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Witnessing the Libyan Coastguard harassing an NGO refugee rescue mission

EIKE tells The Civil Fleet what he saw from the reconnaissance aircraft Seabird in Malta’s SAR zone last Friday

IT WAS an eventful couple of days in the Mediterranean waters off Malta’s southern coast this weekend.

Over 140 people in two overcrowded rubber boats were saved by a coalition of civilian refugee rescue organisations within the island nation’s search-and-rescue (SAR) zone.

I initially set out to write up a short report on the weekend’s rescues. But after speaking on Sunday with Eike, an activist who witnessed the events from the skies, I realised the situation was much more complicated.

In this part one of two articles examining last weekend’s events, Eike will tell us what happened on Friday. We’ll look at Saturday in part two.

Eike is a tactical coordinator for the Seabird, a reconnaissance aircraft operated out of the Italian island of Lampedusa by German NGO Sea Watch.

On Friday, it’s crew spotted a boat carrying 40 people approximately 60 nautical miles to the south.

The refugee boat as seen from the Seabird [Pic: David Lohmueller / Sea Watch]

“It was deep inside Malta’s SAR zone,” says Seabird’s tactical coordinator Eike (pronounced how an American would say the sports brand “Nike” but drop the N).

“We contacted the closest merchant vessel to the boat, which was the Vos Triton,” he tells me.

“The contact was positive. The Vos Triton agreed to change course toward the distress case. But when we tried to contact them again, they wouldn’t answer the radio any more and headed back north, away from the distress case.”

We’ll discuss the Vos Triton more in part two tomorrow but, suffice it to say, on both a moral and legal basis the ship should not have abandoned its moral and international legal duty to help.

Eike tells me the Seabird managed to contact another merchant vessel, the Asalet. This ship was really cooperative, he says, and agreed to look out for the distress case but unfortunately couldn’t find the boat.

In the meantime Spanish NGO Open Arms‘s rescue ship ā€” also called the Open Arms ā€” was heading towards the boat’s coordinates. However, so was someone else.

“We were flying in the vicinity of the distress case, when we suddenly saw the so-called Libyan Coastguard arriving in their patrol vessel, Fezzan. It was speeding at full-steam, at about 30 knots, towards it,” Eike says.

Many of the activists involved in the civilian refugee rescue effort in the central Mediterranean refer to Libya’s coastguard as the “so-called Libyan Coastguard” (scLCG).

They say that the Libyan Coastguard does not abide by the international law of the sea nor by international human-rights conventions, and that it’s only purpose is to conduct what is referred to as “pullbacks” ā€” intercepting refugees and forcibly returning them to place they were trying to escape. In legal terms, this is called refoulement.

It is not just the dedicated activists who say the people escaping Libya should not be sent back there. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), an affiliate to the United Nations, repeatedly warns that the country is not safe for migrants and that no-one should be returned.

The Libyan Coastguard ā€” which is funded, trained, and supported by the European Union ā€” intercepted and returned 11,891 people last year and 1,956 people so far in 2021, according to the IOM’s latest estimates.

“We checked back on the distress case,” Eike continues, “and we realised that the scLCG had changed course and was heading directly toward the Open Arms’ Rhibs.”

Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boats (Rhibs) are smaller boats attached to a ship from which rescuers hand out life jackets, water, food, blankets, etc to the survivors before taking them to their larger ship.

The view form the Seabird of the Libyan Coastguard Patrol boat Fezzan using its wake to disrupt the Opean Arms’ Rhib [Pic: David Lohmueller / Sea Watch]

Albert Mayordomo, the SAR coordinator on board the Open Arms told The Civil Fleet today what happened next.

“One of our rescue boats was on its way to the target, when suddenly our teams sighted an scLCG patrol boat,” Mayordomo said in a voice message recorded from the Open Arms.

“It appeared to be the Fezzan, approaching at full speed. It then cut up our rescue boat, which is dangerous and illegal, forcing our rescue boat to stop.

“The Fezzan claimed that we were in Libyan waters. Our team made it clear that these are international waters, in Malta’s SAR zone. We told them that we were attending a distress call.

“The Fezzan then left in the opposite way. It turned around and sped towards our team and cut them up at full speed again, creating big waves and making our team’s progression rather unstable.

“The Seabird appeared then and flew over the Fezzan for a while.

“The Fezzan eventually disappeared from the scene only to harass our other rescue boat for a while. And then they disappeared. I think they went back to Tripoli.”

The Fezzan blast past an Open Arms Rhib at full speed [Pic: David Lohmueller / Sea Watch]

Eike says he’s really glad that the Seabird was on scene and to be another witness to what was happening. “You never know what can happen in such situations.”

Indeed, in October 2019 and again in April 2020, Libyan-flagged vessels fired bullets into the waters around the NGO ship Alan Kurdi as its crew was bringing refugees on board.

Fortunately, the Opens Arms’ crew eventually did manage to bring all 40 people onto its ship, despite whatever it was the Libyan Coastguard was trying to do.

“It happened last night,” Open Arms tweeted on Saturday morning above a picture of the survivors in life jackets on their crowded boat as a woman holds up a baby.

“Rafel and [her] three-month-old baby Moez, were rescued together with 38 more people in a flimsy boat on the high seas.

“It took many hours of search and encounters with a Libyan patrol boat but it was worth it. Every life counts.”

All of this, don’t forget, was taking place within Malta’s SAR zone. Its maritime authorities should have been in charge of coordinating the rescue, not activists. Its coastguard should have been out there, certainly not the Libyan Coastguard.

In response to the so-called “refugee crisis” in 2015, the European Union launched a naval mission, which eventually became known as Operation Sophia, to disrupt the human trafficking networks off the Libyan coast. It saved tens of thousands of lives.

In 2019, however, the EU pulled its ships from the central Mediterranean, pumped more money to the Libyan Coastguard and left only the European Border and Coastguard Agency’s (Frontex) planes to monitor migrant departures from Libya.

Refugee rights organisations in the central Mediterranean, as well as in the Aegean Sea, at the Greek-Turkish-Bulgarian borders and elsewhere have repeatedly accused Frontex of either aiding or carrying out refugee push- and pullbacks at Europe’s frontiers.

Frontex denies the allegations and told The Civil Fleet last week that its officers are bound by a code of conduct that “includes a paragraph specifically related to the prevention of refoulement and the upholding of human rights.”

The agency said that an internal inquiry into recent allegations “concluded that there was no evidence of a direct or indirect participation of Frontex staff or officers deployed in Frontex operations in alleged ‘pushbacks’ in the Aegean Sea.”

Eike tells me that Frontex’s Eagle 1 aircraft was also on the scene last Friday.

“We don’t know if there was any communication between the scLCG and the Eagle 1,” he says. “But what it really shows is that there is no hesitation to facilitate illegal pushbacks deep inside a European SAR.

“We out there for around seven hours. It was a crazy day.

“While we were heading back we heard that the Open Arms had reached the distress case. As you can imagine it was a real relief.”


Top image shows the Fezzan speeding towards one of the Open Arms’ Rhibs while it was heading towards the refugee boat’s position last Friday [Pic: David Lohmueller / Sea Watch]

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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