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How will clashes in Libya affect refugees hoping to reach Europe?

It’s been three months since Abdi* went to Bani Walid, a town known to Libya‘s refugees and migrants as the “ghost city” due to the prevalence of smugglers known for torturing their human charges.

The teenager was released from a Tripoli detention centre during fighting last year and applied to be resettled through legal channels before eventually giving up.

Using a smuggled phone, he sent sporadic messages to say he was ok, ask about rescue ships in the Mediterranean, and sometimes to share bloody photos of others less lucky than himself, cowering after being tortured for not giving the smugglers the money they demanded.

Now that war has broken out in Tripoli, it’s unclear whether they’ll ever set sail.

For Abdi, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of safety concerns, crossing the Mediterranean seemed like the only way out of a cycle of exploitation and violence in Libya, where migrants and refugees were treated like goods to be bought and sold.

Since renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar, a strongman in Libya’s east, and his Libyan National Army advanced on Tripoli on April 4, migrants have again been treated as a bargaining chip between politicians.

Last week, Fayez al-Sarraj, prime minister of the UN-recognised government in Tripoli, said the international community needs to be “united and firm” in supporting him and warned that 800,000 people could cross the Mediterranean to Italy. 

“We are facing a war of aggression that will spread its cancer throughout the Mediterranean, Italy and Europe … There are not only the 800,000 migrants potentially ready to leave, there [are] would-be Libyans fleeing this war, and in the south of Libya the terrorists of the Islamic State that the Tripoli government with the support of the city of Misrata had expelled from the town of Sirte three years ago.”

But Matteo Villa, from the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, said Serraj’s estimates were inflated because he was trying to send a message to Italy.

“There are not even 800,000 migrants in Libya right now, at least it appears,” he told Al Jazeera. “The highest estimates are 660,000. These are desperate attempts to provoke fear and keep Italy attached to a government that feels it is losing its grip from the country.” 

On the contrary, Villa said, more instability usually led to fewer departures, not more.

“Why? Because departures are very organised in a mafia-like structure, so you have militias managing departures for migrants.”

Militias engaged in fighting meant that fewer boats carrying migrants take off, he said.

“This is bad for (the migrants and refugees) because they urgently need a safe way out.”

Some of the estimated 6,000 refugees and migrants locked up in Libyan detention centres run by the Department for Combatting Illegal Migration, several of which were on the front lines of fighting, said they had been called by smugglers promising to take them to Italy successfully. 

“It’s a good time for smugglers: it’s their season,” said an Eritrean refugee, who considered going back to sea before he was transferred to Niger by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.

The UNHCR expects to evacuate around 2,500 refugees this year – far fewer than the number they say are in need of protection.

“What about the Libyan coastguard? I don’t think it is possible (to reach Europe),” said a teenager currently in the Abu Salim detention centre, when asked whether he’d consider crossing the Mediterranean as clashes went on.

Under a two-year-old deal, the European Union is spending tens of millions of euros to support the Libyan coastguard, which said it intercepted around 15,000 migrants last year.

Back in detention in Libya, many refugees and migrants find themselves out of money, traumatised by years spent locked in with smugglers, who often raised the agreed prices and tortured them if they couldn’t pay.

In Qasr bin Ghashir, a detention centre that has been on the front line since fighting started, refugees said their biggest fear was being abducted by smugglers because they had no protection. 

“Above all smugglers are our threats. There is a slave trade in this country,” said a man from Eritrea. “They take us to their places and demand money. If you do not have the money, they beat you. They rape the females. In some places, males also.”

Craig Kenzie, a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) project coordinator for Tripoli, said he could not verify how many people were currently trying to cross the Mediterranean, but the country was seen as an escape route during previous outbreaks of fighting in Tripoli. 

“Seeking safety is not a crime, and we’re also particularly concerned for these people due to the lack of search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean. There’s a good chance that if people do cross and come into distress there’ll be no option to aid them.”

So far this year, 409 people have died or gone missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The number of people who reached Europe after departing Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria in the first three months of this year was less than 500, according to European border agency Frontex.

Already high, the risk of drowning can rise during the fighting. In September last year, when clashes broke out across the city, one in eight people who attempted to cross the Mediterranean died or went missing, according to the UNHCR.

Back in Tripoli, most refugees and migrants who spoke to Al Jazeera said they were just desperate to reach a safe destination.

“We don’t know where to go. We are almost without guards, (there are) only two, they will also leave us. The war is getting nearer,” said an Eritrean man who remains in Abu Salim where detainees say they haven’t slept in days because of the sounds of shelling and bombing nearby.

“I don’t know where we shall go, but we don’t have an option. If the UN can’t evacuate before the soldiers invade us, we will try to rescue ourselves.”

‘Impossible to forecast number that could leave Libya’

Meanwhile, search and rescue efforts in the Mediterranean have all but ground to a halt as NGOs face increasing pressure from European governments since Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s announcement, shortly after taking office last June, that rescued refugees would no longer be allowed to disembark in Italy.

The “closed-ports” policy has not been written into law and in practice, boats could still request to dock at an Italian port. While EU member states have passed the buck on NGO vessels which are sometimes stuck at sea for over two weeks, refugees and migrants have continued to arrive, albeit in small numbers.

Italian and Spanish coastguards have not been publicising information about such rescues when they take place in their territorial waters.

Haidi Sadik, a spokeswoman for Sea-Watch, a German NGO whose boat has been impounded since January, said search and rescue efforts were at an “all-time low in terms of both rescuing people and responding to the emergency at sea, but also rescue capacity.”

The Italian boat Mare Jonio and the German Alan Kurdi are the only two NGO boats in operation.

Last month, the EU suspended maritime rescue patrols as part of its Operation Sophia, which currently only provides aerial surveillance.

When we found a boat in distress, we witnessed the non-assistance of the EU,” said Sadik, whose organisation also has a reconnaissance plane.

We notified the relevant coordination authorities, and it took many hours before that was taken seriously. Commercial vessels were not deployed to the scene even though they were nearby. There is a real culture of looking the other way now in the Mediterranean,” Sadik told Al Jazeera.

The result is that it is increasingly difficult to piece together what is happening at sea. 

The Italian media reported on Tuesday that 100,000 refugees were “positioned along the coast” and “ready to leave” Libya.

Experts immediately countered this number was highly inflated.

It is impossible to forecast the number of people that could leave Libya,” wrote Flavio di Giacomo, a spokesman for the UN migration agency, the IOM, in a tweet. “The concern is for those who are in the country.”

Reported irregularities in the way the Libyan coastguard operates its search-and-rescue missions on behalf of the EU, as well as more recent reports that naval assets donated to Libya for that purpose are being diverted for military use, have increased concerns for the safety of those who make the journey – when and if the militias controlling the boats see the time is ripe, according to Villa.

If conditions were disastrous before, now they are desperate,” he told Al Jazeera.

Names marked with an asterisk* have been changed to protect interviewees’ identities.

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