A gun-toting group of civilians, policemen and soldiers in Libya has been preventing migrants from embarking across the Mediterranean to Italy, Reuters reports. It is believed to have caused the sudden fall in departures from Libya in July.
Libyan smugglers tend to send more boats in during peak months of July and August due to good sea conditions. But migrant arrivals to Italy from North Africa, which has been the main route to Europe this year, have sharply reduced by more than 50% last month compared to July 2016.
The drop has been caused by a new armed group in the city of Sabratha, according to Reuters. The group, reportedly made up of "civilians, policemen, [and] army figures" is believed to be policing the city, which is 45 miles west of Tripoli, and has been accused of running a detention center for migrants taken or turned back by smugglers.
Migrants rescued on Saturday confirmed that the situation in Sabratha has changed. "They said that it was very difficult to depart from Sabratha. There are people stopping the boats before they set out, and if they get out to sea they're immediately sent back," Flavio Di Giacomo, an IOM spokesman in Rome, told the news organization.
Reuters reports that the group might be seeking financial support from the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, whom European countries have been trying to partner with in an attempt to curb migrant arrivals.
The fall in numbers comes after a series of attempts by Italy— which has become the main route for arrivals this year— to discourage a number of NGOs from running migrant rescue missions off the Libyan coast and cooperate with the Libyan coast guard.