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How North African nations are tackling the people smugglers as UK police join the battle

North Africa is the focus of a UK government crackdown on people-smuggling gangs in a bid to tackle the migrant crisis.

Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick is set to visit the region this week to discuss with international partners “the shared global challenge of organised immigration crime”.

But the battle to beat people-smugglers is not a new one for North African nations on the frontline of the migrant crisis. Here’s how Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya deal with migration now.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 25: Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick leaves 10 Downing Street after attending the weekly Cabinet meeting in London, United Kingdom on April 25, 2023. (Photo by Rasid Necati Aslim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick is to tour the region offering UK support to tackle the people smuggling gangs. (Photo: Rasid Necati Aslim/Anadolu Agency/Getty)


For many sub-Saharan Africans, who do not need a visa to travel to Tunisia, the North African country serves as a stepping stone to Europe.

Tunisia’s president Kais Saied has claimed irregular migration from other parts of Africa to his country, which struggles with economic instability, is part of an international conspiracy to change Tunisia’s demographic character.

His hardline approach to sub-Saharan Africans entering the country has seen a surge in the numbers of migrants trying to leave and cross from Tunisia to Italy. According to UN data, at least 12,000 migrants who have reached Italy so far in 2023 set sail from Tunisia compared with 1,300 in the same period of 2022.

FTDES, Tunisia’s social and economic rights forum, statistics reveal the nation’s coast guard prevented more than 14,000 refugees and migrants from setting off in boats during the first three months of this year compared with 2,900 during the same period last year.

Last month, Tunisia’s foreign minister Nabil Anmar met his Italian counterpart Antonio Tajani to discuss the growing problem. Co-operation agreements are already in place between the two nations but Italy pledged investment aid and help to secure an International Monetary Fund loan for Tunisia.

In return, Mr Anmar said: “Tunisia is willing to strengthen cooperation with all partners to combat human trafficking and to protect migrants.

“We are ready to do everything possible.”

Migrants are brought back into the port of Sfax onboard of a Tunisian coast guard ship after they were stopped at sea during their attempt to cross to Italy, Tunisia April 27, 2023. REUTERS/Jihed Abidellaoui
Migrants are brought back into the port of Sfax onboard a Tunisian coast guard ship after they were stopped at sea during their attempt to cross to Italy. (Photo: Jihed Abidellaoui/Reuters)


Algerian authorities dismantled an international network specialising in trafficking people through Algeria to Europe in March this year, according to local media.

In a five-month investigation, Algerian police uncovered a network transporting Syrian and Lebanese migrants to Benghazi airport in Libya, according to news website Ennaharonline.

They were then be taken by road to the Libyan town of Ghadames, across the border through the desert to Debdeb in Algeria and then to the city of Oran to be smuggled by sea to Europe.

Algerian Minister of Justice Abderrachid Tebbi announced in 2022 a government plan to strengthen penalties against illegal immigration network and offer psychological and social assistance to young people who are victims of these networks.

Armed forces and civilian authorities patrol the maritime borders.

The nation is considered a transit country for migrants from Africa heading to Europe. Over the past two years, increasing numbers of migrants have been making the sea crossing from coastal points in Algeria towards Spain, according to the Africa Organised Crime Index,

It said human-smuggling networks operate along Algeria’s southern borders with the migrant smuggling hub of Tamanrasset, an important transit site for migrants journeying towards Morocco and Libya, with migrants crossing from Mali and Niger.

More than 1,500 people died or went missing between 2018 and 2022 while trying to cross on boats from Algeria to Spain, according to the NGO Caminando Fronteras.

Migrants queue in front of a bus outside a deportation office in the Libyan capital Tripoli on May 7, 2023, before their deportation. (Photo by AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)
Migrants queue in front of a bus outside a deportation office in the Libyan capital Tripoli before their deportation. (Photo by AFP/Getty)


The Libyan Ministry of Defence announced last week it had carried out “precise and targeted air strikes” against smugglers’ hideouts in the western coastal region.

Local media said the sites were on the outskirts of coastal town Zawiya, the scene of clashes between armed groups engaged in human trafficking and fuel smuggling.

The strikes follow pressure from Abdel-Razzaq Al-Aradi, of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, for the government to stop acting as a “guard dog” for Europe with regard to migrants. He reportedly said delays in counting and regulating migrants and African workers in Libya may endanger national security and the livelihood, health, and security of Libyan citizens.

Libya has a Memorandum of Understanding on Migration with Italy in which it receives financial and technical support to intercept those trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

The EU also provides financial assistance to Libya in their “efforts to disrupt organised criminal networks involved in smuggling of migrants, human trafficking and terrorism.”

Figures reveal the battle for control is far from over. In 2022, 105,129 migrants reached Italy in total, up from 67,477 in 2021 and 34,154 in 2020.

The UN refugee agency said 51 per cent of those migrant sea crossings to Italy departed from Libya.

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