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EU-funded Libyan Coastguard has returned over half the refugees who tried to flee the country by sea

The civil migrant rescue fleet condemns Europe's border policies after the UNHCR publishes the shocking data

THE civil refugee rescue fleet has denounced Europe’s border policies after a United Nations report published today found that the EU-funded Libyan coastguard has returned over half of the people who have tried to flee the war-torn country by sea so far this year.

According to the report, entitled Desperate Journeys, from UN refugee agency the UNHCR, some 637 people are believed to have died while trying to reach Europe by sea from Libya in 2019.  

The study also finds that more than a quarter (28 per cent) of the refugees who arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean this year were children.

“So far this year, 58 per cent of people who departed from Libya by sea were later disembarked back in Libya, usually following interception or rescue by the Libyan coastguard,” the report says. 

Frederic Penard, head of operations at French migrant rescue charity SOS Mediterranee, told the Star that those figures were a direct result of EU border policies. 

“It’s a development that has been growing over the last years and months,” he said. 

“There have been less and less dedicated rescue assets in the sea and, at the same time, there has been an increasing effort from the European Union to train, equip and finance the Libyan coastguard to conduct these interceptions and bring people back to Libya,” Mr Penard added.

“It’s a very clear consequence of a policy of externalising border control to the southern shores of the Mediterranean, rather than putting the emphasis on saving lives at sea. 

“There’s a huge incoherence in the EU’s speech and acts. On the one hand, there are the values that they claim to defend, and on the other hand, they know perfectly well the consequences of equipping the Libyan coastguard.”

Among the report’s recommendations, the UNHCR reiterates its calls for the EU to resume search and rescue missions, to end restrictions on NGO migrant rescue operations and to urge the Libyan authorities to end its detention of migrants, including those rescued at sea.

Meanwhile, the Ocean Viking — a ship operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) that rescued 176 migrants over the weekend in Libyan coastal waters — refused to accept Tripoli as a port of safety today and instead set sail for international waters between Malta and Italy.  

SOS Mediterranee co-founder and vice-president Sophie Beau said: “It is now the fourth time since the Ocean Viking started operations that we are waiting to be assigned a place of safety to disembark rescued people. 

“EU governments have failed so far to set up a predictable disembarkation mechanism in accordance with maritime law. Ad hoc agreements cannot be the solution. We call upon governments to put an end to this unacceptable situation.”

Simon Pompe, a spokesman for German NGO migrant rescue charity Sea Eye, told the Star that Libya is not a safe port, particularly not for children.

“Proven dangers include human trafficking, sexualised violence, economic exploitation, general lawlessness, horrific standards in detention centres and ongoing civil strife. 

“Any strategy by European states that counts on fleeing people being returned to Libya’s detention centres constitutes a moral failure and is in ill-faith of international law forbidding the disembarkation of refugees in unsafe ports. 

“The fact that approximately 58 per cent of all people attempting to flee Libya have been returned there by the so-called Libyan coastguard is extremely worrisome.

“European shores are the only safe options for people attempting the crossing and the European Union must produce a strategy for the safe disembarkation of all fleeing people only in safe harbours as soon as possible.”


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