November 30, 2022

German doctor Leona Blankenstein thought she misunderstood what was happening when the Libyan Coast Guard threatened to shoot down a plane belonging to the Marines, an NGO that was monitoring a boatload of migrants in the Mediterranean.

“Stay away from Libyan territory (waters), otherwise we will fire at you with SAMs (surface-to-air).” The warning came from the Fezzan, one of the patrol boats Italy has provided to Libya to intercept migrants trying to leave the war-torn country.

The two countries have signed a European Union-sponsored agreement to prevent migrants from crossing the central Mediterranean, a contentious text that revives controversy as Rome takes a hard line on immigration policy.

“It was so loud on the plane that I thought I might have misunderstood,” Blankenstein told AFP. It was October 25 when Blankenstein was on a plane belonging to the German aid organization Sea-Watch over Maltese waters.

According to Blankenstein and a video released by Sea Watch, the Libyan crew forced the migrants onto their boat before ripping the engine out of their boat and firing at it until it burst into flames.

“It happened in seconds (…) I was worried,” she said. Their behavior is unpredictable,” she said, explaining that she left the area as soon as she heard the warning.

The organizations say that since the signing of an agreement with Libya in 2017 by Italy and the European Union, which agreed to train and equip the Libyan coast guard, about 100 thousand people have been intercepted.

Despite calls to cancel the deal, it was automatically renewed in early November, days after Italy’s far-right government led by Georgia Meloni came to power.

The agreement was reached under pressure from large numbers of refugees fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya to seek asylum in Europe, and following a series of drowning incidents that killed or went missing a record 5,000 people in the Mediterranean in 2016. .

The European Commission explained that the goal was to “prevent loss of life in the Mediterranean while cracking down on migrant smuggling and human trafficking networks.”

According to the International Organization for Migration, 3,140 people died or went missing in 2017, up from 2,062 last year.

“Working with the authorities of third countries to prevent migrants from entering Europe is one of the main thrusts of European policy,” said Luigi Scazieri of the Center for European Reform.

The Italo-Libyan agreement proved to be “very effective” in reducing arrivals, at least initially.

Humanitarian organizations have denounced the risks migrants face from militias masquerading as the Libyan Coast Guard and have documented cases of live ammunition being used against migrant ships on the high seas.

Criticism points to a lack of accountability and transparency regarding grant recipients in Libya. This is due to the fact that a large number of people intercepted at sea are placed in Libyan centers, which Pope Francis compared to concentration camps.

Amnesty International, Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières allege that migrants in Libya are subjected to torture, sexual abuse or slavery.

But the Libyan authorities deny this. “Arrests are made in accordance with established rules,” the immigration officer said.

The organizations also say the European Union’s Frontex agency, which uses planes to monitor vulnerable migrants, is helping Libyans.

“The Libyan coast guards are not professionals, they need aerial surveillance and EU advice to find boats with migrants,” said Felix Weiss, spokesman for Sea-Watch Siberd.

For his part, lawyer and human rights activist Artur Salizni confirms to AFP that “pushing” migrants from European search and rescue zones towards Libya is considered “illegal” under European Union law if European countries are involved in it.

The Italian government did not respond to questions about this.

Italy annually welcomes millions of people who seek to cross the central Mediterranean, the most dangerous migration route in the world.

He signed a series of agreements during the first decade of the twenty-first century with former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who was ousted and assassinated in 2011, to curb the flow of waves of migrants.

This partnership was put on hold following the collapse of the Libyan government and Italy’s 2012 conviction by the European Court of Human Rights for intercepting migrants and forcibly returning them to Libya.

But in 2017, Paolo Gentiloni, who was head of a centre-left government, signed a new deal with Fayez al-Sarraj, head of Libya’s UN-backed government of national unity.

Since then, humanitarian organizations, including the Alarm phone hotline used by vulnerable migrants, have been ordered to “alert the Libyan Coast Guard,” Alarmphone’s Chiara Denaro told AFP.

The agreement soon drew criticism, and in 2018 the UN imposed sanctions on a number of Libyans directly involved in human trafficking.

Among them is Ahmed Omar al-Dabbashi, whose militants controlled camps and boats and subjected migrants, including minors, to “brutal and sometimes deadly conditions on land and at sea,” according to the UN.

In 2019, Italian journalist Nello Scavo reported that another human trafficker, Abd al-Rahman al-Milad, known as “Beja”, was involved in negotiations in Sicily with Italian officials about the details of the 2017 migrant deal.

Beja was suspended from the Libyan Coast Guard in 2018 but continued to be involved in the “migrant rescue” the following year, according to a United Nations report cited by Scavo.

Two days after the threat to the plane, Sea-Watch announced that it had evidence of Libyan coast guard cooperation with smugglers.

The NGO released photos of a wooden boat carrying migrants with a sign reading 1688 taken by Seabird in early October during an intercept by the Coast Guard.

The same boat was photographed three days later with various migrants on board, indicating it was returned to Libya and reused, according to Sea-Watch.

In total, the European Union has allocated about 59 million euros to increase the operational capacity of the Libyan Coast Guard, including the training of about 500 people between 2015 and 2020, when the operation was halted.

Discussions are underway with Libyans to resume this training, “with a focus on human rights and international law,” an EU official told AFP.

She explained that UNHCR hired an independent contractor in 2019 to oversee operations in Libya, but its reports were not made public due to security concerns.

For its part, Italy has committed at least 32.5 million euros to support missions to the Libyan Coast Guard since 2017, according to a report by the humanitarian organization Arsi last year.

Amnesty International confirmed on Sunday that it is “shameful” that Rome “continues to assist the Libyan authorities in violating the human rights of its people.”

Sea-Watch, one of the relief organizations that owns rescue boats in the Mediterranean, has been targeted by the new Meloni government.

At the end of last week, the Italian government refused to grant the right to moor four ships, and later allowed three of them to moor. The fourth ship headed for France, leading to a diplomatic dispute between Paris and Rome.

The Council of Europe contends that the obstruction of rescue operations by NGOs and the failure to allocate safe and close ports for disembarkation of the rescued at sea, in this case in Italy, are tactics “explicitly or implicitly aimed at + opening the way for interception.” “By the Libyan Coast Guard (…), despite overwhelming evidence of gross human rights violations.”

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