Three NGOs halt Mediterranean migrant rescues after Libyan hostility
Three NGOs have suspended migrant rescues in the Mediterranean because of the increasingly hostile stance of the Libyan authorities and coastguard.
Save the Children and Germany’s Sea Eye have (MSF) in halting operations because they feel their crews can no longer work safely in what called a “changed security situation in the western Mediterranean”.
has asserted its right to operate well beyond the territorial limit of 12 nautical miles, defending the move as necessary in order to control the rescue operations. Coastguard ships have repeatedly clashed with NGO vessels on the edge of Libyan waters, sometimes opening fire.
The crew of a rescue ship belonging to the Spanish aid group reported last week that the Libyan coastguard had while the vessel was in international waters. The Libyan coastguard told the ship not to come “or we will shoot you”, the charity said.
Marcella Kraay, onboard Aquarius, a vessel chartered by the German-French charity SOS Méditerranée, told the Guardian: “Obviously these incidents are something that concern us.
“Shooting in the air is actually a very common message of crowd control – it’s used to calm people down. What happened last week with Proactiva is not a big departure from the concerns we had before. We take this stuff very seriously in our security analysis.”
But Kraay said the crew’s main concern was for people being sent back to “lawless, violent” Libya, and for those who remain trapped there. Migrants and refugees who have spent time in detention camps in Libya have reported appalling treatment including forced labour, beatings, torture and rape.
“This is the real issue,” Kraay added, saying fewer boats had appeared to be leaving in the past couple of weeks and there was evidence that many were being turned back. “People in Libya are suffering immensely, their only way out is via the sea.”
A Libyan coastguard official, Ayoub Qassem, said that in general, the country “does not reject the NGOs’ presence, but we do demand from them more cooperation with the state of Libya. They should show more respect to Libyan sovereignty”.
Sea Eye said it had reached its decision “with a heavy heart”. In a , its founder, Michael Busch Heuer, said it would “leave a deadly gap in the Mediterranean”, adding that Libya had made an “explicit threat” against NGOs operating around its coast.
Save the Children said its rescue ship, the Vos Hestia, would stay in Malta until it received assurances from the Libyan authorities. “The necessary pause in operations from charity rescue ships likes ours and others will undoubtedly put lives at risk,” said the group’s operations director, Rob MacGillivray.
Tensions have also been mounting for weeks between the aid groups, whose vessels have rescued nearly one-third of the 100,000 migrants who have landed in Italy this year, and the government of , where public opinion is increasingly turning against migrants.
The Italian navy is providing technical and operational assistance to Libya’s coastguard to increase its capacity to intercept migrant boats and return their passengers to Libya, while some politicians in Rome have suggested that certain NGOs may be actively facilitating people smuggling.
Rome has drawn up a strict and prosecutors in Sicily have begun investigations against some they suspect of colluding with people smugglers. The Italian foreign minister, Angelino Alfano, said Libya’s growing involvement was reducing people smuggling.
In an interview in La Stampa on Sunday, Alfano said Rome aimed to avoid deaths at sea by “reducing departures” from Libya. The government’s policy was of “taking away criminal earnings from traffickers, because fewer persons departing mean the traffickers earn less”, to finance aid agencies working with refugees and migrants to “assure respect for human rights in Libyan camps”.
The vast majority of refugees and migrants reaching Europe this year have landed in Italy, according to the International Organisation for . At least 2,242 people are thought to have died this year attempting to cross the western and central Mediterranean.