It sank on Sunday morning. Packed with migrants fleeing the African continent, a ship capsized off the shores of Tripoli, killing hundreds. Estimates suggest as many as 900 people lost their lives over to the incident.
As high as that number may be, it only accounts for half of those killed trying to cross the Mediterranean so far this year. Before the weekend’s shipwreck, another 900 had already died since the beginning of 2015. That’s a sharp rise when looking at the first four months of 2014, when only 90 had perished making similar crossings.
The European Union has already taken criticism for its response to the weekend’s tragedy. On Wednesday, Amnesty International placed blame on the EU’s decision to cancel an Italian search and rescue operation known as Mare Nostrum. But major decisions made even earlier could have played the largest role in the sharp increase of migrant deaths. Namely, the power vacuum left by the ousting of Libya’s former leader, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.
Our Man in Tripoli
By the time of his death in 2011, Qaddafi had adopted a reputation as being – at best – an eccentric. Travelling with an all-female bodyguard squadron known as "The Revolutionary Nuns,"and sleeping in bulletproof tents, the leader occasionally made controversial comments. Mosquitos, for instance, were “God’s armies which will protect us against colonialists.” By all accounts, he became, in his later years, the Dennis Rodman of world leaders.
He had, however, established a relationship with Libya’s European neighbors across the Mediterranean. In 2004, Qaddafi began formalizing deals to help control the flow of migrants into Europe. Preying on European prejudices, he warned Italian President Silvio Berlusconi about a Europe which "might no longer be European, and even black, as there are millions who want to come in."
"What will be the reaction of the white and Christian Europeans faced with this influx of starving and ignorant Africans," he said, according to the Christian Science Monitor. "We don’t know if Europe will remain an advanced and united continent or if it will be destroyed, as happened with the barbarian invasions."
The appeal to European racism paid off. In exchange for 5 billion euros a year – later renegotiated to 50 million euros – Qaddafi agreed to essentially shut down the Libyan coast. Watchtowers were built along beaches, and internment camps were set up to house those caught mid-transit near the Italian coast.
It wasn’t pleasant, but illegal migration through Libya dropped by 75% in 2010.
A New Land of Missed Opportunity
One year later, Qaddafi was dead, dragged through the streets by "rebels" after being captured with the assistance of a NATO bombing campaign.
In the years since, the situation in Libya has grown worse instead of better. Lacking a centralized government, the country is torn between rival militias. Traveling is more dangerous than it has ever been.
But that lawlessness has once again made the nation a major thoroughfare for migrants seeking asylum in Europe, and many militias along the coast are looking the other way in exchange for money.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the ship that left Tripoli Saturday morning included individuals from Eritrea, Syria, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Ivory Coast, and Ethiopia.
"There have been no similar figures since the Second World War," Rosa Otero UNHCR spokeswoman told Sputnik, in reference to the increase in migrant traffic through Libya.
Europeans may have disliked Qaddafi, but he maintained some sense of stability. After he was overthrown with NATO's assistance, members of the alliance have only themselves to blame for the wave of immigrants headed to their shores.