5th Feb 2023

EU makes bogus claims on Libya coast guard safety

  • The EU trained Libyan coast guard set boats on fire at sea (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)
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The European Commission says its efforts to shore up the Libyan coast guard is based on a "do no harm" principle and saves lives.

The comments on Thursday (21 April) by a senior commission administrator come despite widespread abuse in violent Libyan detention centres where migrants intercepted at sea are often sent.

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  • A Libyan patrol boat in Malta's search and rescue zone (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

A report out last month by the UN human rights council uncovered further evidence of murder, torture, inhumane acts, rape, persecution, and enslavement of migrants in Libya.

Yet Francisco Gaztelu Mezquiriz, a senior commission official, told European lawmakers that the commission's efforts in Libya are humanitarian in scope.

"We strongly believe that increasing the effectiveness of the Libyan search and rescue operations can only help to reduce the number of lives lost at sea," he said.

He said that the commission's actions on border and migration management in Libya "cannot be considered harmful when it actually helps save lives."

The commission has a "do no harm" policy in Libya, he added, noting that more than half of the EU's €465 million funding in Libya goes to protection of migrants and asylum seekers.

Over 2,500 migrants have so far this year been returned home from Libya, Gaztelu Mezquiriz noted.

He then announced that the commission would soon propose more support to strengthen the Libyan Coast Guard.

"We'll continue to strengthen Libya's search and rescue capacity by delivering new vessels," he said.

"We have to continue these efforts, we cannot stop these efforts," he said.

This includes training of the guard on human rights, he underlined.

EUobserver witnessed the Libyan coast guard operate last summer , when interceptions reached record levels.

Its aggressive actions in Malta's search and rescue zone almost cost the lives of dozens of people, including two small disabled boys.

Despite numerous attempts to reach the Maltese coast guard, the charity vessel Ocean Viking was left alone to pick up those who narrowly escaped the Libyan patrol boat.

On board, a former Libyan police lieutenant told this website that the Libyan coast guard are part of a circular smuggling operation where everyone gets a cut.

He said smugglers pay the coast guard to let boats pass. "They are not under the law, they are above the law," he said of the guard.

The commission also claims that it is improving conditions at the Libyan detention centres and that it works through humanitarian relief agencies to help those detained.

But this was also disputed by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

Last year, Libya's department for combating illegal immigration (DCIM) operated approximately seven detention centres.

Now there are two. But the UNHCR says this does not mean fewer people are being detained.

The UNHCR's Karmen Sakhr said access is on an ad-hoc basis, noting that some 65 percent of the detainees were in need of international protection as refugees or asylum seekers.

Many of those are likely to have been intercepted by the Libyan coast guard, which is indirectly bankrolled by the European Commission. But she also pointed out that a new Libyan authority has emerged, known as the Stabilisation Support Authority or SSA.

SSA-run detention centres are off limits to the UNHCR and other aid relief organisations, she said. "We cannot provide any information on the conditions of detainees," she added.

Inma Vazquez from MSF made similar observations.

"Year after year, the EU is justifying the unjustifiable," she said. Claims made by the European Commission that it can stop migrant arrivals while respecting international obligations is nonsense, Vazquez added.

"The people keep escaping Libya because they are unsafe. They are unsafe in detention," she said.

Some 60,000 people tried to flee Libya by sea last year.

Around half were intercepted and returned, sometimes with help from the Turkish coast guard. Of those around 1,500 who tried to cross are known to have died.

Almost 500 have perished so far this year in their attempt to cross.

On board with SOS Méditerranée

Malta refuses to help rescue involving disabled children

The Libyan Coast Guard intercepted a wooden boat of 30 people some 10 nautical miles inside Malta's search and rescue zone. But then suddenly let them go, allowing the Ocean Viking to perform its first rescue since leaving Marseille.

On board with SOS Méditerranée

Libyan police lieutenant: 'Coast guard are smugglers'

The Libyan coast guard actively works with smugglers and are run by a militia, an ex-Libyan lieutenant police officer. The EU is buying the guard three new P150 high speed patrol boats.

EU eyes job deal with Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia

The European Commission wants to set up so-called "talent partnerships" with foreign states to help fill the labour gaps in the EU — on the condition they help prevent irregular migration.

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