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24th Jan 2020

EU aid pushing Libyan refugees back to war-hit Libya

EU support to Libya has helped return at least 17 Libyans intercepted at sea back to their war-torn country since the start of the year, posing questions on the EU's stated claim of being a world-leader in providing asylum.

That new figure comes amid a recent spike in tensions in Libya, and a tentative bid to reach a truce between the warring factions, who are backed separately by France and Italy.

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On Tuesday (14 January), the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) announced just under 1,000 people had been intercepted off the coast in the past two weeks by the Libyan coast guard. All were taken to Libyan detention centres.

Among those around 17 were Libyans, according to an IOM spokesperson.

Earlier this week, the European Commission said it was in no position to comment when pressed about the fate of intercepted Libyan families at sea that are then returned to a country in the grips of a civil war.

"It is fundamentally a question of international law and additionally it is not something that the European Union has specific competence [on]," a commission spokesperson told reporters in Brussels on Monday.

It is unclear if the intercepted Libyans were seeking asylum or refuge. Around one million people have instead fled to Tunisia.

But while the commission maintains it has no competence when it comes to rescues at sea, the EU was itself instrumental in pressuring the Libyans to set up a vast search and rescue zone.

Between 2017 and 2018, it doled out over €90m in action plans that were in part baked up by the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. All four are known for their staunch anti-immigrant rhetoric. Hungary has described migration as a national security threat.

Around half of the €90m went to the Libyan Coast Guard. Along with financing from the Italians, the EU spent the remainder on areas like search and rescue, surveillance and border management.

The Libyans then extended their rescue zone to some 90 nautical miles off the coast and slapped an entry ban on NGO rescue vessels. In some areas, the zone extends even further.

In turn, surveillance planes operated by Frontex, the EU's border and coast guard agency, informs the Libyan Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, which is responsible for search and rescue operations in line with the international conventions. Frontex also sends the information to neighbouring coordination centres as well as to the EU's Operation Sophia.

'World protagonist of asylum'

With the massive search-and-rescue zone now under Libyan watch, in part bankrolled by the European Union, the commission and its agencies are able to cloak their roles behind international law.

That continues to cast a long shadow over an EU policy that seeks to prevent people from leaving the wrecked country in the first place.

It also stands in sharp relief to comments once made by former chief commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas who had described the EU as the "world protagonist of asylum." Now a European Commissioner, Schinas has taken the lead on new policies dealing with asylum and migration.

Meanwhile, the past week alone has seen an additional 1,100 people fleeing Libya by boat, according to the NGO Medicines Sans Frontier.

The NGO says Libyan families were among them. It also said around 600, including women and children of undisclosed nationalities, had been intercepted at sea and returned to the country.

In September 2018, the Aquarius ship rescue operated by SOS Mediterranee picked up 58 people. Most were said to be Libyans.

Another 32 Libyans were reportedly rescued in December by the Alan Kurdi charity boat. And last week, the German flagged rescue ship Sea Watch rescued 17 people, including a Libyan family.

This article was updated on 15 January 2020 at 17:50. The original article said the Aquarius ship rescued 58 people last September. In fact, it was in 2018.

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