Sunday

28th Feb 2021

EU financial support for Libya coastguard under scrutiny

  • Libyan detention centres now hold around 1,500 people - down from 5,000 last year (Photo: UNHCR.org)

A team of legal and academic experts are challenging the EU's financial support for the Libyan coast guard.

The group says it breaches the EU's own budget rules - given the human rights abuses in Libya - and have asked the EU's financial watchdog, the European Court of Auditors, to launch an investigation.

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NGOs and organisations such as the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) earlier this week filed a legal complaint to the court.

They want the court to initiate a special review of the EU's 'Integrated Border Management programme', run via the European Trust Fund for Africa which supports Libyan authorities.

Some €90m has been channeled through into the programme.

The Trust money is supposed to be for development but is being used for security and border control in Libya - which the organisations argue violates EU law.

Commission: Libya unsafe to disembark

The complaint follows comments by Martin Schieffer, a senior European Commission official, who said Libya cannot be considered a safe country to return migrants to.

"With regard to the situation as it currently stands in Libya, Libya cannot be considered as a safe port for disembarkation," he told MEPs on Monday (27 April).

And yet just over 3,000 refugees and migrants have been registered as rescued or intercepted at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard and disembarked in Libya so far this year.

Around 800 are listed as "persons of concern" by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which says many come from troubled spots like Sudan, South Sudan and Palestine.

Those rescued are often sent to Libyan detention centres where they face slavery, rape or worse. Around 1,500 are currently thought to be detained, down from some 5,000 early last year.

The UNHCR is also no longer transferring people from Libya to Niger or Rwanda, as Libya's eastern-based military commander Khalifa Haftar on Monday (27 April) declared a United Nations-brokered agreement to unite the country "a thing of the past".

"Any attempt to push forward unilateral solutions, even more so by force, will never provide sustainable solution for the country," a European commission spokesperson told reporters following Haftar's declaration.

The saga is piling on additional pressure for people to flee the war-torn country, with the EU and its member states leaving the bulk of search and rescues to the Libyan coast guard plus NGO boats.

'Attacked by Libyan forces'

Over Easter, the 'Alan Kurdi' and 'Aita Mari' charity rescue boats, for instance, had rescued some 180 people off the Libyan coast.

"During the rescue we were attacked by Libyan forces that fired shots into the air and into the water. It was the second attack in six months that was carried out by forces presumably equipped and financed by the EU," said Julian Pahlke, from the German-based NGO Sea-Eye, which operates Alan Kurdi.

The Alan Kurdi was allowed, after 12 days, to transfer some 146 people onto an Italian ferry for quarantine. A second boat with 63 people was left abandoned for five days until it was brought back to Libya. Only 51 survived.

Pahlke said aircraft from the EU's border agency Frontex, which had spotted the boat, failed to notify nearby vessels of the migrants.

When pressed, a Frontex spokesperson told EUobserver in an email earlier this month that aircrafts and boats involved in law enforcement are not made visible to avoid disclosing sensitive information.

For his part, Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri said they had shared the sightings of the boats with all the maritime rescue coordination centres.

"There is nothing classified about the sightings, they were shared in real-time and even had some informal contacts with some of the NGO boats that were in the vicinity," he told MEPs.

Reshuffling funds

The complaint also comes amid a reorientation of EU budgets to boost support for Libya when it comes to fighting the pandemic.

Emma Udwin, a senior European Commission official,disputed reports that some of that money may go to shore up the Libyan coast guard.

"We are not adding funds to the budget of the Libyan Coast Guard beyond what had already been planned in the past," she said.

Udwin said the reorientation of funds is still under negotiation, noting some of it will go to providing basic protective health equipment.

At least two major hospitals in the country have been targeted following a sharp increase in fighting, further complicating efforts to contain the pandemic. Outpatient consultations in many primary care centres have also been suspended.

Libya is home, meanwhile, to some 650,000 foreign workers.

Most are economic migrants but many others are in need of international protection, including some 48,000 asylum seekers and refugees registered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

The UNHCR expects an increase in departures out of Libya because of new push factors, including those linked to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Another 370,000 Libyans are displaced internally within the country, given the fighting.

EU aid pushing Libyan refugees back to war-hit Libya

At least 17 Libyans were returned to their war-torn country after attempting to flee on boats towards Europe. Their fates, along with many others, remain unknown as the EU-backed Libyan Coast Guard sweeps up people en masse.

Coronavirus

EU shores up Libyan coast guard amid Covid-19 scare

The EU is reorienting funds to boost the Libyan coast guard - amid fears that the escalating violence in the north African country plus the coronavirus will force a large exodus of people to take boats towards Europe.

Deaths at sea case raises questions over Malta's role

Malta's prime minister's office is under scrutiny after allegations it gave instructions for a private vessel to push back a boat of migrants from waters within its zone of responsibility, and back to Libya. At least 12 people died.

Opinion

Operation Irini is wrong, for Libya and for sea rescues

The task been transferred from Operation Sophia to Operation Irini. Instead, a coalition of EU states must finally be formed which are willing to rescue and receive people in distress at sea.

France and Turkey fracture Nato on Libya

Nato is to investigate French allegations that Turkish warships targeted a French one in a confrontation over the Libya conflict, which has divided allies.

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EU Parliament pressing for inquiry into Frontex

MEPs are drumming up support for an inquiry into the EU's controversial border and coast guard agency, Frontex. So far, the Greens, the left-wing GUE, and Renew Europe are on board - amid expectations the centre-left S&D will also join.

Turkey snubs Greece on migrant returnees

The Greek government last week requested that the European Commission and EU border agency Frontex help return 1,450 failed asylum seekers to Turkey. Turkey has refused, citing the pandemic.

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