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Sending refugees back to hell with EU support

Piecing together the story from several documents provided by the EU following months of FOI requests, BEN COWLES exposes how the bloc’s supposed training of the Libyan coastguard has only made things worse

THE International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has estimated that 347 people have died trying to reach Europe while crossing the Mediterranean this year.

The central Mediterranean route (which stretches from war-torn Libya to Malta and the Italian islands of Lampedusa and Sicily) has been particularly deadly in 2020 so far. According to IOM Libya’s latest update 33 people have died on the route this year and 135 people are still missing.

Perhaps more concerning is the uncertain fate of at least 4,500 people the IOM says were pulled back from the central Mediterranean to Libya in the past six months — mostly by the country’s coastguard.

True, it is better to be “saved” by the Libyan Coastguard than to drown or die of thirst. In fact the international law of the sea requires ships to aid anyone in distress at sea. And a rescue cannot be considered over until the rescued have been taken to the nearest port of safety.

Libya — a country being ripped apart by warlords, jihadists, human traffickers and two larger factions backed by opposing international governments and global bodies — is clearly not a safe place.

Human Rights Watch warns in its 2020 world report that “migrants and asylum-seekers who are captured at sea and returned to Libyan territory are placed in detention …, where many suffer inhumane conditions, including beatings, sexual violence, extortion, forced labour and inadequate medical treatment, food and water.”

Sending people back to a country where they could face danger is known in legal terms as refoulement.

“The principle of non-refoulement,” — ie not returning victims of torture and rape back to Libya — the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) states, “guarantees that no-one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm.”

Crucially, non-refoulement “applies to all migrants at all times, irrespective of migration status.”

The Libyan Coastguard, which in the last week alone has pushed back 458 refugees to the ravaged country, has been trained, supported, funded and co-ordinated by the European Union since September 2016 at least.

The EU responded to the spike in people attempting to cross the Mediterranean in 2015, the beginning of the refugee crisis, by launching a new naval mission.

The mission was initially called the European Union Naval Force Mediterranean, commonly referred to by its unwieldy abbreviation EUNAVFOR Med. It was later renamed Operation Sophia, after a child born on one of its naval vessels.

Though Operation Sophia was primarily set up to disrupt smuggling and trafficking networks in the central Mediterranean, it is thought to have saved well over 40,000 lives.

After its first year, the EU decided to extend Operation Sophia, with the added responsibility of “assisting in the capacity building and training of the Libyan Coast Guard and navy.”

Earlier this year, I sent a slew of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests off to two EU bodies, the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the Council of the European Union.

Trying to understand how the EU actually operates, what its institutions are responsible for and to whom they are accountable is a Herculean mental task. I cannot pretend I know how it works.

But as far as I can ascertain, the EEAS is the bloc’s joint foreign and defence ministry and the Council of the European Union is where member-state governments meet to discuss and amend policies and laws.

One of the documents provided to me by the Council, dated October 2019, states that part of Operation Sophia’s “multi–faceted mandate” is the “training and monitoring of the Libyan Navy coastguard, including on refugee law and non-refoulement.”

Training the Libyan Coastguard on the principle of non-refoulement, when it seems the intended purpose of the Libyan Coastguard is to return migrants to a warzone and god-awful detention centres, boggles the mind.

It’s the equivalent of sending butchered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s torturers on a human rights training day. Or the British government lecturing others on press freedom when WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange rots in Belmarsh prison for exposing US war crimes.

It seems to me that the EU either assumes everyone desperate enough to risk a watery death to flee Libya is an economic migrant, rather than a refugee, and therefore mistakenly believes pushing them back is not considered refoulement.

Or that they don’t see Libya as dangerous. An odd conclusion seeing as how one of the EU documents I obtained makes reference to the fact that the Global Peace Index ranks Libya as one of the 10 least peaceful countries in the world, and the third least safe country in Africa, above Somalia and then South Sudan.

“Since the launch of training as an additional task in September 2016,” the Council document mentioned above states, “Operation Sophia has also been able to train more than 355 personnel of the Libyan Navy coastguard, both at sea and in member states’ facilities.”

But what exactly has Operation Sophia’s staff been training those 355 personnel to do?

Well, after sending another FOI request to the EEAS for any information regarding the funding, equipping or training of the Libyan Coastguard in 2019, they provided me with an undated document from Frontex — the EU’s border and coastguard agency — entitled: “Training Programme for the Libyan General Administration for Coastal Security.”

Until now I’ve referred to the Libyan Coastguard as a single entity when in fact it seems there are (at least) two with slightly overlapping responsibilities.

In Libya, the entity we’d traditionally think of as a coastguard (“an organisation keeping watch on coastal waters in order to assist people or ships in danger and to prevent smuggling,” as defined by my dictionary) is the Libyan Coast Guard and Port Security (LCGPS), which is responsible to the defence ministry.

The Libyan General Administration for Coastal Security (GACS), the entity that Frontex has supposedly trained, is a law enforcement agency established within the structure of the Libyan ministry of the interior.

A quick note before we continue here. The dozens of EU documents I have seen are consistently inconsistent in the way they refer to the Libyan Coastguard. Sometimes they’re referred to as two separate entities. Sometimes just one.

The actual difference between the LCGPS and GACS is not immediately clear in the Frontex document. However, according to an EU Emergency Trust Fund (ETF) paper, GACS’s “competences at sea are up to 12 nautical miles,” but “beyond this limit the LCGPS is responsible.”

The GACS is also “responsible for a 30km (18-mile) band of land along the coastline, which is 1,700km (1,050 miles) long. It has law enforcement powers, thus it is in charge of countering any illegal activities in its area of responsibility, including irregular migration and trafficking of human beings.”

The LCGPS, according to the EU ETF paper, has similar responsibilities but is also in charge of search and rescue operations.

“The training,” the Frontex document says, “focuses on border and coastguard functions and its goal is to provide trainees with basic knowledge, skills and competences needed for the effective implementation of GACS mandate, in full compliance with international law.”

Two of the things the Libyan Coastguards should be able to do upon completion of the training, Frontex claims, are:

“Perform all duties and responsibilities in a manner that upholds and protects human rights…” and “apply self-defence techniques to overcome passive and active resistance without exercising excessive use of force…”

Last September a member of the Libyan Coastguard killed a Sudanese man after he was intercepted in the Mediterranean and brought back to Tripoli.

The IOM said that its staff who were at the scene saw armed men begin shooting when several migrants tried to run away from their guards.

“The [man] was struck by a bullet in the stomach. Despite immediately receiving medical aid on the spot by an IOM doctor and then being transferred to a nearby clinic, he died two hours after admission.

“The death is a stark reminder of the grim conditions faced by migrants picked up by the coastguard after paying smugglers to take them to Europe, only to find themselves put into detention centres, whose conditions have been condemned by IOM and the UN.”

Another tragic case involving the coastguard was the death of at least 50 people and the wounding of 130 others when the Tajoura detention centre on the outskirts of Tripoli was bombed in July 2019.

“It was known that there were 600 people living inside [the centre],” UNHCR spokesman Charlie Yaxley said at the time. “So there can be no excuse for this centre having been hit.”

Some of those killed that day had been intercepted at sea by the Libyan Coastguard.

Days after the bombing, the ruined Tajoura detention centre was again filled with refugees intercepted by the coastguard.

Frontex claims, those who passed the training should be able to “demonstrate a range of skills necessary for safe conduct of GACS activities at sea…”

The crew of the refugee rescue ship Alan Kurdi have twice witnessed this “safe conduct” in action.

Last October as the crew was approaching a dinghy with 91 people on board, three Libyan-flagged speedboats with mounted machine guns attempted to stall the operation by sailing in between the refugees and the Alan Kurdi and sporadically firing their machine guns into the air and the water.

Jan Ribbeck, director of mission for Sea Eye, the charity that operates the Alan Kurdi, told me that day that the boats had no identification and no radios.

“They forced us to stop transferring people from the rubber boat to the Alan Kurdi,” Ribbeck said. “We had to return to our ship several times because of the shooting.

“People were jumping from the rubber boat into the water. The men pulled a few people out and put them in their boat but [the refugees] later jumped out and swam towards the Alan Kurdi.”

Eventually the speedboats left and all 91 people were saved.

A similar situation occurred again in April when the Alan Kurdi located a wooden boat off the Libyan coast carrying 68. A coastguard ship arrived and began shooting into the water. This caused half the people in the boat to jump overboard. None of them were wearing life jackets.

Eventually, the Libyans left and all 68 people were saved.

In both cases it is unclear whether the so-called coastguards were part of the GACS, the LCGPS, or some other militia force.

Frontex’s training document states that the GACS should be able to “demonstrate effective communication skills and techniques relevant to GACS activities at sea.”

The central Mediterranean is spilt up into four search and rescue (SAR) zones with Italy, Malta, Libya and Tunisia being responsible for co-ordinating rescue missions in one zone each.

David Starke, general director of the migrant rescue charity SOS Mediterranee, explains: “According to international law if we rescue people in the Libyan search-and-rescue zone, we have to co-ordinate our actions with them, which we do.

“However, they often do not respond to calls, to emails. So the requirements which national rescue-coordination centres should have are not in place in Libya.”

Hannah Wallace Bowman, a communications manager for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) who took part in a rescue mission on board the rescue ship Ocean Viking last year, also said the Libyan Coastguards are often unresponsive.

She told me last year: “When we’ve tried to contact the [Libyan] authorities, they simply don’t respond. If they do pick up the phone, they don’t speak English, which is a requirement for co-ordination centres.”

Activists from the refugee emergency hotline organisation Alarm Phone have said on many occasions that when they contact the Libyan coastguards about a distress case, their co-ordination centre is unresponsive.

On one occasion last year when they did respond to Alarm Phone, the Libyan authorities told the activists that “their ships would remain in port due to ‘bad weather’.”

Jacob Berkson, a member of Alarm Phone told me recently that “the Libyan coastguards are not coastguards. They’re militias and their well-documented practices are not the practices of a search and rescue organisation.”

I could go on and on listing the Libyan coastguards’ many flaws, human rights abuses and the times they returned migrants to their war-ravaged country.

Frontex’s training cannot be considered successful given the coastguard (or coastguards’) record this and last year.

Of course, training them to saves lives at sea is a noble endeavour. After all it is better to be rescued than to die of exposure after days in the Mediterranean within sight of Europe.

However, if Europe cared about refugees stranded in the world’s deadliest border, then it would not only relaunch its own rescue ships but also demand that the Libyan Coastguard take refugees to a port of safety.

If Europe cared it  would not use chartered planes to detect migrant boats from the air and guide the Libyan Coastguard to them.

If Europe cared, it would put pressure on Malta — which has time and again co-ordinated the pushback of refugees adrift within its own SAR area with the Libyans.

If Europe cared it would not put undue restrictions on the NGO refugee rescue ships that have stepped in to prevent the deaths at the continent’s border.

As Chris Grodotzki, an activist with the German refugee rescue charity Sea Watch, said: “Many European politicians are currently loudly denouncing racist police violence in the US.

“But out here [in the Mediterranean], where the respect for black lives has decreased continuously for years, thousands are struggling for breath without authorities having to physically kneel on their neck.

“This too is systemic racism.”

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