Vienna — European countries need to do more to stop illegal trade in Libya in fuel and inflatable boats which is helping human traffickers with deadly results, according to a senior United Nations refugee agency official.
Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean, said private boat operators with flags registered in Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) nations were illegally buying fuel from trafficking gangs.
He said other countries were failing to enforce a European Union ruling from last year to limit the sale of inflatable boats into Libya, with these "products of death" bought from China and exported through several OSCE nations.
Traffickers and smugglers have used overloaded, flimsy inflatable boats to ship refugees and migrants fleeing conflict in Africa and poverty in Asia across the Mediterranean from Libya to Europe with thousands dying on route.
Cochetel said it was "criminal" that this illegal trade had increased in the past two or three years and the 57 member states of the OSCE were not doing more to stop this.
"Private boats registered with OSCE countries are docking in Libya and buying illegal (fuel) from the same militias involved in the trafficking of human beings," Cochetel told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at an OSCE anti-trafficking event.
"Countries can follow the money and stop this but no one is doing enough."
Smuggling networks have flourished amid the political turmoil and armed conflict following Libya's 2011 uprising, with groups often profiting from multiple types of smuggling to Europe, from fuel and weapons to drugs and migrants.
Libya is the main departure point for migrants attempting to reach Europe by sea, with more than 600,000 migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Italy over four years and thousands dying.
The U.N.'s International Organization for Migration (IOM) this month said 559 people had died so far this year as 18,575 migrants entered Europe by sea, compared to more than 1,000 deaths at the same time last year among nearly 44,000 migrants.
Mark Micallef, a researcher from the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, said Europe could do more to stop illegal activity by combining efforts and intelligence.
"These syndicates have a finger in many different forms of smuggling and trafficking as for them it's one thing - money," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
"There is an organised crime problem in Libya - a weak state with weak law and order - and it makes no sense to compartmentalise these crimes and not address them together."
He said action so far - including Italian prosecutions and U.S. sanctions - had not created a sufficient disincentive.
Micallef said a European Union naval mission, Operation Sophia, deployed to combat smugglers in the Mediterranean should also be tasked to seize ships illegally smuggling oil products.
The calls come after Libya's National Oil Corporation this month said it was considering using a chemical marking system to help trace smuggled oil products as up to 40 percent of fuel refined in Libya or imported is stolen or smuggled.
Cochetel told the OSCE's 18th Alliance Against Trafficking in Persons conference that countries needed to stop playing politics and take action to stop the global trade in humans estimated to be worth $150 billion a year.
"You can freeze their assets," he said. "Only then will you stop the activities of human traffickers."
- Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith @BeeGoldsmith, Editing by Claire Cozens.