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EU urged to continue support for Libyan Coastguard, leaked document shows

EUBAM Libya makes the call despite being fully aware of the systemic human rights abuses refugees face in the country

ONE OF the first things rescuers do when they reach an overcrowded, flimsy boat adrift in Mediterranean Sea is to provide those on it with life vests.

Not so for the Libyan Coastguards.

Anyone who watches French NGO Pilotes Volontaires’s footage of the Libyan Coastguard intercepting what looks to be around 60 to 70 people in a rubber boat on February 21 can tell that this is not what a rescue operation should look like.

The Libyan’s patrol vessel is right beside the refugees’ deflating rubber boat. Those at the back fall into the water and some disappear below the waves.

There don’t seem to be any life jackets, though a couple of the crew throw a few orange rubber rings into the water.

At one point the footage shows around 20 to 30 refugees on board the Libyan vessel as around the same number attempt to pull themselves on the ship as others flail in the water.

The last thing we see is a string of people across the water, either being pushed away from the Libyans patrol ship by the tide or perhaps making a desperate attempt to swim away from them.

As the NGO rescuers operating in the Mediterranean — which the EU has tended to ignore or try to prevent and criminalise their actions — keep pointing out, this is not how you carry out a rescue operation.

The Libyan Coastguards have been supported, supposedly trained and funded by the European Union since at least 2016.

But now, despite the Libyan Coastguards’ ever-growing list of misdeeds, the EU is being urged to continue supporting the force that has returned thousands of escapees to the country’s condemned migrant detention centres.

In a leaked document (dated February 19, 2020) posted online on March 2 by civil liberties monitoring group Statewatch, the European Union’s Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) in Libya acknowledges the systematic abuse faced by people trapped inside Libya’s migrant detention centres.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the document notes, “confirms that migrants and refugees continue to be systematically subject to arbitrary detention and torture in official and unofficial places of detention.

“Sexual violence, abduction for ransom, extortion, forced labour and unlawful killings are reported to be widespread,” it adds.

“According to the UN, perpetrators of violations include government officials, members of armed groups, smugglers, traffickers and members of criminal gangs.

“This situation applies not only to migrants detention centres but concerns as well ‘formal’ prisons under the [Ministry of Justice] and ‘informal’ prisons under militia control.

“Only one official detention centre, the Tariq al-Sikkah centre, employs female guards.”

EUBAM Libya points out that it’s not just the migrants and refugees in danger inside the country.

“Despite the October 23 [2020] Ceasefire Agreement, the security situation in Tripoli and beyond remains fragile… [Libya] will likely remain unstable in the midterm.”

The report warns of “increased clashes between militias,” “social unrest due to water and fuel shortage and frequent power cuts,” and that “the living conditions of the population are deteriorating” due to the civil war and the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Gross violations and abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law, including summary executions, enforced disappearances and torture, continue to be committed throughout Libya with almost total impunity.

“Attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure have been committed on a wide scale since the conflict broke-out, all in blatant violation of international humanitarian law.”

A Libyan Coastguard vessel harasses an Open Arms rescue boat in the Mediterranean earlier this year

In short, EUBAM Libya knows the country is very dangerous.

In fact, returning refugees back to a country where they could face persecution is a breach of international human rights and refugee laws.

In legal terms, this is known as refoulement, but it is more commonly referred to as push- or pullback, depending on who is organising the forced return.

In 2020, the leaked document says, “11,891 people were intercepted/rescued in different locations along the Libyan coast, compared to 9,225 rescued in total during 2019.”

The decrease in the number of departures from Libya since 2018, the EUBAM document says, “coincide with the retreat of coastal militias from smuggling and human trafficking, with many adopting a law-enforcement role, trying to consolidate positions and gain legitimacy at national level.”

But, it warns, “smuggling patterns have continued on the Western coast within smaller smuggling outfits operating under the loose cover of local governors and law enforcement.”

EUBAM Libya’s website describes itself as “a civilian mission under the [EU’s] Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP),” that supports “the Libyan authorities in improving and developing the security of the country’s borders.”

To be clear, supporting the Libyan Coastguard and the country’s border authorities isn’t the only thing EUBAM does.

The document appears to be mostly concerned with convincing the Common Security and Defence Policy that it should expand EUBAM’s role to include “[contributing] to the UN-led efforts for the peace process in the country.”

The mission calls on the Common Security and Defence Policy to extend its overall mission, and by extension the forced return of refugees by the Libyan Coastguards, for a further two years.

EUBAM Libya is not the only EU body working with the Libyan Coastguards. The European Border and Coastguard Authority (Frontex), the bloc’s anti-arms smuggling naval mission Operation Irini and the EU Emergency Trust Fund (EUTF) for Africa, and probably more work, train, fund, equip and supply them also.

“The EUTF for Africa projects also focus on improving border management and the fight against transnational trafficking and criminal networks,” the document notes.

“On the latter, the EU is strengthening the border management in Libya through ‘Support to Integrated border and migration management in Libya (SIBMMIL)… with a budget €46.3m (£39.9m) and an operational duration of Dec 2017-Dec 2023.

“SIBMMIL Phase II signed in December 2020 has increased the EU Funding to the programme by [an] additional €15m (£12.9m) with specific objective to supply three new [search-and-rescue] SAR vessels for [the Libyan Coastguards].”

Of course, as the Pilotes Volontaires footage shows, the Libyan Coastguards are in dire need of equipment and training. But, as the NGO refugee rescuers, the UN human rights agency (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) keep saying, no-one trying to escape Libya should be returned there.

Many of the returnees are sent back to the country’s official and unofficial detention centres and end up risking their lives in the Mediterranean again.

Training the Libyan Coastguards would perhaps not be so bad:

• if the people they intercepted were taken to a safe port, as the International Law of the Sea requires,

• if they were not the only other actors, aside from the NGOs, trying to prevent refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean — the EU pulled its ships from the area in 2019,

• if they didn’t harass NGO crews or fire their weapons while they were carrying out a rescue

• if European states would stop trying to prevent NGOs from saving lives or criminalise them for doing so — as Italy is attempting to do with Mediterranea and the Iuventa,

• and if Frontex’s reconnaissance planes would also work with NGO rescue ships rather than just the Libyans.

Alarm Phone is one of the most important NGOs working in the central Mediterranean in the absence of any state actors. It’s activist network not only runs a hotline for refugees in distress at sea and alerts the coastguards to them, but also speaks and advocates with the families of the missing and the drowned.

“Over 4,000 individuals have been forcibly returned to Libya just this year,” an Alarm Phone activist told The Civil Fleet today after reading the report.

“Their capture and return by the so-called Libyan Coastguards routinely implicated European aerial assets. Besides funding, equipping and training them, European authorities guide Libyan forces from the sky to migrant boats seeking to flee unimaginable horrors.

“Continuing to support the so-called Libyan coastguards under the veil of humanitarianism means supporting a regime of capture and torture.”

Iñigo Mijangos, chairman of the Basque refugee charity Humanitarian Maritime Rescue (SMH) told The Civil Fleet today that despite the EU’s progressive rhetoric, its only interest in Libya is making sure no-one reaches Europe.

Speaking to me from SMH’s rescue ship Aita Mari, which the Italian maritime authorities placed in quarantine after the crew saved 148 lives last month, Mijangos says: “It’s very hard to not finish reading this document without a feeling of deep sadness towards the cynicism of the European authorities.

“We here in Europe talk about democracy and human rights and values and these kinds of things. But the reality is that they’re supporting this policy in Libya.

“It’s been one of our demand for a long time for Europe to open up humanitarian corridors for people on the move to reach safety.

“There are not so many of them. The figures in the report say there are 44,000 people in the illegal detention camps.

“This is less than a football stadium in Europe. And it is not possible to offer them an opportunity with humanitarian corridors?”

You can read the full leaked document here:

Please also take a look at Statewatch and support their important work.

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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