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29th Mar 2020

EU navies to help Libya coastguard stop migrants

  • Migrants rescued near Libyan waters cannot be turned back (Photo: Frontex)

EU navies are to start training the Libyan coastguard amid concern that the summer could see huge numbers of migrants try to cross the Mediterranean.

Foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday (23 May) agreed the new task for Sophia, the EU's anti migrant-smuggling naval operation.

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  • Mogherini said training will initially take part in international waters (Photo: eeas.europa.eu)

They said that, based on a request by Libya’s new PM, Faiez al-Sarraj, they would start “capacity building and training of, and information sharing with, the Libyan coastguard and navy”.

They said they would help stop arms smuggling to Islamic State in Libya by enforcing a UN arms embargo in international waters once they have a new UN mandate to do so.

The also extended the life of the Sophia operation by one year.

Speaking after the ministers’ meeting, EU top diplomat Federica Mogherini said the training would start “very quickly.”

She said plans are still to be elaborated, but added that, in the initial phase, the training would be conducted on the high seas rather than in Libyan maritime zones or on Libyan territory.

The British foreign minister, Philip Hammond, said: “The Libyan coastguard is the basis on which we have to build security in the coastal waters of Libya … We can provide training, we can provide equipment."

The move comes amid concern that migrants are switching to the Libyan route after the EU closed the Western Balkans migratory corridor via Greece.

Europol, the EU’s joint police agency, estimates that there are 800,000 people in Libya waiting to cross to the EU. They sail in rickety boats from more the 80 embarkation points on the Libyan coast.

Sarraj’s unity government has pledged to work with the EU. But it controls little territory outside the capital Tripoli, with the rest of the country in the hands of hundreds of local chiefs.

Sophia was designed to help stem irregular migration.

But it has turned into a search and rescue operation, plucking more than 13,000 people out of the water in the past year. The political chaos and violence in Libya means that, under international law, boats intercepted near Libyan waters cannot be turned back.

Nato allies last week also decided to step in.

"We agreed that the alliance can do more in the Mediterranean," Jens Stoltennberg, the Nato chief, said, referring to surveillance and interception of boats by Active Endeavour, a Nato counter-terrorism operation in the region created after 9/11.

He said the issue of what to do with migrants rescued in the area “is one of the important issues we have to look into”.

The US secretary of state, John Kerry, said: “Nato can play a maritime role in terms of assisting operation Sophia in order to prevent illegal migration ... from taking place”.

The Nato-EU cooperation would mirror Nato support for EU efforts in the Aegean.

Nato surveillance operations have helped the Greek and Turkish coastguards to intercept more than 100 smugglers' boats in recent months, Stoltenberg said.

Western powers are also working with Egypt to stop the movement of jihadist fighters and arms from Syria to Libya.

According to Luigi Binelli Mantelli, Italy’s military commander from 2013 to 2015, the recent sale by France to Egypt of two Mistral-class warships, originally due to go to Russia, was designed to “to improve the posture of its [Egypt's] forces from Tobruk [in eastern Libya] westward.”

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