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The Nivin and El Hiblu 1 cases: Migrant resistance against privatised pushbacks

Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani
Co-Directors of Border Forensics

During the night between the 6 and 7 November 2018, a group of 93 migrants left the coast of Zlitan, seeking to escape Libya and travel to Europe by boat. In the afternoon of 7 November, a Spanish aircraft part of the EU anti-smuggling operation EUNAVFOR MED Sophia (ENFM) sighted them and relayed their sighting to the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome which, in turn, informed the Libyan Coastguard. As the Libyan forces were already engaged in the interception of another migrant boat, the 93 migrants continued to navigate north. The precarious passengers alerted activists of the emergency hotline Alarm Phone who remained in contact with them, gathering information and GPS positions and passing them on to the Italian authorities. In the meantime, the Libyan authorities identified a vessel transiting the area of distress, the 88-metre-long vehicle carrier Nivin, flying the Panama flag. Lacking the communication equipment to contact the Nivin captain, the Libyan authorities requested MRCC Rome to alert the Nivin on their behalf and instruct the vehicle carrier to conduct a rescue operation. In the early hours of 8 November, the Nivin reached the boat in distress and rescued the 93 distressed migrants. According to the rescued people, the Nivin crew informed them that they would be brought to Italy. In reality, however, the vehicle carrier proceeded toward Misrata, as instructed by the Libyan authorities. When the Libyan authorities approached the Nivin in the open sea to transfer the passengers, the rescued people realised they had been lied to. Fearing for their lives if returned, they refused to be transferred to the Libyan Coastguard. In an act of resistance, they locked themselves up in the hold of the ship to protect themselves from Libyan officials threatening them. The migrants later refused to disembark in the port of Misrata, where the boat arrived in the morning of 10 November, and remained confined inside the vessel. Thanks to a mobile phone, they were able to communicate their plight and refusal to disembark to the outside world. The stand-off lasted for ten days. On 20 November, Libyan security forces violently removed the passengers from the ship. The migrants describe suffering serious wounds during the attack, including as a result of being shot at with both rubber and standard bullets. After the forced disembarkation, they faced detention and ill-treatment, including torture and forced labour. Just like the El Hiblu case, the Nivin exemplifies the practice of privatised pushback – when EU actors use merchant ships to rescue and bring back migrants to a country in which their lives are at risk – that emerged immediately after Italian Interior minister Matteo Salvini implemented his ‘closed ports’ policy in June 2018. As rescue NGOs were further criminalised, and European state actors further withdrew from operating rescue, this policy created a rescue gap that the Libyan coast guard were unable to fill. The Italian and Libyan coast guard increasingly called upon merchant ships transiting in the area to carry out rescue and refoulement by proxy. It is this practice and policy that we have documented in our report on the Nivin case. Our report has served as the basis for a legal case brought on 18 December 2019 by Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) to the United Nations Human Rights Committee on behalf of one of the survivors who was shot and removed from the Nivin. The Nivin and the El Hiblu case also demonstrate the same pattern of migrant resistance. They exemplify the tremendous courage, collective intelligence and solidarity enacted by the passengers as they resisted the violation of their rights. This too is a pattern that has emerged strongly since June 2018: in the face of radicalised border violence, migrants’ radicalised their practises of resistance. We stand in solidarity with migrants exercising their right to resistance.