The Libyan Coast Guard sets fire to a refugee boat after interception (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

Stuck in Libya, the Sudanese refugee frightened of both Frontex and coast guard

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In Libya's capital city Tripoli, a 29-year old refugee from Sudan is hoping to get smuggled by boat across the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe.

"I don't feel safe being anywhere in Libya," he tells EUobserver, in a video conference call on Friday (31 May).

"I think of trying [to reach Europe] as soon as possible. It is in my mind now. I can't survive like this forever," he says, via an interpreter.

Karim, not his real name, has asked to remain anonymous given security concerns.

But EUobsever was able to confirm his identity from an official asylum seeker certificate issued by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) office in Tripoli.

It says Karim is from Sudan and that he is an asylum seeker. It also says he should not be returned to Sudan, where his life is threatened.

Since Sudan's civil war erupted in April 2023, tens of thousands have been killed and around nine million people displaced. Millions more risk starvation.

His brother has been detained by rogue militias in Sudan, where he will be forced to fight on their behalf, says Karim. Karim is afraid he'll meet a similar fate.

For the past few months, he has been sleeping rough in a makeshift tent near the UNHCR office in Tripoli.

Karim says he stays in a makeshift tent camp near the UNHCR office in Tripoli

He first arrived in Libya around five years ago in the hopes of eventually making it to Europe. But he stalled out of fears of drowning.

Now unable to return to Sudan given the civil war, Karim described his situation and those of others in Libya as hopeless.

His health has also taken a turn for the worse given his recent diagnosis with diabetes, he says.

Aggressive Libyan militias remain a constant threat. Some arbitrarily detain migrants and force them into slavery in what the UN Human Rights Council has described as possible crimes against humanity.

His UNHCR certificate offers no protection. "They don't consider it as documentation," says Karim of the Libyan militias. So he avoids them at all costs.

Sometimes he is able to find work at a square nearby. But he mostly relies on charity of local Libyans to eat.

Now, he is hoping to gather between €1,000 to €2,000 to pay a smuggler to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

"Even though it is very difficult to collect this amount, still the biggest concern is being pulled back, more than collecting the money itself," he says.

Frontex and Libyan Coast Guard

And he knows Frontex, the EU's border agency based out of Warsaw, is helping the Libyans with the interceptions. The risk Karim will be intercepted is real.

Almost 1,000 people were intercepted and returned between 26 May and 1 June alone, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Jörgen Hansson from the Swedish Coast Guard told Mission Investigate, a Swedish TV programme for investigative journalism, that the agency informs Libya as soon as a boat embarks.

"As soon as we see a refugee boat leaving Libya, for example, we call down here and try to get them to bring them back. And it is quite often that it succeeds," he is quoted as saying.

Hansson worked four months last year at a Frontex monitoring centre, he said.

The statement suggests the agency is working more closely with the Libyans than previously thought.

For his part, Hans Leijtens, the agency's executive director, says they never share any information with the Libyans unless a boat is in immediate danger.

He says they make one to two Mayday calls a day and consult their in-house fundamental rights officer, when possible.

"I acknowledge that we as Frontex don't want them to end up in Libya," he told MEPs in the civil liberties committee in March.

"But if I would be a pilot in a plane and I see a ship in distress and I have to decide 'MayDay call - yes or no?' I think I would do the Mayday call," he said.

Leijtens comments follow reports last December that the agency and the Maltese government were also sharing the coordinates of refugee boats with Tareq Bin Zeyad, a Libyan militia.

Some of those returned by Tareq Bin Zeyad were tortured in a harbour in Benghazi, including Syrian national Bassel Nahas who managed to escape after paying a ransom.

For its part, Frontex says it has no control over who picks up their Mayday calls and can't be held accountable if a militia responds.

Such arguments are likely to be given short shrift by critics, including possibly the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

Avvenire, an Italian newspaper, has reported that the ICC's chief prosecutor Karim Khan is set to issue multiple arrest warrants late next year over crimes committed against migrants in Libya.

Iftach Cohen, a lawyer at front-LEX, a Dutch-based civil society organisation, says the warrant should extend to Frontex's executive's director.

Front-LEX last week sent the agency a legal of formal notice to stop helping the Libyans with boat interceptions. And it cited Karim, the 29-year Sudanese refugee stuck in Libya, as a case.

Cohen doesn't believe the agency will terminate all communications with Libyan entities as requested. But should the agency not comply, then Cohen says they will go to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

"Because of the DNA of Frontex, and its zero interest in the lives of racialized groups of asylum seekers, I shouldn’t have high hopes that in taking a decision on our invitation to act Frontex will decide to terminate all communications with Libyan entities in accordance with the law," he said.

Frontex, for its part, described front-LEX's complaint as a distraction.

"I am deeply troubled by the actions of activists who, having failed in a number of cases against Frontex, now risk people’s lives with another frivolous complaint," said Chris Borowski, the agency's spokesperson, in an email.

Borowski says Frontex planes are often the first to spot boats in distress in the central Mediterranean.

"Our teams alert all rescue coordination centres in the region to initiate rescue operations immediately. This is not just an obligation under international law but a duty we uphold as human beings," he said.

Author Bio

Nikolaj joined EUobserver in 2012 and covers home affairs. He is originally from Denmark, but spent much of his life in France and in Belgium. He was awarded the King Baudouin Foundation grant for investigative journalism in 2010.

The Libyan Coast Guard sets fire to a refugee boat after interception (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)


Author Bio

Nikolaj joined EUobserver in 2012 and covers home affairs. He is originally from Denmark, but spent much of his life in France and in Belgium. He was awarded the King Baudouin Foundation grant for investigative journalism in 2010.


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