Over recent years, the EU and its member states have progressively reduced their presence in the Central Mediterranean Sea and have sought to criminalise and de-legitimise NGOs carrying out vital Search and Rescue (SAR) operations. At the same time, the EU has (re)-rebuilt the so-called Libyan coastguards by equipping, training, and politically legitimising them. The Libyan coastguards, effectively a militia with documented involvement in human rights violations and human smuggling, are meant to intercept migrant boats before they can reach EU SAR zones.
Until today, 408 million euros have been mobilised from the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa in Libya-connected activities. Of these approximately 81 million euros were used for the reinforcement of border controls. At least 40 maritime assets have been delivered or restored in the last two years to the Libyan authorities for the same purpose thanks to funding from Italy. The creation of a new SAR region under the coordination of Tripoli and the delegation of responsibility to the Libyan authorities by EU actors has contributed to systematic ‘refoulement by proxy’ operations. Central tool in this strategy is the Italy-Libya Memorandum of Understanding “on cooperation in the field of development, combating illegal immigration, trafficking in human beings, smuggling and strengthening border security” signed by the two countries in 2017 and implicitly renewed last February.
Crucial for mass interceptions off the coast of Libya is also EU aerial surveillance which has been expanded over recent months. In fact, we have witnessed a clear decrease of the presence of EU vessels in the Central Mediterranean, at least from last year on: Italy stopped to finance national SAR missions already in 2014 and was replaced since then by the EU border agency Frontex, whose ongoing operation in the area (Themis) has very restricted geographical limits and its ships don't navigate beyond 24 nautical miles from EU coasts. The same can be said for ships previously engaged in EUNAVFOR MED operation Sophia: since March 2019, the mission only operates via air surveillance. Based on EU aerial assets, migrant boats can be spotted and the Libyan authorities guided to the location of escaping boats. This aerial surveillance has led to the capture of tens of thousands of people and their return to their place of torment. In effect, Europe is delegating its ‘dirty work’ to Libyan forces which depend on donated military assets and EU surveillance.
Collusion with the Libyan coastguards in push-backs and deliberate delays of rescue.
In November 2019, a secret deal between the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) and the so-called Libyan coastguards (LCG) became public1. The person directly responsible for the deal, acting as intermediate, was a former representative of the Prime Minister’s office, Neville Gafà. The renewed cooperation between Malta and the LCG started at the end of 2018: the deal aimed at preventing migrant boats from reaching Malta. It stipulated that for every migrant boat heading towards the Maltese Search and Rescue (SAR) zone and spotted by military assets, AFM and the LCG would coordinate the interception of the boat and return the people to Libya.
The cooperation between AFM and the LCG goes even further: on 18 October 2019, the Alarm Phone documented how the LCG intercepted a boat in distress from within the Maltese SAR zone: 50 people were captured and brought back to Libya2. Although the boat-people were spotted by a Maltese air asset, the AFM were not sent to rescue. Instead, the Maltese authorities monitored the boat for several hours from the air and waited for the LCG to enter the Maltese SAR zone. The people were brought back to Libya, although the closest port would have been the island of Lampedusa.
This incident was not an exception, as an even more recent example demonstrates: A pull-back out of Maltese SAR zone was documented by the Alarm Phone on 14 March 2020.3 After being spotted by a Frontex aerial asset, and in the presence of an EU aerial asset, the LCG intercepted 49 people on a fiberglass boat. The operation was coordinated by Malta. The boat had been tracked via air surveillance when it was still in the Libyan SAR zone. Using light signals, the EU aerial asset directed and guided the LCG vessel to the boat-people, as the survivors told the Alarm Phone. The use of light signals is a common communication method between EU aerial assets and Libyan vessels, as other investigations have confirmed.4
Both cases lead to the conclusion that Malta's agreement with the LCG is establishing a regular system of pull/push-backs to Libya, also for migrant boats within the Maltese SAR zone. As Libya has not a safe port, all pull-backs from international waters are illegal. In coordinating pull-backs from its own SAR zone, Malta is directly implicated in human rights abuses.
Delays of rescue
Malta also continuously delays rescues, as documented several times by the Alarm Phone5. In multiple cases, the AFM reacted only several hours after the initial alert to a boat in distress. For many of the people in distress, this has meant spending at least a whole night at sea, in precarious conditions, without food and water, and at risk of capsizing or sinking at any time. Being forced to wait on unseaworthy and overcrowded boats and mostly without life vests, lives are deliberately put in danger in acts of non-assistance.
For example, in the evening of 13 March 2020, the Alarm Phone alerted RCC Malta and MRCC Rome of 110 people in distress on a rubber boat in the Maltese SAR zone. Throughout the night, the Alarm Phone kept in contact with the desperate people on board, supporting them while they were ignored by European authorities. A merchant vessel was ordered to monitor the boat for a few hours but left again in the early morning, leaving the people alone and in despair. Only in the evening – 18 hours after the first alert to the authorities – the people were rescued and finally disembarked in Malta.
The so-called “Malta Agreement“ in September 2019, signed by a few EU member states who agreed to guarantee relocation of rescued people from Malta to other EU member states, seems to have been silently suspended in recent weeks. Unfortunately, as a result, further cases of non-assistance and delays in rescues by Malta can be expected.