BERLIN — Libya's coastal cities are making millions each year from people smuggling, a European Union military task force commander in the Mediterranean Sea says in a confidential report.
The report, issued to the EU's 28 member states Wednesday and obtained by The Associated Press, illustrates just how much the flow of migrants toward Europe is a central part of the economy in war-torn Libya.
In the report, Rear Adm. Enrico Credendino warned that "migrant smuggling, originating far beyond Libyan borders, remains a major source of income among locals in Libyan coastal cities generating estimated annual revenue of up to 275 to 325 million euros ($292 million to $346 million)."
The report provides no details on how the figure was calculated and EU officials didn't immediately respond to questions by email or phone Thursday. Tens of thousands of migrants leaving Libya in unseaworthy boats have been picked up in the Mediterranean this year, however, often telling aid workers of the hundreds or thousands of euros they had to pay smugglers in Libya.
The International Organization for Migration estimates that 4,690 people have lost their lives this year trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, and over 348,650 migrants and refugees have reached the continent.
The EU report assesses the work of Operation Sophia, a naval mission intended to stop the flow of migrants to Europe, between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31.
Credendino noted in the report that Islamic extremist groups are among those involved in the smuggling business, which sometimes begins far south in Africa's Sahel zone.
"Al-Qaida and AQIM (Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb), aligned with the Tuareg tribe in southwestern Libya, are assessed to be financially exploiting these smuggling routes," he said.
He added that there was no evidence that extremists were trying to enter Europe via the dangerous Central Mediterranean route that passes from Libya to Italy.
The mission has observed a change in tactics among some smugglers during the 10-month period covered by the report, Credendino said. Increasingly, they are towing rubber boats without engines out to sea, where the helpless migrants hope to be picked up by aid groups or merchant vessels.
He suggested that smugglers are also intentionally directing their boats toward aid vessels, which broadcast their location to nearby ships.
Credendino said he would be ready for the mission to operate in Libyan territorial waters "where we can make a more significant impact on the migrant smugglers and human traffickers' business model."
"However, it is clear that the legal and political pre-conditions have not been met," he added.
For the mission to be extended in that way, the task force would need to receive an invitation from the Libyan government and backing from the U.N. Security Council.
Operation Sophia has recently begun training dozens of Libyan coast guards in the hope that they will be able to stop smugglers closer to Libya's coast. Credendino said an effective Libyan coast guard would be able to save more lives.
"Putting an end to illegal activity could also allow more legitimate activities to take space," he said.
Libya's economy has suffered badly since the 2011 ouster and slaying of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi plunged the sprawling North African nation into chaos.
Today much of the country is controlled by a patchwork of armed groups, some of which are allied with a U.N.-backed government based in the capital, Tripoli, while others are allied with authorities based in the country's far east.
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