LONDON — The chaotic fallout of the “Arab Spring” is fuelling a surge in the smuggling of drugs, weapons and people across the Mediterranean, and cash-strapped regional powers are struggling to respond.
Last month, European leaders in Brussels turned down calls from southern European states already hard hit by the euro-zone crisis for additional support to tackle record numbers of migrants attempting to cross to the continent in frequently perilous journeys arranged by people smugglers.
More than 32,000 migrants from Africa and the Middle East have arrived in Italy and Malta so far this year, the United Nations says. More than 550 died in October alone, as autumn storms made a difficult crossing in small, poorly maintained boats even more dangerous.
At the same time, Syria’s civil war and chaos in Libya are producing massive arms smuggling, while drug runners use similar routes to ship North African hashish and Latin American cocaine.
“You have a perfect storm of money, conflict, instability and illicit supply and demand,” says Masood Karimipour, United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) representative for North Africa and the Middle East. “The migrant issue is the one that is grabbing the headlines, but it’s only a symptom of a much wider regional problem.”
Foreign powers are facing increasing calls to step in, just as the international community was forced to send warships to the Indian Ocean for counter-piracy patrols.
Italy and Malta, the two European countries closest to Libya, have borne the brunt of the migrant crisis and say other European countries should provide much more assistance, perhaps through the European border agency Frontex. The need, they say, is urgent.
After more than 400 migrants died in two separate sinkings south of the island of Lampedusa last month, Italy said it was deploying additional patrol craft, aircraft and drones to track and if necessary rescue approaching migrants.
US forces have responded to several calls for help. In October the US Navy said its assault ship USS San Antonio rescued 121 migrants near Malta after a request from the Maltese government, while the destroyer USS Gravely assisted another migrant vessel in trouble between Greek and Italian waters.
Such arrangements, however, remain almost entirely ad hoc. International cooperation remains limited, and even within countries, the issues of drugs, migrants, arms and counter-terrorism are often handled separately.
“In theory, everyone is in favor of information sharing, but in reality it is not always that easy,” said one Western official on condition of anonymity, contrasting it with the more tightly coordinated US-led efforts to stem smuggling in the Caribbean.
“The Mediterranean is a lot more complicated.” Small Boats, Secluded Inlets
While the migrant crisis is relatively well documented, reliable data on other smuggling and crime is patchy.
Those who watch the Syrian conflict closely, however — including the growing number of online videos showing weaponry — say smuggling from Libya to Syria has become perhaps the most significant source of rebel arms in the last year.
Heavy machine guns and Russian-built anti-tank aircraft rockets are seen particularly in demand.
“Libya is a largely open market; no arms export licensing, no real customs, coastline effectively out of what passes for government control,” says Hugh Griffiths, illicit trafficking researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “There are plenty of places along the coastline between Turkey and Lebanon where ships can be unloaded.”
SIPRI’s marine trafficking database also shows five major seizures of small Tanzania, Sierra Leone and Comoros-registered cargo ships by France, Spain and Italy in the last six months. Each carried an estimated 20-40 million euros worth of hashish. Such seizures, Griffiths said, were probably the tip of the iceberg.
With Bashar Al-Assad’s government preoccupied with its battle for survival, UN coordinator Karimipour said Syria itself had become a major corridor of drugs into the rest of the Middle East.— Reuters