22nd Mar 2023

EU says Libya needs more boats after latest drowning tragedy

  • EU commissioner Oliver Várhelyi last month touring a new patrol boat given to the Libyans (Photo: European Union, 2023)
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The European Commission is promising more support for Libya, after the Italian Coast Guard said some 30 people are missing in a Mediterranean Sea shipwreck over the weekend.

The response given on Monday (13 March) by the European Commission is similar to the one following the drowning deaths of 76 people off the Italian coast last month.

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"More boats will be forthcoming," said a European Commission spokesperson.

"We see that there's a need to reinforce the capacities," she said, adding that the Libyans have been handed six reconditioned boats and a new one earlier this year.

But the latest tragedy, in a string of many, continues to cast questions over EU support for a Libyan Coast Guard with reported ties to militia.

EUobserver witnessed the Libyan Coast Guard attempt to intercept at dangerous speed a boat of people, including two disabled boys, in Malta's search-and-rescue zone.

Malta had refused to send any help. That interception came only days after the Libyan Coast Guard were filmed shooting into the water near another boat full of people seeking safety.

One former Libyan police lieutenant told EUobserver that the country's coast guard are in fact themselves part of the smuggling network that the European Commission says is trying to break apart.

"They [smugglers] are making money on on the back of despair and risks taken by migrants seeking to reach the European Union," said European Commission deputy chief spokesperson Dana Spinant.

The European Commission back in 2015 declared a war on smugglers.

Three years later, the now former EU regional director of the International Organization of Migration (IOM) denounced that strategy as one that would serve only to embolden migrant smugglers while increasing the risks to those seeking safety.

Today, the European Commission continues its war against smugglers by offshoring its strategy to North African states.

Last July, it launched anti-smuggling partnerships with Niger and Morocco.

Now it wants to do the same with Egypt and Tunisia, whose leadership under president Kais Saied demanded Tunisian security forces take action against sub-Saharan migrants.

Another European Commission spokesperson said legal pathways also need to be enhanced.

"We need indeed to ensure that we can provide a real alternative for those putting their fate in the hands of criminals," she said.

Those ideas are part of a European Commission action plan for the Central Mediterranean, first proposed last November.

"Migrants arriving through Libya are predominantly from Egypt, Tunisia and Bangladesh," said EU home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, last November.

Meanwhile, the Italian Coast Guard says the 30 people who drowned on Sunday were in Libya's search-and-rescue zone.

Alarm Phone, an activist network which offers refugees in distress a hotline, says they had forwarded the alert to Italian, Maltese and Libyan authorities on 11 March.

They said a merchant vessel, in the vicinity, did not stop to intervene because they had not been instructed to do so by the Italian rescue coordination centre in Rome.

Another ship eventually came to the rescue but by that time, the boat had capsized and only 17 survived.

According to GPS coordinates cited by an Italian journalist, the sinking happened in an area also patrolled by the EU's naval operation, Irini.

Irini has yet to respond on whether they received the alert or if any of their assets were in the vicinity. Its primary mandate is to enforce an UN arms embargo on Libya but is obligated to carry out rescues in case of need.

Both Austria and Hungary threatened to veto its inception out of fear it would end up rescuing people.

An internal memo from earlier this year admitted that Irini's efforts to improve Libyan Coast Guard standards had failed. It also wants to increase the effectiveness of its air surveillance to allow early detection of migrant departures.

Austria and Hungary derail EU naval plan on Libya arms

An EU naval operation set for launch in April off the Libyan coast may be derailed following objections by Austria and Hungary. Both want the power to end the mission should migrants be lured into being rescued.

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