De Standaard quoted their source as “Samir” who had been researching human trafficking in Libya for the past six years, on the orders of an EU member state.
Samir’s reports are said to be highly valued by the United Nations, according to the newspaper. His claim about the secret deal the Italians made in Libya, was confirmed by four well-informed sources.
“Two deputies of the Italian secret service travelled to Sabratha in Libya this spring to negotiate with human traffickers. They promised large amounts of cash and support in exchange for stopping migrants,” Samir claimed.
De Standaard believes that the deal with Brigade 48 – a gang, and widely known for mass rapes, murders and tortures – is the real reason for a spectacular reduction in the number of migrants in August, down by 82 percent.
August so far has seen around 2 936 crossings compared to 21 294 in August 2016, which is in fact an 86 percent drop. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) meanwhile announced that over the past 22 days, no lives had been lost at sea.
Italy has denied having made a deal. The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that recent measures at sea, like the NGO code and more efficient operations by the Libyan Coast Guard have caused the reduction.
De Standaard has dismissed the Italian explanations out of hand, stating that the reduction started before the measures were taken and that the Libyan Coast Guard was stopping less people than two months ago.
The paper instead cites migration expert Matteo Villa of the think tank Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI). “All local sources I have contacted confirm the smugglers have changed sides in return for Italian money. It is smart of the Italian government to widely communicate its measures at sea, while at the same time making a secret deal on land with the trafficking-mob.
“That is the only way to contain the violence. But the member states are impatient. The German, Austrian and Italian elections are coming up. They all want fast results. And if you lean on the Libyans too hard, they lapse into their old ways. They will use brutal force and victimise the migrants,” Villa said.
A security official has described to The Associated Press how Italian intelligence and smugglers met and struck a deal with no government representation involved.
According to Samir, the Italians paid €5 million to the traffickers, using the police headquarters and city hall of Sabratha as a front. Brigade 48 has put up its own headquarters there too, Samir says.
Samir’s sources said that the amount of €5 million was a deposit: “The Italians wanted to know whether or not the money would be well spent.”
De Standaard quoted Bashir Ibrahim speaking to the Associated Press and describing the current situation as a “truce”. Ibrahim added: “If the support for our civil guard stops, we won’t have the capacity to keep doing this work.”
De Standaard corroborated its story from a public facebook page where the traffickers describe how Italy had ordered them to raise a small army of 500 migrant hunters.
The AP has suggested that Bashir Ibrahim was linked to the powerful al-Dabashi family, so the deal may be kept in place over the summer, despite the volatile situation in Libya.
“The deals were struck with the two most powerful militias in the western Libyan city of Sabratha,” AP reported, which is the biggest launching point for African migrants heading for the EU. The militias, one known as “Al-Ammu” and the other as Brigade 48, are headed by two brothers from the area’s large al-Dabashi family.
The Italian gas company ENI, has been able to protect 400km of their pipeline from Libya through war zones. Villa claimed that ENI paid off militias.
A security official called the brothers the “kings of trafficking” in Sabratha. “In its latest report in June, the United Nations Panel of Experts on Libya identified al-Ammu as main facilitators of human trafficking,” AP noted.
UNHCR’s Sicily communications officer, Marco Rotunno, said that there were still hundreds of thousands of migrants in Libya waiting to get out.