Libya’s coast guard is endangering refugees and aid workers.

Armed border police in the Mediterranean are acting against refugee boats and rescue ships, sometimes aggressively – and in the most recent instance with fatal consequences. In spite of the threat the German Government wants to support the Libyans.

By Kristiana Ludwig, Malta.

When the ship turned off its lights and left, panic ensued on the refugee boat. The men in uniform who were now disappearing into the night, had beaten the boat’s passengers. Now one of the tubes was damaged and water was collecting between people’s feet. The skipper of the nearby rescue ship Sea-Watch 2 wrote in his logbook that at 3.25 am the first people fell or jumped into the water. “The boat is clearly sinking, ” he noted at the time.

A Sea-Watch spokesman later said that up to 30 people drowned during this night. Meanwhile the organisation has brought a charge against the Libyan coast guard at the Hamburg prosecuting attorney’s office – for an “attack on maritime traffic.” The men in uniform had hindered the rescue operation massively.

The incident off the Libyan coast on 21 October, which the German aid organisation called an “attack of the Libyan coast guard,” was the culmination so far of a conflict between European rescue boats and armed boats from Libya, which have clashed more and more frequently this year.

Civilian rescuers from Europe were threatened at gunpoint, one of their boats was shot at, another one seized. In September two German crew members were taken into Libyan detention. The Embassy in Tripolis and the German Navy finally got them back.

The climate for aid organisations in the Mediterranean has changed. But so far the German Government has not provided an answer to the question of who is responsible for what is happening between Libya and Italy.

During the past two years the number of private rescue boats off Libya has increased. The aid organisations want to rescue those who board rubber boats there to cross to Italy. The people smugglers have been counting on the rescuers for quite a while already. German organisations like Jugend rettet (Youth rescues), SOS Méditerranée or Sea-Watch start with their boats from Malta, as does the Spanish rescue group Proactiva Open Arms, the private initiative Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) or Doctors without Borders (MSF).

The search for refugees in the Mediterranean has become more professional. Volunteer aid workers and employed life savers coordinate their operations and cooperate at sea. The overall coordination of their missions is done by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome, which tasks the boats’ crews with emergency aid and the transfer of rescued refugees to Italy.

In Libya on the other hand, the situation is confused. The country is split, several governments are competing for the rule. While thousands of refugees from Africa and other continents want to cross from there to Europe, different political groups control the sea, air and land borders. During the summer the Libyan unity government in Tripolis, with whom the EU is negotiating, was controlling only parts of the sea border around Tripolis. Militias of other political groups were in charge of guarding the coasts of the remaining border towns.

Notwithstanding this unclear situation, in late October the EU started training 78 members of that coast guard, which is controlled from Tripolis, on navy ships. According to the European Foreign Service, they are supposed to later support European soldiers “to disrupt people smuggling and smuggling networks,” as well as “save lives” in the Mediterranean. In spite of the fact that many of the incidents between civilian boats and coast guard members have not been cleared up to this day.

Already in April armed men in camouflage battledress stopped the Sea-Watch 2. First they shot into the air from a motorized rubber boat and then entered the rescue boat with machine guns. After a talk with the volunteers on board they left. According to the EU operations room in Rome, they were “representatives of the so-called Libyan coast guard,” who had suspected illegal fishing.

In August a Doctors without Borders ship was shot at from a speedboat. This was a mistake as well, according to an assessment by the German Government. It was “inexperienced and poorly trained personnel” of the coast guard, whose warning shots led to “unintended hits.” This is what a spokesman of the Libyan Navy declared.

But a protocol by Doctors without Borders states that the men systematically searched the ship and that bullet holes were to be found all over the ship. Back then a German and a British navy ship and a helicopter had rushed to the ship’s aid. The MRCC in Rome recommended that all aid organisations leave the area.

The contradiction has not yet been lifted. The Libyan Navy announced that they would investigate the case. But according to the Foreign Office, to this day, ” there is no further information.”

The German Government has been negotiating with the unity government in Tripolis for the past two months regarding a further incident. In early September guards seized a speedboat belonging to the Regensburg organisation Sea-Eye. They took the boat and its two crew members to Libya. A navy spokesperson claimed that they had attempted to escape at sea.

“I saw a speedboat approaching us at very high speed. We were racing each other for a short while,” speedboat pilot Dittmar Kania told Bavarian Radio. But when he made out uniforms and guns, they surrendered.

The German Embassy fought for the release of the two activists. After three days a German Navy ship took them back. But their boat remained in Libya. According to the German Foreign Office, German diplomats have been “in permanent contact” with the Libyans since then in order to clarify the incident and to achieve the release of the boat. Sea-Eye treasurer Tilman Mischkowsky is considering how to transport a suitcase filled with ransom money to Libya.

Many European aid organisations have adapted their security concept to the management of armed attacks. The boats’ crews exercise the retreat into safe rooms. Most recently, in September, the crew of the organisation Jugend rettet escaped from armed men in uniform into the interior of their ship.

The initiative MOAS, which also searches the sea for refugee boats with drones manufactured by the Austrian arms company Schiebel, have let themselves in for a special form of “diplomacy” with the Libyan coast guard. In September two members of the Libyan Navy accompanied the rescue ship, dressed in the organisation’s blue T-shirts. A MOAS spokeswoman explained that they were expecting to encounter fewer problems at sea and in the air: “We need a good relationship.”

The Libyan Salah Sabri, who accompanied the MOAS, also mentioned a further reason for his dispatch to the harbour of Malta. He said that at the order of the Libyan Ministry of Defence he was supposed to test the Schiebel drones, which might soon be used by the Libyan coast guard as well.

A spokeswoman of the organisation said that the two soldiers were mainly “on-the-spot-mediators,” who, if need be, could clear up misunderstandings at sea. Of course this “did not entirely exclude” that they were interested in the drones and “collected information on the spot accordingly.” The Libyans say that the Defence Ministry has already bought several aircraft by Schiebel.

While arms factories and the Libyan unity government are coming to arrangements with one another, the German Government does not yet have “a definite situation assessment” concerning the latest accusation that the coast guard was responsible for the deaths of refugees. Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Office, Markus Ederer, said that the statements regarding the scene of the incident as well as the incident itself were contradictory so far. They were trying to achieve a clarification. It was therefore “even more important” that the Europeans now train the Libyan coast guard.

Left-wing MP Andrej Hunko criticizes the cooperation harshly. It was not acceptable, he said, “that these brutal Libyan units are now being supported and trained on EU war ships.” After all it was going to be their task to catch refugees on their way towards the European Union and to keep them in Libyan camps. In a torn country, where according to the German Government, “regular massive human rights violations – including against refugees and migrants – are being perpetrated by militias of different sides.”


Source: Süddeutsche Zeitung, Munich, Germany