December 9, 2017 / 4:31 PM / 3 months ago

Libya and Italy to set up operations room to tackle migrant smuggling

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya’s U.N.-backed government agreed with Italy on Saturday to establish a joint operations room for tackling migrant smugglers and traffickers as part of efforts to curb migrant flows toward Europe, according to a statement.

Migrants are seen on a boat as they are being rescued by Libyan coast guards at the coast of Tripoli in Libya, December 8, 2017. REUTERS/Hani Amara

Libya is the main gateway for migrants trying to cross to Europe by sea, though numbers have dropped sharply since July as Libyan factions and authorities have begun to block departures under Italian pressure. More than 600,000 have made the journey over the past four years.

The agreement to set up the operations room was announced after a meeting in Tripoli between the head of the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez Seraj, Libyan Interior Minister Aref Khodja, and his Italian counterpart Marco Minniti.

A statement from Seraj’s office said the center would consist of “representatives from the coastguard, the illegal migration department, the Libyan attorney general and the intelligence services, along with their Italian counterparts.”

No details were given on the location of the center and how it would operate. In the past, migrant smugglers have worked with impunity in western Libya, where the GNA has little authority over armed groups that have real power on the ground.

The Italian navy already has a presence in Tripoli port, providing “technical” assistance to Libya’s coastguard, according to Italian and Libyan officials.

The coastguard, which is receiving funding and training from the European Union, has become more assertive in recent months in intercepting migrants and bringing them back to Libya.

Activists have criticized the policy, since migrants often face extreme hardship and abuse in Libya, including forced labor. Migrants who are caught trying to cross to Italy are put in severely overcrowded detention centers authorized by the interior ministry.

The GNA has said it is investigating reports of migrants being auctioned as slaves in Libya, after CNN broadcast footage appearing to show such auctions.

According to Saturday’s statement, Seraj told Minniti that “despite the successes achieved in the migration file, the number of illegal immigrants outside shelters remains large and we need more cooperation, especially in securing the borders of southern Libya through which these migrants flow”.

Reporting by Ahmed Elumami; Editing by Aidan Lewis and Clelia Oziel

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