliating failure, depending on who you talk to.

That's all for this week -- I'm going to be taking a bicycle trip around Sicily in September to research the various migrant centers and informal settlements around the island, so I'm going to publish one more weekly report on August 31 and then stop for a few weeks in order to publish stories about my travels. Stay tuned!


The Tide Turns: Italy Brings Force to Bear in the Med [Weekly Report Aug 16]


[ This is the first of my weekly reports covering the migrant crisis in the central Mediterranean and international intervention in Libya. It is an exception in that it will cover the last two weeks in order to provide more background and establish the broader narrative. ]

The last months in the Mediterranean have been among the most dramatic since the migrant crisis started in 2014. Over a matter of weeks the seemingly unstoppable exodus from Libya has been reduced to less than half its volume. This article will chronicle events from August 2, 2017, when Italy ordered the NGOs picking up migrants off the coast of Libya to sign a code of conduct, to August 15, by which time most of the NGOs had ceased operations and Italian naval ships had entered Libyan waters.

When Italy proposed its NGO code of conduct on August 2, which NGOs argued threatened their neutrality and diminished the efficacy of their operations, only three of the eight operating in the Med signed it. These were Save the Children, MOAS and Proactiva Open Arms. The other five, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Sea-Watch, Sea-Eye, Jugend Rettet and SOS Mediterranee refused. If it was an attempt to call Italy’s bluff – understandable since Italy had been complaining about NGOs for years without doing anything – they miscalculated.

Italy moved quickly and on August 2 impounded the Iuventa, a small ship manned by the volunteers of the German NGO Jugend Rettet. The Iuventa had refused to sign the code and found itself boarded and sequestered by Italian authorities. An interesting article published by the Huffington Post (unfortunately only in Italian) explains the crew’s globalist ideology that involves social-engineering and the abolition of European nations’ ethnic identities.

The official motivations for the sequester vacillated between a regular search and suspicions of people smuggling, but the main objective was for the Italians to show they weren’t messing around. Their confidence renewed after squashing one of the smallest NGOs in the game, the Italians went after NGO Proactiva Open Arms, which runs the search-and-rescue ship Golfo Azzurro. On August 6, Italy denied the Golfo Azzurro entry to dock and disembark its migrants, forcing the ship to turn back to Malta where it was also denied entry. Three days of wild gesticulation followed until the Golfo Azzurro was allowed to dock in Sicily, but not without having spent some uncomfortable nights at sea and providing a useful reminder (of which there can never be too many) that Malta has been unwilling to take in any seaborne migrants during the crisis despite being a far closer “safe port” to Libya than any Italian one.

While it was harassing the NGOs, Italy simultaneously authorized a naval mission to Libya with the mission of assisting Libya’s array of coast guards/pirates in stopping migrants from setting out to sea. This caused a general hullabaloo about Libyan sovereignty and the danger of Italians re-colonizing the desert, and even attracted some impolite bomb threats from Libya’s de facto ruler of the eastern part of the country, Khalifa Haftar. But much to their credit, the Italians stuck it out and the ship remains docked at Tripoli.

Over the last few weeks the Libyan coast guard has stopped far more migrants than it used to. Over 800 were stopped and returned to Libya on August 6. The number of migrants making it into the arms of NGOs and Italian navy ships was in July was half the amount of the previous month, and so far August hasn’t seen much more than 2,000. In part, this is because the Libyans have been shooting in the air above the NGO ships straddling Libyan territorial waters, causing three of the larger NGOs – Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Save the Children and SeaEye – to call off their operations. Meanwhile, Italian prosecutors also said they were investigating MSF for picking up migrants near the Libyan coast when there was no immediate threat to their safety – an accusation that, if true, could carry charges of people smuggling.

“In general, we do not reject (NGO) presence, but we demand from them more cooperation with the state of Libya … they should show more respect to the Libyan sovereignty,” coastguard spokesman Ayoub Qassem told Reuters on Sunday, in a fit of nationalistic fervor.

Although I’ve not been able to find an actual Libyan saying it, on August 13 Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said Libya was ready to establish a search and rescue area beyond their national territorial waters. The sudden Libyan passion for delineating maritime boundaries is no doubt influenced by the Italians, who have decided to act decisively and, brushing the NGOs aside, needed assurance that the sea wouldn’t immediately fill up with migrants’ dead bodies.

And despite my sometimes flippant tone, there’s no denying that serious consideration must be given to the fate of the migrants who are turned back to Libya where, by all accounts, only suffering awaits them. There is a strong moral argument the countries that led the overthrow of Gaddafi through air raids and naval bombardment – mainly France, the UK and the US – must do something to stabilize Libya.

Of course, since the above countries washed their hands of Libya after launching their bombs in 2011, it is doubtful they will be of any help now. But their moral obligations must be pointed out anyway. In addition to my hollow rhetoric, Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said on August 8 that the UN had to get involved in Libya, which was about as resonant as a tree falling in the woods.

But things are changing fast and Italy’s die has been cast. Migrant arrivals are down, an Italian navy ship in Libya is making warlords’ trigger fingers itch, and NGO boats are being harassed and leaving the scene. The Italians are no doubt patting themselves on the back and enjoying this interlude in which migrants have stopped coming and Libyans haven’t started fighting. Is it the eye of the storm?

Italy’s distant hope is that with migrants unable to set sail, they won’t be drowning at sea and consequently fewer will travel to Libya in the first place, slowly defusing the situation.

But Libyan warlords are dependent on migrant smuggling and so far international players have done little to stop them. Nobody knows how to upset the balance without risking a full-scale war. Yet as more migrants remain in Libya and less income falls into the hands of smugglers and their patrons, it is possible that the economic readjustment will prompt someone to pull a trigger.

The claim that African migration to Europe is an unstoppable epochal phenomenon was bolstered on August 10 when a shocking video emerged of migrants landing on a beach in Spain like drunken Navy Seals. Spain saw four times its usual amount of migrant arrivals in July just as they diminished in Italy.

In lighter news, the C-Star, a boat run by young anti-immigrant Europeans with a vastly exaggerated sense of self-importance, has been having engine troubles off the coast of Libya. One of the NGO ships they despise offered to give them a hand but they declined, claiming that they had stopped in an optimal position from which to shout at migrants with their megaphone.

Until next week,



WRITE TO ME about any factual inaccuracies or gross generalizations/misrepresentations – I will correct them. As for my opinions, they are incorrigible.

On the Value of Bonga Fish

“If I catch the Bonga fish, I make money, you know, and my family can eat you know,” M. said smiling, two decayed teeth marring an otherwise perfect set. “But if I don’t catch the Bonga fish, then I have a problem you know, and my family cannot eat. It is a big problem.”

M. looked at me earnestly, and I nodded.

“That’s why I come here, you know, so my family can eat. I come because I want to hustle and make some money to send to my family, you know? So they can have food to eat, for my mother and my father, you know? So I need to find some work to hustle to make some money.”

He stopped talking and his face darkened in concern. His words sounded rehearsed, like they’d been drilled into his brain since he rode across the Sahara or sat wretchedly in a Libyan prison. He’d been on the road for three years, he told me, but Libya was the hardest part.

“Blacks cannot walk free in Libya. If they see you on the street they will take you.”

He said he was regularly beaten and jailed for a year until his captors realized he couldn’t pay ransom and let him go. He lifted up his pant legs to show me his bloodied shins, one from his Maghrebi captors and the other from gasoline burns suffered during the sea-crossing.

Now that he was in Italy though, he was staying with nice people, he said.

M. and I met in front of a supermarket in Palermo where newly arrived migrants hang out. Since he’d only been in town a few days, I offered to show him around the city, and we walked to the migrant-heavy neighborhood of Ballarò where I figured he might find some English speakers and fellow countrymen. M. commented on the richness of the street markets as we strolled past stalls of sparkling seafood and olives.

We sat down on some plastic chairs outside to share an ice tea, and I soon realized he was completely ignorant of the challenges that awaited him. He did not know what an asylum request was, nor of residency or work permits, nor of the long wait for documents. His English was passable but he didn’t speak any Italian, had only done four years of school, and didn’t know how to read or write. But he was happy to be here and eager to work.

My heart sank.

There wasn’t much work here, I told him, and in any case, they weren’t handing out work permits anymore. His best shot was to apply for asylum, but with his story he was unlikely to receive it. I advised him to make something up about persecution or violence and not to tell customs officers what he had told me: that Gambia was a very nice place with friendly people that I should visit if I got the chance.

This troubled him and he replied that he was thinking about going to Germany. So I told him that the borders in the north were blocked and that the Germans were looking for people like him and that even if he did manage to cross the border it would be difficult to find work. He nodded and thanked me for the information, but I wondered how much he believed me.

We kept chatting about his life in Gambia, about how he made a living catching Bonga fish with his father, and how when his father’s eyesight deteriorated he decided to come to Europe. He missed his family, he said. The last time he had spoken to them was before boarding the boat to Italy, and they did not know if he had survived. I asked him if he wanted to use my phone.

“Ok man, no problem,” he said, barely concealing his excitement.

I brought up Skype, found Gambia’s country code, and within seconds he was talking to his father in Mandinka, his native tongue. When he put down the phone he was beaming, obviously relieved. He smiled and thanked me profusely.

Before parting ways I took him to a Jesuit charity that offers language classes, second-hand clothes and medical check-ups hoping he might learn Italian, see a doctor about his legs and get out of his boat clothes. Then we walked back to the supermarket, I gave him my number, and I wished him luck.

M. struck me as a goodhearted guy and it hurt me that his future seemed so bleak. Sicily has a youth unemployment rate of 56%, Italy’s is around 35%. Migrants race to the bottom competing for illegal, low wage work. So what is a 20-year old, illiterate, uneducated, unskilled Gambian man going to find in Italy when Italians themselves are on the ropes? I suppose it doesn’t really matter so long as it’s worth more than a Bonga fish.

On Making Friends

After a few days in Palermo I’m able to shop on credit. I only go to the super market for brand items like Barilla because everything else I can buy on the street. Vendors, Sicilian men with faces like leather, sit beside their three-wheeled trucks displaying colorful arrays of fruits and vegetables. Five euros can get you enough produce to last a week. There’s also plenty of street food like arancine, balls of meat wrapped in rice and deep fried in a golden crust, or sfincione, a simple but delicious Palermitan bread and tomato specialty.

Seeing these guys many times a day I’ve developed a relationship impossible with cashiers in a supermarket. I’m friends with the fruit guy, the arancine guy, the fish guy, and the wine and olives guy. The advantage is that if I find myself short on cash I can bring the money next time, and maybe next time they’ll tell me to forget about it. If a pizza costs five euros and I only have four, then the price drops to four. I shop daily, picking up each meal as I feel, so I’m continuously opening and closing little debts up and down my street. The vendors are eager to over fill my bag and their approximate measuring techniques – one man still has a brass steelyard scale – always work in my favor. In exchange, I happily hand over coins that “I don’t need” or round up to the nearest euro.

Little touches like this, over time, turn mundane business transactions into personal affairs. It’s a little bit of theater that demonstrates reciprocal willingness to do a favor, to wink at the rules, to transcend from being buyers and sellers to being friends. As charming as this mentality is in the context of vegetable stands, it points to a darker side of Sicilian culture. The eagerness to make sacrifices and break rules for friends also means disregard towards strangers, civic duty, and impartial application of law. For all business in Sicily, whether public or private, it’s essential to have friends. Without them, expecting that basic services or business standards are met is a gamble.

A conversation I had with two men working in migrant reception centers illuminates the concept:

Adam was criticizing Bob* for allowing himself to be exploited by his employers. Adam said that Bob, at his boss’ request, took on responsibilities far beyond his job description and ran big legal risks. If people like Bob wouldn’t accept such demands from their bosses then the country wouldn’t be as corrupt, Adam said.

For example, at the migrant center Bob is responsible for the safety of the minors. If one of them wants to leave and go into town, Bob needs to alert his boss and get the request approved. But Bob says that there are so many requests, and such poor organization, that it’s implicit that the rules needn’t be followed. So Bob just lets the minors out. The boss is happy because he neither gets bothered with requests nor takes responsibility if something happens. Bob is happy too because he still has a job and even gets paid on time – a rarity for social workers in Sicily.

But Adam points out that if one of those minors gets hurt or in trouble, Bob is the one who will face the music. The boss can claim he didn’t know what was happening, that Bob never informed him of anything, and so Bob would be the one facing court and maybe jail. By contrast, Adam refuses to break the rules and put himself at risk and consequently has a much harder time holding on to jobs. Bob makes friends, Adam doesn’t.

The Sicilian modus operandi is personal. If you have friends the rules don’t apply, if you don’t have friends you can’t apply the rules. Regarding the migrant centers, many people have told me that without political connections it’s impossible to open a successful center. To cut costs at one migrant center, the director had his friend at a hospital prepare meals for the migrants using hospital food and deliver them by ambulance. All, of course, at the public’s expense.

The stories are so outrageous that people can’t help but laugh when they tell them. In fact, there’s often an undercurrent of admiration and envy when Sicilians tell of those who cheat, scam, or steal to game the system. There’s a sense of silent respect for those cunning enough to succeed. Of course, many Sicilians are nauseated by this attitude, but they are typically found in Germany, the UK or the US. A few proud, brave, young Sicilians have decided to remain in Sicily as an act of defiance. These people – and I’ve only met a few – look very tired.

*Not their real names

Seaborne Migrant Arrivals to Italy Set Records — 60,200 in May

Source: Italian Ministry of Interior

Seaborne migrant arrivals to Italy have reached 60,200 in 2017 as of May 31, according to the Italian Ministry of Interior. Arrivals in 2017 have been consistently higher than in the previous year and are on track to set an annual record, topping the 181,436 that arrived in 2016. 

Arrivals rose by 26% year-on-year in May 2017 to 23,010. Except for January, each month in 2017 has seen more arrivals than the corresponding month in 2016. Higher numbers are expected in the summer months as migrants take advantage of the the better weather.

The largest number of migrants come from Nigeria (8,048), Bangladesh (6,352), Guinea (5,423), Ivory Coast (5,142), Gambia (3,654), Senegal (3,555), Morocco (3,241), Mali (2,710), Sudan (1,840), and Pakistan (1,786).

Picked up in the Mediterranean and brought to ports along Italy’s southern coasts, usually in Sicily, most migrants are then distributed among reception facilities across the country.

Lombardy, one of Italy’s northernmost and economically prosperous regions, hosts the country’s highest percentage of migrants — 13% of the total.


by SW


First Migrants Arrive in Palermo Since G7

May 29, 2017

PALERMO — Offshore supply ship Vos Thalassa brought 1,042 migrants and seven cadavers to the port of Palermo, Italy around 13:30 yesterday, May 28. The migrants were the first to arrive in Sicily since the island’s ports were closed in occasion of the G7 summit in Taormina. 

According to local newspaper La Sicilia, the ship was conducting security operations for an oil rig 40 miles off the Libyan coast when it ran into the first migrant boat. Soon after, Vos Thalassa was asked to stay in the area by the coast guard to assist other nearby migrants.

By the time I reached the port around 10:00 on Monday, May 29, there were still around 350 migrants waiting to be brought to an immigration center nearby. They were still at the port because the immigration center, where they would be properly identified and then directed to a reception facility, was at capacity.

The migrants waited around two large tents; some were sitting outside in the sun while others lay down inside on pieces of cardboard. The tents smelled strongly of urine.

All of the migrants I could see were men, most of them in their twenties or thirties and the vast majority seemed to be from sub-Saharan Africans. There was a fair number of what appeared to be Bangladeshis, and a few North African fellows. Most were silent, while a few talked in small groups. They looked exhausted but healthy, thin and muscular and upright. A medical volunteer told me that there had been fewer illnesses than expected.

Watching them were about twenty Italian police officers, a few medical and emergency personnel, and staff from the IOM, Save the Children and the UNHCR. Two buses sat idling in front of the crowd.

When I arrived there was a discussion between the policeman in charge and some of the NGO staff about which migrants were minors. From what I could understand, 62 of the migrants had claimed to be minors but only 49 were actually. Many migrants lie about their age, they said, with minors claiming that they are adults and vice versa.

Nine people were identified as minors, taken out of the crowd and loaded onto a bus, waving to their friends as they left. The discussion between the policeman and the NGO staff continued as they puzzled over 11 minors present on the list but missing among the crowd. I wonder how accurately minors can be identified without proper documents.

By law, minors who reach Italy cannot be deported and immediately become the charge of the municipality in which they arrive.

Around 1,500 migrants also arrived in Naples on the same day as these, Sunday, May 28, aboard the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) ship Vos Prudence, according to the AP.

by SW

Prince Charles Tours Earthquake-Damaged Town in Central Italy

April 3, 2017



Prince Charles shakes hands with Sergio Pirozzi, mayor of Amatrice

Prince Charles visited the central Italian town of Amatrice today to inspect reconstruction efforts and the damage caused by a major earthquake last year. The Prince of Wales met with the town mayor Sergio Pirozzi and toured a part of the red zone – the town center now largely reduced to rubble.

“It’s an important visit for us,” Sergio Pirozzi, Mayor of Amatrice, said. “We found out he was coming two weeks ago. So far everything has gone smoothly.”

Charles placed flowers at a memorial commemorating the nearly 300 people killed during the August 2016 earthquake and toured the emergency homes built for those whose houses were destroyed.

Of the 457 homes ordered for Amatrice, only 25 have been completed. These were consigned to residents on March 15, 2017, eight months after the first earthquake. 62 more are expected to be completed in the coming weeks, Civil Protection Officer Francesca Maffini said.

Italian soldiers build emergency homes for Amatrice residents

Charles also visited Amatrice’s new school and Save the Children daycare center, as well as the construction site of what is to be the town’s new commercial zone.

“It’s a very important emotional contribution,” school president Maria Rita Pitoni said, “The children prepared drawings of the Prince and the Duchess Camilla.”

A drawing for Prince Charles from one of Amatrice’s students

“He asked us if we had a good English teacher,” Pitoni said, “and then joked that he needed a good Italian teacher himself.”

The new school was one of the first emergency structures built, inaugurated on September 13, 2016 only a few weeks after the first earthquake struck in August.

Charles’ last stop on the tour was the construction site of the planned commercial zone, where a food tasting was prepared for him by local producers.

Prince Charles jokes with reporters while visiting Amatrice’s school

After the Amatrice disaster, Queen Elizabeth made a personal donation to help re-house the homeless and restore damaged churches, according to AFP.

Amatrice is one of many towns in central Italy left in ruins after a magnitude 6.1 earthquake struck on August 24 and another 6.6 magnitude earthquake struck on October 30, 2016.

On Saturday April 1, protesters gathered in the region and in front of parliament in Rome to demand that the government speed up the construction of new quake-proof houses and help local farmers and businesses get back on their feet, AFP reported.

OMC 2017: Zohr Exports Depend on Regional Cooperation


March 31, 2017
by SW

Egyptian Minister of Petroleum Tarek El Molla (left) and Cypriot Minister of Energy Yiorgos Lakkotrypis (right) at the OMC 2017 in Ravenna, Italy

Future exports of natural gas from the Egyptian-owned Zohr field in the eastern Mediterranean will depend on regional cooperation and a stronger market, Egypt’s Minister of Petroleum said at the Offshore Mediterranean Conference (OMC) in Ravenna, Italy on March 29, 2017.

Most of the field’s capacity will be consumed domestically with the aim of achieving energy self-sufficiency in the country by 2018, Egyptian Minister of Petroleum Tarek El Molla said at an OMC panel discussion, but the possibility of exports will depend on an improved natural gas market and the cooperation between regional countries.

“It’s going to be a peacemaker,” El Molla said, speaking of the Zohr field, “[Oil production companies] need countries in agreement, complementing each other and not competing with different projects.”

The Zohr field, discovered in 2015 off the northern coast of Egypt by Italian energy company Eni, is the largest natural gas deposit yet discovered in the Mediterranean. Containing approximately the equivalent of 5.5 billion barrels of oil, it is the most recent discovery in a cluster of fields found in Israeli, Lebanese and Cypriot waters since 2009. The field almost doubles Egypt’s gas reserves.

The discovery of the Zohr field was a boon to the Sisi government in Egypt which had been reliant on fossil fuel imports and had been seeking reliable energy sources to stay civil unrest. However, the field also attracted interest as a new source of energy exports for Europe.

It’s important for the EU not only to have a diversification of supply sources but also of routes,” Cyprus’ Minister of Energy Yiorgos Lakkotrypis said during the discussion.

In 2014, Europe relied on Russia for 37.5% of it’s natural gas imports, according to Eurostat.

“The EU has a big role to play in the Med. It’s not easy but we have no other option,” Lakkotrypis said.

However, the feasibility of exports from the Zohr field to Europe is hampered by growing Egyptian and regional demand, low gas prices, global oversupply, and regional territorial disputes.

The global gas market might not improve until 2025, discussion panel host and chairman of Centrex Italia Massimo Nicolazzi said, making the construction of costly export infrastructure risky.

The exploitation of existing infrastructure is the most cost-effective way to export the gas, El Molla said, specifically referring to two unused liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals on Egypt’s coast.

“Regime change led to the LNG facilities going idle,” El Molla said. “They were built with expansion in mind, however, and adding two trains and expanding them is cheaper than building a new LNG facility in a neighboring country.”

The other main option — a pipeline from the Zohr field to Turkey — would likely have to unite nearby Lebanese, Israeli and Cypriot fields and traverse Cypriot and Turkish waters. Given the political volatility of the region and Cyprus’ ongoing dispute with Turkey, a pipeline seems unlikely to be built soon.

“We will go nowhere without cooperation,” said Lakkotrypis, “I wish the Med were more like the North Sea.”