The Libyan coastguard at work in November 2019 whilst a team from the French international broadcaster France 24 was on board their boat making a documentary | Photo: France 24
The Libyan coastguard at work in November 2019 whilst a team from the French international broadcaster France 24 was on board their boat making a documentary | Photo: France 24

The rescue organization Sea-Watch says Turkey has breached human rights by handing over a group of 30 migrants to the Libyan Coast Guard in the Mediterranean.

The picture is blurry and the Mediterranean looks misty, but sailing across a blue-gray sea in the center of the picture is a warship. It is a Turkish frigate, according to the crew of the Moonbird, Sea-Watch's surveillance aircraft in the Mediterranean. In the foreground, some distance away from the frigate, are two much smaller craft – possibly a migrant boat and the Libyan Coastguard, Sea Watch suggests in a Tweet.

The message posted on January 29 says: "The crew of the Moonbird recorded yesterday how a Turkish frigate intercepted 30 people and handed them over to the so-called Libyan Coastguard. Turkey is a signatory to the European Human Rights Convention, but with this action it has taken part in a severe breach of human rights."

The press spokesman for Sea-Watch, Ruben Neugebauer, confirmed that this is what his colleagues saw. They have not yet released a press release on the subject.

Turkish press confirms story

On the same day, the English language daily Hurriyet reported: "Turkish frigate saves 30 Med Sea migrants from drowning."

In the Hurriyet article, much clearer pictures show uniformed troops appearing to help a migrant, whose back is to the camera, step from one small inflatable dinghy to another. The article begins by confirming that a Turkish Navy frigate TCG Gazientep "which is on a Mediterranean duty to support NATO's Operation Sea Guardian, rescued 30 migrants on a drifting dingy off Libya."

The Turkish navy mission stepped in, "providing aid and medical support," according to Hurriyet. It says that the TCG Gaziantep is one of five Turkish ships currently operating as part of the NATO operation in the Mediterranean. Alongside Gaziantep there are three other frigates, "TCG Gökova, TCG Göksu and TCG Gediz as well as a fuel ship TCG Yaray Kudret Güngör," the paper reports.

NATO mission

Last year NATO claimed that its ships were helping assist Europe as it "faces the greatest refugee and migrant crisis since the end of the Second World War." In an article published last June, it said it had been assisting since February 2016 "on the request of Germany, Greece and Turkey." At that time, it said it was operating largely in the Aegean Sea and at the Turkish-Syrian border. NATO stated that it was "cooperating with the European Union's border management agency Frontex, in full compliance with international law and the Law of the Sea."

Operation Sea Guardian

The Sea Guardian operation was broadened in July 2016 at a NATO Warsaw Summit from NATO’s "Active Endeavour counter-terrorism mission in the Mediterranean to a broader maritime security operation." It said aimed at "working with Mediterranean stakeholders to maintain maritime situational awareness, deter and counter terrorism and enhance capacity building."

NATO's Maritime Command confirmed on Twitter that two of the Turkish frigates mentioned were on active duty in the Central Mediterranean at the beginning of January, 2020.

A video on the YouTube channel "Libya News" also purports to show the Turkish crew "rescuing 30 immigrants in Libya." 

France accuses Turkey of infringing agreement

The presence of Turkish warships in the central Mediterranean was also uppermost in French President Emanuel Macron's mind. The news agency AP reported on January 29 that Macron accused Turkey of "sending warships and mercenaries to [Libya]." After a meeting with the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Macron described the arrival of Turkish warships in Libyan waters as "a serious and explicit infringement of what was agreed upon in Berlin." It is unclear to which ships he was referring.

However, AP said that the Turkish military had confirmed that "four frigates and a refueling vessel were in the central Mediterranean, outside Libya’s territorial waters, to support NATO operations in the region while also conducting activities to ensure the security of maritime trade routes."

In answer to Macron's claims, AP printed a statement from the Turkish Foreign Minister,which attacked the French role in Libya. It read: "It is no secret that [France] gave unconditional support to Haftar [who is opposing the UN-backed government] in order to have a say concerning Libya's natural resources, [Haftar's] attacks on the legitimate government, with the help of the military support of countries including France, pose the most serious threat to Libya’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. What is expected of France is to assume a positive role for stability and security in Libya, instead of blaming Turkey."

Other publications have also been writing about the presence of Turkish ships in the area. An online magazine, The, reported on January 28 that two Turkish frigates were spotted off the coast of Libya. The article said that the two ships had been photographed "sailing together near Tripoli." It stated these were as yet "unconfirmed reports" but that many people had posted the misty photos to social media. The article published several tweets from someone called Ali Ahmed and another Yörük Isik and Bosphorus Naval News stating that the ships "were there [near Tripoli]."

The latest UNHCR data for Libya, updated on January 24, says that this year "947 refugees and migrants have been registered as rescued/intercepted at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard and disembarked in Libya." There are still 46,913 registered refugees and asylum seekers in Libya.


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