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New York Times | 18.08.2017

By PATRICK KINGSLEY

LONDON — The main route to Europe is experiencing one of its longest lulls since the migration crisis began in 2014.

Just over 4,000 migrants have reached Italy from Libya since mid-July, about a fifth of the number during each of the equivalent periods of 2014, 2015 and 2016, according to the Italian Interior Ministry.

The lull provides rare respite for Italy, where migration — and the center-left government’s response to it — may prove to be a defining factor in a general election in the coming months.

After the European Union reached a deal with Turkey early in 2016 to try to stop migrants reaching the Greek islands in the Mediterranean, Italy once again became the main gateway to Europe — an unwanted title that it has held for most of the 21st century.

Over 600,000 people have reached Italy by boat since 2013, stretching national resources and bolstering support for nationalist groups in the country. Most of the migrants set off from the northern coast of Libya, where the absence of a single central government since the fall of the former dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi has allowed human traffickers to work with impunity.

But that flow stalled suddenly and unexpectedly several weeks ago. At the height of summer, when the weather is generally better, Libyan smugglers typically send waves of migrants to sea every week or so. But since 15 July, there have been no such spikes — and migration experts say they do not properly understand why.

“I’m still trying to explain it,” said Mark Micallef, senior research fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a research organization that documents human trafficking in Libya. “If you look at arrival statistics historically, they should be hitting a peak now in July and August,” he said. “But instead we’re seeing a dramatic drop.”

The dip follows prolonged attempts by Italy to improve the capability of the Libyan Coast Guard and to discourage several nongovernmental organizations from operating migrant rescue boats off the Libyan coast.

Over the past year, Italy and its allies in the European Union have trained over a hundred Libyan Coast Guard officials and supplied them with more boats and resources.

In recent days, the coast guard’s leadership threatened to attack boats operated by charities like Doctors Without Borders, prompting several of those groups to suspend rescue operations. Italy has also sent naval ships to assist the coast guard in Libyan waters and has made it harder for boats from nongovernmental organizations to operate freely in Italian waters.

There is some speculation that the drop in departures is a result of those measures, but specialists say the truth is more complicated. For instance, the lull began before the rescue boats were forced to suspend operations and before the arrival of the Italian naval ships.

The rate of interceptions of migrant boats by the Libyan Coast Guard has actually fallen since May — undermining suggestions that increased activity at sea by the service has caused the slowdown in departures.

“A lot has been said about the coast guards,” Mr. Micallef said. But, he continued, “from where I’m standing, something is happening onshore rather than offshore.”

everal analysts suggested that the main smuggling networks in Libyan coastal towns such as Sabratha, the main springboard for migrants heading to Italy, may have been persuaded or coerced into suspending their operations.

Mohamed al-Muntasser, a Libyan political analyst, said a new armed group in Sabratha — calling itself National Guard, Sabratha Branch, and with links to Libya’s internationally recognized government — had played a central role in persuading smugglers to stand down.

“Some of our forces and our officials have decided that they will tighten the screw a bit — either by doing their job or by telling their friends and relatives in the criminal fraternity that they should stop, at least for a little while,” Mr. Muntasser said.

One Sabratha-based smuggler, who goes by the name Mourad Zuwara, confirmed in a phone call that local forces had recently forced him to abandon operations in the town, but he did not elaborate.

Other partial explanations include a drop in migrant arrivals to Libya from Niger and a marginal increase in departures from Morocco, which some migrants use as part of an alternative route to Europe.

Whatever the cause, the drop in Libyan departures will probably hearten officials in Rome, who have been trying to find solutions to the migration crisis. But the change alarms rights activists, who fear for the welfare of the thousands of migrants now stuck in Libya, where they are often kept in conditions akin to slavery.

Analysts also cautioned that the lull was unlikely to be permanent, because Libya’s many competing militias and smugglers make so much money from the crossings that they will be unwilling to abandon the trade for long.

“My biggest question,” said Mattia Toaldo, a Libya researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, “is for how long is this going to last?”

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