Libyan coastguard boat carrying around 500 migrants, mostly African, arriving at the port in the city of Misrata | Photo: ARCHIVE/EPA/STRINGER
Libyan coastguard boat carrying around 500 migrants, mostly African, arriving at the port in the city of Misrata | Photo: ARCHIVE/EPA/STRINGER

Despite its record of abuses, Libya's EU-funded and -trained coast guard is the bloc's preferred partner to prevent migrants from reaching European soil. Having intercepted some 20,000 people in 2017 alone, the coast guard in the Mediterranean is efficient; it is not as good, however, at abiding by the law. InfoMigrants takes a look at the funding, training and questionable monitoring of the loosely organized force whose members are often former militia.

On November 6, 2017, around 100 migrants leave Tripoli aboard a flimsy raft trying to reach Europe. Soon, the sea gets rougher and the raft starts taking on water. Passengers fall into the sea, many of them without life jackets.

With their satellite phone, the migrants call the Italian coast guard for help, which then alerts all ships in the area to the raft’s approximate location. They also contact their go-to partner: Libya’s coast guard.

By the time the Libyan coast guard vessel, the Ras Jadir, arrives that morning, 15 people had already drowned. Ignoring standard rescue tactics, the Ras Jadir approaches at high speed and gets close to the raft. The ensuing waves cause some migrants to fall overboard.

"Most people around me, we were scattered," a survivor told The New York Times, which reconstructed the tragedy together with research groups Forensic Architecture and Forensic Oceanography. "Some people couldn’t float, so most of them are gone."

Snapshot of a video produced by the New York Times about the fatal attempt of some migrants to cross the Mediterranean in November 2017  Credit The New York TimesSea-Watch

With migrants screaming and fighting for their lives, the Libyans hinder, rather than help the rescue operation. One Libyan is shown recording the scene with his smartphone.

"We were shouting: 'Help! Help! Help!' They did not respond to us," another migrant said.

Then, the Sea-Watch 3 arrives. Also alerted by the Italians, the migrant rescue boat arrives a few minutes after the Libyans. The crew positions the vessel at a safe distance and quickly dispatches their small speed boat to reach victims.

Soon, Libyans threaten the Sea-Watch crew and throw hard objects at them to keep them away.

A man begins to sink. The Libyans could deploy the raft mounted on their vessel, but they claim it’s broken. They throw life jackets, but it’s not enough. The man drowns.

At least four more people die in the chaos.

Outsourcing border control responsibilities

Until a few years ago, European countries were still leading rescue efforts in the Mediterranean Sea under the “Mare Nostrum” operation. Between 2013 and 2014, Italy alone saved more than 100,000 lives. But soon after a new border security mission (“Operation Triton”) with less funding and fewer ships replaced Mare Nostrum in 2014, deaths in the Mediterranean Sea started soaring. In 2016, during the peak of the so-called European migrant crisis, fatalities and disappearances reached over 5,100, according to figures by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Also in 2016, with far-right, populist parties gaining popularity and anti-migrant fervor spiking, Europe made the abrupt decision to outsource border control responsibilities to a new partner: Libya’s coast guard. The EU sent money, boats and a degree of training with the aim of stemming arrivals on European shores.

But while partnering with the so-called Libyan coast guard of the war-torn country was efficient in reducing the number of arrivals to Italy - from 144,000 in 2017 to 46,000 in 2018 - it also meant the risk of death on the Central Mediterranean route increased: According to a recent IOM report, 1 in 35 people attempting to cross perished in 2018, compared with 1 in 50 in 2017.

The list of accusations against Libya’s coast guard is long: human rights violations including torture, violence toward and hindering rescue operations of volunteer rescue groups, being made up of a number of groups that were often formerly militia as well as being involved in smuggling networks. Some of this shouldn’t come as a surprise: Libya has seen ongoing conflict since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

What is Libya’s coast guard?

Information on Libya’s coast guard is scarce. Media reports convey that Libya’s coast guard is loosely organized and linked to various factions of Libya's militias. When approached by InfoMigrants, the European Commission said it didn’t know how many ships, airplanes and personnel the coast guard currently possesses or operates. Libya’s coast guard doesn’t appear to have an official online presence other than a Twitter account.

According to Frontex, Libya currently has two coast guard services: the General Administration for Coastal Security (GACS), which falls under the scope of the interior ministry; and the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG), which is part of the Libyan Navy and is within the responsibility of the ministry of defense. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll refer to both as “Libya’s coast guard” in this article.

Who funds Libya’s coast guard?

According to EU sources, some €336 million have been mobilized since 2014 for programs in connection with migrants in Libya under the EU Trust Fund for Africa, € 91.3 million of which has been spent on training and equipping Libya’s coast guard, among other things. The €91.3 investment in "integrated border and migration management" consists of two programs, each endowed with about half the total. The first program, adopted in July 2017, aims at “reinforcing the border management capacities of the Libyan authorities,” among other things.

The second program, adopted in December 2018 and implemented by Italy’s interior ministry, includes “support to the Libyan Coast Guard, in particular to the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), and the procurement and maintenance of patrol boats.”

Italy also trains, equips, finances and coordinates Libya’s coast guard directly following a deal between Italy’s then center-left government with Libya from February 2017 that aimed at turning back vessels and return migrants to Libya. The deal, endorsed by European leaders, has been credited with dramatically lowering the number of migrants arriving on Italy’s southern coast. Since then, Italian navy ships, based in Tripoli, have coordinated efforts of Libya’s coast guard.

A map showing the Mediterranean Search and Rescue zones Each state is responsible for large parts of water outside of its national waters  Credit Worldwide Search and Rescue SAR contacts managed by the Canadian Coastguard

By June 2018, Libya's application for its own search and rescue zone (SAR), supported by the new Italian government, had been granted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). This new SAR zone legally allows the Italian coast guard to refer any contact from ships not in its own search and rescue zone to the Libyan authorities.

Soon, the rate of migrants being intercepted and brought back to Libya started increasing, with more than 2,300 such cases since January of this year, according to the UN.

This April, Libya’s coast guard apparently did not operate in its SAR zone for at least three weeks. At the time, Italian newspaper Avvenire alleged that Libyan patrol boats normally used for search and rescue were being deployed for combat operations in the civil war.

In July 2018, Italy’s new center-right government led by Salvini’s League party signed an agreement with Libya providing for the “delivery of €5 million to Libya to curb migration to Europe by stopping boats.” The deal included a new batch of patrol boats to Libya’s coast guard and military training.

Who trains Libya’s coast guard?

Libya’s coast guard is trained under the auspices of the European Union Naval Force - Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED) mission, better known as “Operation Sophia”. According to a spokesperson of the European Commission (EC), 399 Libyan coast guard and navy personnel have been trained to date.

These trainings which started in 2016, have been taking place in Italy, Greece, Malta and Croatia, among other countries. Since they are “delivered in the form of modules,” they vary in length.

According to the EC, trainees are taught skills such as search and rescue procedures, first aid and medical care, international human rights and maritime law, fighting illegal trafficking at sea, collecting evidence, navigation as well as asylum request procedures and public information.

Organizations that have “contributed to and participated in” those training sessions are Frontex, UN agencies IOM and UNHCR, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) as well as NGOs (Rava Foundation and Corpo Italiano di Soccorso dell’ Ordine di Malta - CISOM).

Frontex, the EU’s border and coast guard agency, began its involvement in 2018 with the training of around 20 coast guards together with Italy and EU Border Assistance Mission in Libya (EUBAM), a Frontex spokesperson told InfoMigrants. The goal was to “improve the capacity of the Libyan civilian coast guard in the area of search and rescue, general law enforcement and fundamental rights.”

According to Frontex, “the protection of fundamental rights was highlighted throughout the course and was the subject of a dedicated lesson.”

Aside from human rights training and capacity and institution building, the EU has also

  • supported both coast guards in the form of training, including on equipment (i.e. repair of existing vessels, supply of communication and rescue equipment) as well as
  • set up “basic operational rooms” for the coast guards in Tripoli.

A Human Rights Watch report published in January found that Europe’s support for Libya's coast guard has contributed to cases of arbitrary detention. Two years into the training program, leaked reports also showed that Libya's coast guard was unable to manage search and rescue activities on its own.

While Operation Sophia focuses on combating smuggling gangs off Libya, it has been credited with saving more than 45,000 people's lives at sea since it began in 2015. Starting this April, however, naval ships were no longer part of it due to member states disagreeing how to divide the rescued among themselves. The operation now only commences from the air and trains Libya’s coast guard. This means the operation can no longer save distressed migrants at sea.

Who vets the personnel of Libya’s coast guard?

According to the EC, “personnel accredited for training undergo a very thorough vetting process,” conducted by the Libyan Coastguard and Navy, Operation Sophia and EU Member States as well as Europol and Interpol.

The EC said the aim of this process is to contribute to the “effective functioning of such forces and structures, in line with international norms and standards, in particular as regards respect for the rule of law and human rights.” None of the coast guards trained is on the “UN sanctions list,” it added. Operating in Libya in cooperation with links to the Libya's coast guard.

Frontex told InfoMigrants it is not involved in the "selection and vetting process."

Who monitors Libya’s coast guard?

In 2017, the European Commission set up a mechanism to “monitor the long-term efficiency of the training of the Libyan Coastguard and Navy” with a focus on “better understanding their ability to perform their mission and to monitor their overall behavior.”

This mechanism has two major caveats: It doesn’t monitor the “performance of individuals,” and no EU personnel is “embedded on board of Libyan Coastguard assets at all.” In other words: There’s no direct mechanism to monitor and document the coast guards’ demeanor and possible violations of training standards in an objective way.

Moreover, there has been no positive evaluation of the work of Libya's coast guard to date.

When asked what Frontex is doing to ensure Libya’s coast guard is adhering to training standards, the spokesperson told InfoMigrants “EUBAM Libya … will also contribute to verify the effectiveness of the training as far as this is possible given the complex security situation in the country.”

In regards to Libya's coast guard's well-documented relationship with smuggling networks, the EC spokesperson referred to the aforementioned “thorough vetting process.” It also pointed out that the EC had implemented sanctions the UN Security Council imposed in June last year on six human traffickers and smugglers. The group, consisting of four Libyan nationals and two Eritreans, were punished with a travel ban and assets freeze. One of the four Libyan nationals was the commander of the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG) in Zawiya, a city west of Tripoli; a number of officials under his command, a leaked report found, were trained by Operation Sophia. Another Libyan was the commander of the Anas al-Dabbashi militia, a major facilitator of migrant smuggling.

Frontex, when asked about the connection with smuggling networks, explained that the EU was involved in the “building of democratic institutions and structures” which “requires effort and coordinated commitment of a number of many actors.” It added that “training and capacity building is an important instrument to change minds and attitudes and positively affect behaviors.”

This murky situation leaves many questions open, for instance: Do any mechanisms or political will exist to enforce the punishment of wrongdoings? And, if so, under which law?

Deadly ‘hands-off approach’

Back in the Mediterranean in November 2017. More than a dozen of the 100 migrants whose raft sank off Libya’s coast in November 2017 were taken aboard Libya’s coast guard vessel, the Ras Jadir. On the ship, members of Libya’s coast guard beat some of the remaining migrants, as footage from Sea-Watch showed.

Many migrants jumped back into the sea, even though some of them couldn’t swim. “They use belt to beat me, and I jump into the sea again,” one migrant said.

Another man who was beaten was clinging to a latter on the side of the Ras Jadir. Ignoring all pleas to stop, the coast guard vessel still took off. The Libyans only slowed down and pulled the man back on board after an Italian military helicopter intervened.

Eight of the 13 Libyan crew members in November received EU training, including on human rights, according to The New York Times investigation.

Snapshot of a video produced by the New York Times about the fatal attempt of some migrants to cross the Mediterranean in November 2017  Credit The New York TimesSea-Watch

Stefanie Hilt, a paramedic on Sea-Watch’s search and rescue (SAR) crew, told The New York Times the coast guard ship is not a rescue boat but a warship that lacks speed boats, a medical treatment area and doctors.

"There’s no chance for a good rescue," she said.

Johannes Bayer, Sea-Watch’s head of mission, called Libya’s coast guard actions "an act of murder."

"In Europe, we know we can’t kill people at our border. But if the Libyans do that, it’s Libya … It’s European money that is leading to people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea," Bayer told The New York Times.

The fate of survivors hinges on which boat they end up on. Those rescued by Sea-Watch were brought to safety in Europe, while those on the Ras Jadir were taken to detention centers in Tripoli. As has been extensively documented by now, migrants there are often beaten, raped, held for ransom or sold for slave labor.

"They would tie you down. They would use electric wire to shock you," one of the survivors told The New York Times. "Hunger, beatings, so many type of things that I’ve not seen in my eyes before," said another.

A nearby French frigate, deployed as part of aforementioned operation Sophia, might have been able to reach the sinking raft earlier and save more lives. But it remained at a distance throughout the incident and only later contributed one of its inflatable boats to the rescue.

Had the French sailors taken migrants onboard, they would then have had to bring them to Europe. The New York Times called this an "example of a hands-off approach that seeks to make Libyan intervention not only possible but also inevitable."

In May 2018, survivors of the fatal sea crossing together with other migrants filed a lawsuit with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) against Italy. They claim that Libyan authorities took some of the survivors back to Libya, "where they were detained in inhuman conditions, undergoing beatings, extortion, hunger and rape." According to the lawsuit, the intervention by Libya’s coast guard "is a consequence of the Italy-Libya agreement of 2017."

EU defends course of action

The United Nations and aid groups blame the deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean in part on the EU's policy of partnering with Libya’s coast guard to prevent migrants from trying to cross the sea. Italy has been accused of being aware that it would be illegal to do the job it entrusted Libya’s coast guard with: to prevent migrants from seeking protection in Europe by impeding their flight and sending them back to a country where extreme violence and exploitation await.

The EU has, however, staunchly rejected criticism against its migration policy with few exceptions, arguing, for instance, that the agreement between the EU member states and Libya’s coast guard has significantly reduced the number of refugee arrivals in Italy.

According to the European Commission (EC), the EU working with the Libyan coast guard to “enhance their capacity to carry out search and rescue operations in their zone of responsibility, where most search and rescue incidents occur,” is preferable over NGO rescue vessels since “no boats are allowed to enter Libyan territorial waters without authorization from the Libyan authorities. The EU is “trying to save lives and break the business model of smugglers,” it went on.

In a statement last month, the Council of Europe, which is an entirely separate body from the European Union, called for an end of the cooperation with Libya’s coast guard amid the devastating conditions.

Libya's coast guard, meanwhile, argued that Libya was a “victim” of the migration flows. General Ajub Kacem said refugees were a “burden” for the country. He accused the EU of "lacking concern" for refugees’ fate.

The EU has said repeatedly, including after the deadly airstrike on the Tajoura refugee camp on the outskirts of the capital Tripoli in early July, that migrants should be evacuated to safe places. Yet it has offered no concrete plan on how distribute migrants.

"This [European] policy intentionally turned Libya into a firewall to refugees who escaped war and famine in Africa," former Libyan justice minister and a human rights lawyer Salah Marghani said. "This firewall gives the refugees two choices: Either to drown while trying to escape Europe, or being arrested in the high sea to be sent back to Libya."

Now, the Tajoura detention center is filling with migrants again including those intercepted by Libya’s coast guard. Moreover, work has resumed at a nearby weapons workshop, despite calls from the United Nations to empty the compound and others like it near the front-lines of the country's civil war.


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