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17th Oct 2019

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Libya keeps coast guards rejected by the EU

Libyans who were refused EU coast guard training are returning to work at the Libyan coast guard, for up to $150 per month, amid reports some are guilty of people-trafficking and belong to militias.

The European Union has so far trained 237 Libyan coast guard officers as part of efforts to stop people from reaching Italy by boat.

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Qassim Ayoub, spokesperson for Libya's coast guard, told EUobserver on Tuesday (19 September) that the EU has turned down some Schengen-visa requests and rejected other applicants for unknown reasons.

"People who are refused EU training return to work. We have received no proof, or documents, that they did something wrong," he said.

He noted that the highest monthly wage of a Libyan coast guard officer is $150.

He was unable to say how many had been denied EU training. The European Commission would not share the figure either "since this regards an ongoing military operation," it said.

The EU says it vets all candidates, turning away those who pose a security or other problems. It also says it is stepping up monitoring for human rights.

But militia and people smugglers are said to have infiltrated the Libyan coast guard, posing questions on whether those rejected by the EU vetting also ply the illegal trade.

The EU, last summer, earmarked €46m to help, among other things, equip the Libyan coast guard.

Trainees are first selected by Libyan authorities before going through a vetting process carried out in different phases. They are crossed-checked by the EU's naval operation, Sophia, by EU member states, and by international law enforcement agencies, such as Europol and Interpol.

The case of 'Bija'

The risk of inviting the wrong kind of person was recently highlighted when a Libyan coast guard commander in Zawiyah was put on an international sanctions list for smuggling and people-trafficking.

Abd al-Rahman Milad, more commonly known as 'Bija', would send his coast guard boats to sea, pick up migrants, and turn them over to the Nasr detention centre in Zawiyah.

The centre was run by a militia, with which Bija also allegedly collaborated to smuggle stolen fuel.

His links to the EU are not tangential.

In May 2017, he travelled to Rome to participate in an EU-funded workshop hosted by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). He stayed at the four-star Hotel Clodio, where he also met Italian officials, reported the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting.

Bija was not trained by the EU, and, according to Ayoub, he no longer works at the Libyan coast guard.

It is unclear if he had been vetted out or put forward as a candidate for the EU training programme.

Pressed why the EU does not share information with the Libyan coast guard on those who have been refused training, an EU commission official said it was Libya's responsibility as a sovereign state to vet its own people. Another EU source said some information was shared.

"They are not serious about this operation. I don't think their objective is to stop migration but rather to encourage it," Ayoub, the Libyan coast guard spokesman, said when asked if the EU's stated objective of destroying the smugglers' business model was producing results.

The Libyan coast guard has rescued over 13,000 people this year, a 194-percent increase compared to 2017.

Most are sent to detention centres, which are often run by militias.

Operation Sophia has also been seizing Chinese-made boats and outboard engines, which are being either sold online or shipped through Turkey or Malta's Freeport, partly owned by China Merchants Holdings.

Around 520 boats were intercepted as of the end of last year, pushing up the demand, with ads appearing throughout 2017 on Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba for "high-quality refugee boats", some of which ended up with people smugglers in the Mediterranean.

Life jackets were advertised as optional.

Libyan militia cash in on EU's anti-smuggling strategy

More people in Libya are being inducted into slavery as people-traffickers try to monetise their investment by selling them. A senior UN refugee agency official described it as an unintended side effect of the reduction of migrant boat departures.

EUobserved

EU Commission spins half-truth on 'unsafe' refugee boats

The European Commission claims sea crossings from Libya are more dangerous because smugglers are using less seaworthy boats. But it fails to explain why that is - an omission of their own policies of boat capture and seizure.

EU dismisses UN call to stop migrant returns to Libya

As the death toll of the Tajoura detention centre airstrike reached 53, including six children, the UN called for a halt to returning people to Libya. The EU - which is helping fund the Libyan coastguard - said no.

Opinion

Europe's refugee policy is test of its true 'way of life'

As ex-national leaders, we know it's not easy to withstand public pressures and put collective interests ahead of domestic concerns. But without strong institutional leadership, EU values themselves risk ringing hollow, not least to those seeking protection on Europe's shores.

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