29th Sep 2023

EU denies colluding with Libyan smugglers despite UN report

  • Hundreds of people, including children, are feared dead in the latest boat sinking near Greece (Photo: Hellenic Coast Guard)
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The European Commission denies helping smugglers in Libya, following a deadly Pylos shipwreck near Greece that reportedly sailed from the Tobruk area of the north African state.

"We are not helping smugglers in Libya. We are fighting against smugglers," Eric Mamer, the European Commission chief's spokesperson told reporters in Brussels on Friday (16 June).

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The comment comes as the European Union continues to step up cooperation with a Libyan authority accused of colluding with smugglers and traffickers.

An internal document, dated 9 June and seen by EUobserver, is now pressing the EU to extend the mandate of its border mission to Libya (EUbam) by another two years.

This includes "enhancing the capacity of the relevant Libyan authorities and agencies to manage Libya's borders," notes the document.

The document and Mamer's comment also comes despite a UN special report out earlier this year that accused high-ranking officials in the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG) and its department of combatting illegal migration (DCIM) of working with traffickers and smugglers.

The same report said the European Union and its member states, directly or indirectly, provided monetary, technical, and logistical support to the LCG and DCIM that was used in the context of interception and detention of migrants.

It had also documented crimes against humanity likely involving DCIM personnel and officials.

Similar allegations were made by a former Libyan police officer.

"The Libyan coast guard and smugglers are one together," he told this website in 2021. "The smugglers pay money to the Libyan coast guard to let them pass [to Europe by sea]," he said.

Earlier this year, EU neighbourhood commissioner Olivier Varhelyi handed over patrol vessels to the Libyan coast guard and announced an €800m package to stem migration across north Africa.

And a European Commission action plan on the central Mediterranean, announced last November, includes stopping people from fleeing Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

That message was reinforced by Ylva Johansson, the EU migration commissioner, following the Pylos shipwreck which has likely killed several hundred people.

"With member states and third countries, we must redouble efforts to fight these morally bankrupt smugglers," she said.

Johansson had also mentioned stepping up legal pathways. But such moves appear less pressing than the EU's push to shore up border forces to prevent departures in the first place.

The European Commission had 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.

Both the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the IOM are now demanding "for urgent and decisive action to prevent further deaths at sea."

"It is clear, that the current approach to the Mediterranean is unworkable. Year after year, it continues to be the most dangerous migration route in the world, with the highest fatality rate," said Federico Soda, from the IOM, in a statement.

The IOM documented 441 migrant deaths in the Central Mediterranean in the first quarter of 2023, the deadliest first quarter on record since 2017.

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