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‘The Libyan Coastguard’s interceptions of refugees couldn’t happen without Europe’s planes’

Sea Watch’s head of airborne operations TAMINO BOHM tells The Civil Fleet about Frontex’s role in forcing refugees back to hell.

THE Moonbird took off from the airport on the Italian island of Lampedusa on June 25 looking for stranded refugees in the central Mediterranean.

“We were on two missions that day because it was so busy at sea,” says Tamino Bohm, the head of German refugee-rescue organisation Sea Watch’s airborne operations.

“Originally, we were looking for a wooden boat in the Maltese search-and-rescue (SAR) zone,” the 28-year-old German says.

Sea Watch began saving lives in the central Mediterranean in 2015, on an old ship they had named after the charity, the Sea Watch.

At the time, the numbers of people trying to reach Europe across the world’s deadliest border had increased sharply from the previous year.

“In one remarkable operation in 2015 we rescued around 500 people from several rubber boats who told us that they had been at sea for three days,” he says.

“We’d been patrolling the same area for three days as well, and we didn’t detect them. Many of us started to think about what we could do to prevent this kind of situation in the future. And that was how we came up with the plan to operate an aircraft.”

Luckily around the same time a group of pilots in Switzerland decided they wanted to use their skills to help refugees crossing the Mediterranean. They formed the Humanitarian Pilots Initiative (HPI) and contacted Sea Watch – and the Moonbird project was born soon after.

“HPI takes care of the aircraft, its maintenance, pilot recruitment, training and briefing, while Sea Watch deals with sea-rescue activities,” Bohm explains.

“I’m in charge of the mission planning. So for example I look into the weather in the central Mediterranean and plan with the pilot where we’ll fly.

“I also liaise with all the all relevant authorities and other NGOs (non-government organisations) at sea, like Alarm Phone for example. I tell them when we’ll be operating, so if they have cases they need to check on, they can inform us of those.”

Alarm Phone, an activist network which runs a hotline for refugees in distress at sea, had provided Moonbird with the co-ordinates for the first boat that morning on June 25.

Luckily, by the time the plane had arrived on the scene, the NGO rescue ship Ocean Viking had already begun embarking the refugees.

On their second mission that day, the Moonbird observed the Ocean Viking picking up another boat.

“We did a few circles above,” Bohm says. “And while we were doing this, we overheard an Armed Forces Malta aircraft giving position instructions over the radio to the so-called Libyan Coastguard.

“So we decided to leave the scene with the Ocean Viking, because everything was organised there, and head for the position mentioned on the radio.”

Libya has been at war with itself since 2014. Despite the conflict, but also because of it, tens of thousands of migrants and refugees have found themselves in the North African country, some trapped there for months or even years in both formal and informal detention centres.

Describing conditions inside these centres in its 2019 report on the country, Amnesty International said: “Torture and other ill-treatment by militias, armed groups and security forces were widespread in prisons, detention centres and unofficial places of detention.

“Amnesty International documented cases in which detainees were subjected to mock executions, beatings and floggings, and prolonged solitary confinement. Detainees were also raped, including by having objects forcibly inserted into their anuses, and suffered other sexual violence.”

The war and warnings from human-rights and intergovernmental organisations have not stopped the European Union and several of its member states (Italy and Malta in particular) from supporting, training, funding and working with the Libyan Coastguard to return refugees there.

“When we arrived at the co-ordinates,” Bohm says, “we saw a Libyan boat approaching a rubber boat in a very dangerous manner.

“We also saw at least three people in the water, who possibly jumped from the Libyan boat or fell overboard due to the unplanned and unprofessional way the so-called Libyan Coastguard operates.”

Bohm always refers to the “so-called” Libyan Coastguard: “They don’t abide by the international law of the sea or by international human-rights conventions,” he says.

“So I can’t use the word ‘coastguard’ — an authority which is supposed to protect and rescue people in distress, not abduct them at sea and bring them back to a war-torn country where they face torture, rape, and slavery-like conditions — to describe them.”


Bohm tells me how the Moonbird radioed the Libyan boat three or four times, calling on them to save the people struggling in the water just a few a hundred metres from safety. But they didn’t, at least not before Moonbird had to return to the airfield in Lampedusa.

“We cannot be sure whether they drowned or whether the boat finally picked them up.

We found out later that a second rubber boat 12 miles to the east was also intercepted.

“Both of those boats were inside the Libyan SAR zone, just a few miles south of the boundary with Malta. Armed Forces Malta had a helicopter and a patrol aircraft on the scene too, which were co-ordinating the pullbacks with the so-called Libyan Coastguard.”

The terms pullback and pushback — legally known as refoulement — refer to the practice of returning asylum seekers to a country where they could face persecution.

Non-refoulement — ie not sending people back to a country at war — is a key principle of much international refugee law, most notably the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which all 27 EU member states are party.

A pushback is when, say, Malta orders one of its ships to send refugees back to Libya, as it did over Easter, while a pullback would be when the European Border and Coastguard Agency, Frontex, uses its planes to help the Libyan Coastguard intercept and stop people trying to escape the country, as it regularly does.

The Moonbird operation has three pillars: searching for people in distress at sea, co-ordinating rescues missions from the skies, and monitoring human-rights violations.

“We monitor the behaviour of the so-called Libyan Coastguard and non-assistance by merchant and state vessels, by Armed Forces Malta, the Guardia Costiera (Italy’s coastguard), or by other military ships.”

Earlier this week, the Moonbird documented a case in which an Italian coastguard vessel failed to rescue 50 to 60 people a mile away from them in a wooden boat in Malta’s SAR zone.

A Frontex plane

“We also monitor pushbacks and the co-ordination of push- and pullbacks by European Rescue Co-ordination Centres (RCC) and by European maritime patrol aircraft.

“Frontex’s planes play a critical role in all of this,” Bohm says.

“The Libyan authorities don’t have their own aircraft or radar equipment. They don’t use drones, and they also do not do active patrols.

“So they only go out to sea after receiving information, the vast majority of times from EU surveillance airplanes.

“The whole system of pushing and pulling people back to Libya only works because of the European contribution to these crimes.”

The Italian authorities last week seized the charity’s current ship, the Sea Watch 3, after its crew saved the lives of 211 people in June.

The inspectors said the ship had failed several important safety checks — the same excuse they used in May to keep hold of the NGO ships Alan Kurdi and Aita Mari for more than seven weeks.

The authorities made the Sea Watch 3 wait three days before they allowed the rescued to come ashore. But it took the inspectors around three minutes to issue a press release announcing the ship’s detention.

Tamino Bohm is Sea Watch’s head of airborne operations. For more on Sea Watch’s activities, follow them on Twitter via: @seawatch_intl.

Published by The Civil Fleet

A news blog and podcast focused on the activist-led refugee rescue and support missions across Fortress Europe

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