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Merchant ship handed rescued refugees over to the Libyan Coastguard

Sea-Watch and Alarm Phone confirm the intercepted were forced back to Libya against their will

AROUND 180 people were forcibly returned to Libya, it was confirmed today, after the merchant ship that had saved their lives handed them over to the Libyan Coastguards.

There were roughly 470 people adrift on five boats yesterday, the activist-run distress hotline organisation Alarm Phone warned in the morning.

Alarm Phone had repeatedly provided the Libyan, Maltese and Italian authorities with the boats’ GPS positions, but, as has become normal practice in the world’s deadliest maritime border, none of them had launched their search-and-rescue boats.

One of those boats — which was originally estimated to be carrying 200 people but now seems to have been closer to 180 — had been at sea for three days.

Its engine was broke, Alarm Phone warned, and water was seeping in as it floated in international waters.

One organisation that did respond to the distress calls was the refugee rescue organisation Sea-Watch, which launched its reconnaissance plane, Seabird, to observe what was happening to the people on the boats.

When the crew of the Seabird found the boat carrying 180 people, they saw the Vos Triton supply ship just standing by, not assisting the people on the severely overcrowded boat.

“We observed multiple people jumping from the wooden boat in an attempt to reach safety aboard the Vos Triton, risking their lives by swimming for hundreds of metres in the open sea,” Sea-Watch spokesman Felix Weiss told The Civil Fleet today.

“After that, the Vos Triton finally complied with international regulations and rescued the wooden boat and took everyone onboard,” he said.

Once all the refugees were safely onboard the supply ship, the Seabird headed off to observe other distress cases.

Later that afternoon, however, the activists overheard the Vos Triton coordinating with the Libyan Coastguard over the radio and headed back to its position.

Video footage taken by the Seabird crew shows a Libyan Coastguard patrol vessel alongside the Vos Triton, as memebers of the crew appear to be holding the refugees in place.

“Due to lack of fuel we could not stay longer,” the Seabird’s summary of the distress case reads.

“We assumed they were refusing to be transhipped to [the Libyan Coastguards]. We tried to call Vos Triton twice again on [on the radio] without any response.”

Yesterday, it was unclear what had happened to the refugees. Today, however, Mr Weiss confirmed what the civilian-led rescuers feared.

“We contacted our sources last night, and they confirmed that the patrol boat had returned the people to Tripoli,” he told The Civil Fleet.

“They now will face violations of their human rights, as Libya is not a safe country.”

Alarm Phone also received word this morning that the refugees had been “transferred against their will to a Libyan vessel which abducted them back to Libya.

“This means that they were returned to conditions of detention, torture, and rape.”

The United Nation’s human rights agency (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration have repeatedly warned that people rescued in the Mediterranean should not be returned to Libya as they risk severe human rights abuses in the country’s migrant detention centres. Many refugees and migrants in the country have gone missing.

Handing people over to the Libyan Coastguard, civilian rescuers maintain, constitutes a breach of the human rights principle of non-refoulement — the legal term for what is more commonly known as pushback, the illegal practice of returning refugees back to a place where they could face persecution.

Vroon, the company that owns and operated the Vos Triton, has been approached for comment.

Top image show the Vos Triton with a Libyan Coastguard vessel pulled up alongside.

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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