Last week 500 migrants landed in Greece on a rusty fishing vessel, revealing a new and until now rather discreet route: From eastern Libya to southern Italy.
A rusty, old fishing vessel crammed with nearly 500 people was towed to the Greek island of Crete after a distress call at sea last week (November 22).
Greek coast guards said they "temporarily transferred" the rescued people, including around 130 children under 18, via ferry.
The majority -- around 350 -- of the people rescued were Syrian, according to the Greek press. Other nationalities included Egyptians, Pakistanis, Palestinians and Sudanese, a coast guard spokesperson told AFP.
The large number of people aboard the fishing boat complicated the rescue. Multiple ships were required to transfer all the passengers to safety. The boat was then towed to Greece.
The type of boat, its location, and the large number of Syrians aboard are unusual for a rescue in the Mediterranean. Together, these factors revealed a route that has, until now, flown largely under the radar: From eastern Libya to southern Italy.
'Less risky to travel by sea than cross Libya'
According to multiple sources contacted by InfoMigrants, the boat left from eastern Libya, likely heading to Italy. At some point along the journey, the boat deviated from its trajectory to arrive in Greece.
Eastern Libya is considerably further from Italy than western Libya, where most migrants cross from -- the distance between the eastern coastal Libyan town of Tobruk and the western coastal capital of Tripoli is 1,200 kilometers.
Tripoli is located directly below Sicily, so departing from eastern Libya makes the trip "considerably longer," adding multiple days to the journey, according to Federico Soda, mission chief of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Libya.
Despite that, more and more are opting for the route.
"It's not unusual for boats to take that route. Departures from eastern Libya are increasing since the beginning of the summer," Soda said.
He added that most of the people who take the route are Egyptian or Bangladeshi and arrive from neighboring Egypt.
"It’s less risky for them to travel by sea quickly after arriving in the country, without going all the way out west," he said.
Crossing such a large section of Libya rife with chaos exposes migrants to arrest, violence or even imprisonment.
No interceptions at sea
Other factors could explain the new route. In eastern Libya, interceptions at sea are rare. Since 2017, most of the 100,000 migrants intercepted and sent back by Libyan coast guards were traveling in the West. In 2017, Libya and Italy signed a deal against illegal crossings, but the Libyan government of Tripoli does not control eastern Libya.
"The East is way less developed on these issues," a source on the ground who prefers to remain anonymous told InfoMigrants. "Nobody organizes search and rescue operations in this area. Migrants sail calmly in the middle of the night and do not come back."
Additionally, boats leaving from the East rarely find themselves in distress, the source said. They are larger and better designed for multiple-day journeys at sea, contrary to the smaller, makeshift boats that depart from the West. Without needing to issue distress calls, they can fly under the radar and arrive in Italy without assistance.
In September, InfoMigrants met multiple Egyptians in Calabria who departed from Tobruk and arrived in Italian waters after five days of sea travel without needing rescuing.
Double the price
These journeys cost more, around twice the price of the ones leaving from the West; the safer the journey, the more successful -- and expensive -- it is.
On the Crete fishing boat, most of the travelers paying the higher cost were Syrian.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are around 16,000 Syrian refugees and asylum seekers in the country. According to the Libyan Observatory for Human Rights, around 300 are being held in detention centers in western Libya.
These populations go to Libya for multiple reasons, according to Caroline Gluck, spokesperson of UNHCR in Libya.
"Job opportunities, the presence of other community members there or the fact that migrants do not live in camps [editor’s note: by comparison, in Jordan, authorities put up migrant camps, and in Lebanon, camps are informal but numerous]. But of course, once in Libya, considering its geographical position, some Syrians are tempted to cross to Europe."