Migrants rescued by the Libyan coast guard are returned to Tripoli on June 21. (Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images)

Migration patterns in the central Mediterranean have hit a chaotic point of flux, with fewer migrants successfully making it to Europe.

Until recently, the primary path taken by migrants to Europe looked something like this: Traffickers launched migrants from the Libyan coast. When the flimsy boats ran into trouble — and they inevitably did — the migrants were typically rescued by humanitarian groups or by European Union or Italian patrol boats. Then, with scant debate, they were taken to Italy. The route had plenty of dangers — the central Mediterranean has long been the deadliest area on the planet for migrants. And sometimes the journey was thwarted by Libya’s coast guard. But the vast majority who started from Libya made it to Europe. Between 2015 and 2017, according to United Nations data analyzed by The Washington Post, about 95 percent of migrants taking the so-called central Mediterranean route ended up on this continent’s shores.

Last month, however, the success rate was 45 percent — the lowest of any month in at least four years. A large proportion of migrants were intercepted and returned to North Africa. But deaths have spiked. According to the International Organization for Migration, 564 people died in June — or more than 7 percent of those who attempted the crossing. That is the highest percentage in any month since at least 2015. For the year, 3.4 percent have died attempting the journey, compared with 2.1 percent last year.

Some experts say migration to Europe is transforming at a pace unseen since early 2016, when the European Union struck a deal with Turkey with the hopes of closing off the flow of asylum seekers to Greece. So what’s behind the recent shifts?

It's become harder to evade the Libyan coast guard

Many migrants don’t make it to Europe because they don’t make it past the fleet of Libyan patrol vessels. The coast guard, rebuilt with E.U. and Italian funding, has become the most important player in the Mediterranean. Though the unit has been patrolling its coastal waters for more than a year and a half, data suggests it is becoming far more proficient at its job: intercepting migrants, placing them in detention on Libyan shores and keeping them from Europe.

In 2017, the Libyan coast guard managed to catch about 1 in 9 migrants attempting the journey. This year, it is intercepting almost 2 in 5. In June, it intercepted 47 percent.


The European strategy of using Libyan patrols as a first of defense is controversial. Migrants returned to Libya have faced brutal extortion and even torture. Humanitarian groups have accused the Libyans of behaving recklessly during rescues.

But the E.U. has doubled down. After a June migration summit, the bloc’s leaders said that they would “step up” their support of the Libyan coast guard and that other vessels in the Mediterranean should “not obstruct” its operations. The leaders also proposed the creation of remote processing centers, probably in Africa, where migrants could be screened for asylum eligibility.

Libya’s cooperation is a key reason migration to this continent has fallen so precipitously from its peak in 2015, a year when more than a million refugees and asylum seekers reached Europe by sea. So far this year, the number of sea arrivals is at 52,000.


A deflated rubber boat remains behind after the Libyan coast guard intercepted migrants in May. (Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images)
Italy has refused to be the default destination for rescued migrants

Despite Europe’s willingness to outsource patrols, Libya doesn’t meet international maritime standards for safe ports. And so other vessels — humanitarian, commercial or from the Italian coast guard — that pick up migrants in distress are obligated to take them elsewhere. Usually, that has been Italy. But since a populist government came to power two months ago, Italy has resisted.

Saying that his country would no longer support such a “huge weight” on its own, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini — leader of the far-right League party — announced in early June that he was closing ports to humanitarian rescue ships. He has temporarily held up European and Italian coast guard vessels, as well.

In several instances, Italy has forced ad hoc negotiations among European countries over where to send rescued migrants. Even when the negotiations end with a deal — in mid-July, a handful of countries divvied up 450 people rescued by a large fishing boat — human rights groups say the E.U. is endangering injured or weak migrants, keeping them adrift amid political standoffs.

“We have to get rid of the uncertainty and chaos around disembarkation,” said Judith Sunderland, associate director for the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch.

Salvini recently suggested that Libya should be recategorized as a safe port — a change that would, in theory, allow European boats to return migrants to Libya. According to Italy’s ANSA news service, Salvini said there is “underlying hypocrisy” in Europe when “you give money to the Libyans, you supply motor launches and you train the coast guard but then you deem Libya not a safe port.”


Meanwhile, data suggests that a new pathway to Europe — in the western Mediterranean, not the central — is widening. It’s unclear if the shift is a direct response by traffickers or migrants to the chaos. But last month, Spain for the first time became the busiest European arrival spot for migrants coming by sea. And Morocco is coming to rival Libya as the busiest launching point for traffickers’ boats. For those who leave from Morocco, the odds of reaching Europe are higher. In the first 2½ weeks of July, some 3,600 migrants arrived in Spain, nearly triple the amount that arrived in Italy.

Fewer humanitarian rescue boats are patrolling

Experts caution that they aren’t certain why there have been a greater number of deaths. Death figures can be volatile and can change from month to month based on particularly large accidents. But there weren’t any mega-accidents in June.


One partial explanation could be that there are far fewer humanitarian rescue boats patrolling the area, after a spate of nongovernmental organizations stopped or paused their work, either for legal reasons or because of safety concerns after tense run-ins with Libyan patrollers. Only one NGO, Barcelona-based Proactiva Open Arms, has been operating in recent weeks. When Proactiva set off on its latest mission, Salvini said that the crew would only see Italy “in a postcard.”

Analysts add that Libya might not yet have the manpower to fully patrol its own waters, adding to the dangers.

“It’s not easy to say” why the death rate has increased, said Federico Fossi, with the U.N. refugee agency’s Rome office. “Now there are very few NGOs. That has a big impact. There is a limited capacity in the Mediterranean.”

He added, “It is a very rapidly changing environment. It’s quite chaotic. The Libyan coast guard is not yet ready to be the only actor that is out there.”


A migrant rescued from the Mediterranean Sea is led to a municipal sport center in Malaga, Spain, on July 18. (Jesus Merida/SOPA Images/LightRocket /Getty Images)