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30th Jul 2021

On board with SOS Méditerranée

Libyan police lieutenant: 'Coast guard are smugglers'

  • The Libyan Coast Guard also torches wooden boats (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

An ex-Libyan lieutenant police officer says the Libyan coast guard actively works with smugglers, posing questions on the EU's continued cooperation with them.

"The Libyan coast guard and smugglers are one together," he said on Friday (2 July), via a translator.

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  • This Libyan coast patrol boat intercepted a boat of migrants inside Malta's search and rescue zone (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

EUobserver will not disclose his identity, but was able to confirm his status as a ranking police officer with Libya's ministry of interior after seeing photos of him in uniform.

"They are not under the law, they are above the law," he said of the guard, which is part financed, equipped and trained by the European Union.

"The smugglers pay money to the Libyan coast guard to let them pass [to Europe by sea]," he said.

The comments were made a day after the Libyans were filmed shooting near a migrant boat in Malta's search and rescue zone.

His statement also aligns with what an EU diplomat said a week ago, noting a relatively low interception rate of people from Bangladesh when compared to Sudanese nationals.

The difference is due to money and the working relations between the smuggling networks and the Libyan guard, noted the diplomat.

The ex-officer did not cite figures.

But he said the coast guard robs intercepted migrants and refugees of all their possessions before handing them over to someone else.

Those that can be squeezed for more cash are returned to detention centres, while the more impoverished are sent to state-run Libyan prisons, he said.

"The government is not happy about that, but the Libyan coast guard, they separate them," he said.

He described it as a circular business where everyone takes a cut from the victim. A smuggler first collects money from the families of those detained, then pays those running the detention centre a fee for their release.

"They give 7,000 Libyan (dinars), he takes 5,000 Libyan for the jail and he takes 2,000 for his pocket," he said.

The smuggler notifies the coast guard of the pending trip and then buys outboard motors and boats from them, he added.

"Many of these boats are being recycled between the Libyan coast guard and the smugglers," he said, noting they have taken control of all the major ports in north-west Libya.

Among them is Zuwara, which has become the main coastal trafficking hub in Libya, said the Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR special envoy for the Central Mediterranean.

"Traffickers there enjoy total impunity & sell death trip to migrants & refugees with no other option in Libya," he said in a tweet, after some 43 people out 120 went missing after having recently fled from Zuwara in a boat out into the sea.

Two recently rescued Egyptian nationals made similar statements on smuggling links with the Libyan coast guard. EUobserver was not given their names.

But their stories have parallels with that of the ex-police officer. Following a previous interception, both were robbed by the Libyan coast guard, they said.

"They took everything before I went to jail," said one, citing as examples cash and a phone. The guard then disembarked him in Tripoli, where he was bussed to a small container-like jail.

"I called my family in Egypt and they sent 9,000 Libyan dinars for my release," he said. After a few days, he walked free, noting some of the other detainees had been there months and had been forced into hard labour.

Egyptians typically pay between 7,000 to 10,000 Libyan dinars to be released, he said. People from Bangladesh, Morocco and Tunisia pay 5,000 Libyan dinars, while sub-Saharan Africans pay 2,000, he said.

"They know everyone's limits," he said.

The testimonies were collected a day after the European Commission described the Libyan coast guard as partners, while demanding an investigation into last week's shootings.

But the smuggling network and its connection to the guard has also long been suspected. An AP report in 2019 said militias bribe the guard to let people pass. Almost two years later, and the system appears not to have changed.

Meanwhile, the European Commission is buying them three new fast speed patrol boats, as part of a larger €15 million package.

"The three vessels belong to the P150 class and have the sole purpose of supporting SAR operations," said EU commissioner Olivér Várhelyi in May.

Some models of P150 can reach 52 knots per hour, far outpacing any civilian or NGO-led rescue vessel.

Libya's current and active fleet includes the the Italian Corrubia-class patrol boat, which they renamed Fezzan Libyan Patrol 658.

On Thursday, EUobserver witnessed it intercept a migrant boat at 30 knots per hour well inside Malta's search and rescue region.

Author bio

Nikolaj Nielsen, an EUobserver journalist, is embedded on the Ocean Viking for the coming weeks, reporting exclusively from the boat on the Mediterranean migration route.

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