A seahorse for the Mediterranean: Border surveillance for Libyan search and rescue zone

Libya is to become the first third-state to join the EU’s satellite-supported “Seahorse Mediterranean” network. The Italian military is currently setting up the necessary control centres, to be followed by a new application for a search and rescue zone, supported by Italy. In the end, the Libyan coastguard is to coordinate all maritime search and rescue missions itself.

Shortly after Muammar Gaddafi‘s fall from power in 2011, the European Union attempted to incorporate Libyan border surveillance into European systems. Just one year later, rebels in the first post-revolution government signed a declaration with the intention of establishing maritime situation centres in the capital Tripoli and in Benghazi. The Libyan coastguard, which is part of the military, was to be linked with the Mediterranean Border Cooperation Centre (MEBOCC) in Rome. Libyan border guards would then have been provided with information from the European states bordering the Mediterranean in real time, in order to prevent refugees from crossing to Italy and Malta.

System to “reduce” illegal migration

At the time, the Libyan rebels and the European Union could have relied on a maritime traffic management system sold in 2010 by the Irish company Transas to Gaddafi’s government for 18 million euros. It was meant to secure surveillance of the 2,000 kilometre long coast with its 15 ports from two control centres in Tripoli and Benghazi. Transas promoted its “Navi-Harbour 4.3” software as the “heart of the project”, which among other things would ensure a “reduction” in illegal migration.

According to a spokesperson for the Libyan authorities, this purchase was made in connection with obligations in international treaties that the land had to meet, including those regarding security at sea, the fight against maritime pollution and the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS-Code), a set of measures to protect against threats to ships and ports. Gaddafi had also concluded a treaty for a border surveillance system valued at 300 million euros with the Italian Finmeccanica group (now known as Leonardo) for the land border with Niger, Chad and Sudan with a similar objective.

“Seahorse Mediterranean” follows “Seahorse Atlantic”

From 2014 on, the emerging civil war between the various rebel groups initially put a stop to the planned networking between Libya and Europe. Seven years after the uprising against Gaddafi, the integration of Libya in a European network of satellite-supported surveillance could however become a reality. Two years ago, EU states bordering the Mediterranean – Portugal, France, Italy, Malta, Greece and Cyprus, led by Spain, came together to form the “Seahorse Mediterranean” network.

The communication infrastructure allows maritime incident reports to be exchanged, including search and rescue missions or other critical events. “Seahorse Mediterranean” follows the “Seahorse Atlantic” project established by the Spanish Guardia Civil at the beginning of the millennium. The West African states Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde are also involved in this undertaking.

“Seahorse 2.0” with Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt?

Libya is to become the first non-European member to join “Seahorse Mediterranean”. The Libyan coastguard will then receive access to information from the Fusion Services of the European Eurosur surveillance system. This intelligence data comes among other places from EU military missions, the EU border agency Frontex, as well as the US Command Africom in Stuttgart and the EU Satellite centre SatCen. In so far as the border surveillance systems installed under Gaddafi have not been destroyed over the past years, these could continue to be used to some extent under “Seahorse Mediterranean”. After Libya, other North African countries are ultimately to be integrated into the shared surveillance system. The European Commission is financing the planned integration of Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt under the project name “Seahorse 2.0” with 10 million euros.

Libya is a signatory to both the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR Convention). These agreements cover the roles of the relevant states in a search and rescue region (SAR). However, the relevant Libyan authorities and militia have thus far not been fulfilling the obligations laid out in the agreements. These include identifying a SAR zone adjacent to their territorial waters and establishing a rescue coordination centre for the coast guard missions.

Provisional withdrawal of SAR zone application

In August last year, the internationally-recognised and Western-backed Government of National Accord under Libyan Prime Minister Fajis al-Saraj announced the creation of a SAR zone 74 nautical miles wide. The coordinates of this were passed on to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) as the relevant authority, where international notification of this zone was requested. At same time, a threat was issued to private rescuers, warning against operation in the area. Help came from the EU in this respect: The Commission in Brussels had tasked Italian border authorities in 2016 with carrying out an initial feasibility study on the establishment of a Libyan coordination centre.

On 10th December, Libya has provisionally withdrawn the application to determine the search and rescue region. This followed an implication from the IMO in December that without a rescue coordination centre, the requirements for international registration of the SAR zone were not met.

Nothing is known about the reasons of the withdrawal. Probably Libya would not have met the relevant conditions, and the request would thus have been declined. According to the IMO principles, any SAR zone needs a Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) which must operate 24/7, its staff shall speak English and should be provided with relevant communication means and ambulance vehicles. This is why all rescue missions in high seas are still coordinated by the Italian MRCC in Rome.

Attacks against rescue missions

A reason for the IMO to be sceptical towards the Libyan request might have been the several incidents against rescue missions in the Mediterranean. The Libyan coastguard frequently attacked private ships and gunshots were fired. Even a German navy ship was threatened.

At the same time, the Libyan coastguard was supported with equipment and training by the European military mission EUNAVFOR MED. Among the focus of the trainings were search and rescue missions, first aid, humanitarian law and human rights. But this did not help. On the contrary: on the 6th of November, the Libyan coastguard again attacked a ship from the German non-profit organization Sea Watch, and several refugees drowned. The coastguard ship was one of four Bigliani-III-patrol boats delivered by Italy in May 2017. Eight of the 13 staff members were previously trained in EUNAVFOR MED.

New application with Italy

The suspension of the Libyan SAR zone was only short-term. Supported by Italy, the Libyan Government of National Accord submitted a new request at the IMO a couple of days after the withdrawal, as the Italian journalist Lorenzo Bagnioli reports. The focal point of the new application is the missing MRCC, for which Italy now takes responsibility. Its control center in Tripoli should be operational in 2020. Until then, the functionalities of this MRCC will be covered by a Italian navy ship anchoring in Tripoli since August 2017.

The governments in Rome and Tripoli entered into a migration agreement, at the core of which was the provision of radar systems and drones, along with equipment and training. By 2023, the Libyan authorities are to receive 285 million euros to expand their border facilities, according to the Italian Ministry of the Interior. At the end of November Mario Morcone, Prefect at the Italian Ministry of the Interior, outlined the three objectives in the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs of the European Parliament in Brussels: combatting human trafficking, protecting lives at sea and in refugee camps and supporting local communities in accepting refugees. These objectives were developed accordingly together with the EU.

Maritime surveillance systems a growing market

The individual measures mentioned by Morcone include the coordination of Italian and Libyan coastguards, optimisation of Libyan search and rescue missions and land border surveillance by Libyan border guards. A second phase from 2021-2023 will provide technological support to the operational centres, which will presumably form the connection to the “Seahorse Mediterranean” network.

It is still unclear which company will be commissioned for the control centres. The German-French Airbus group, the Italian company Leonardo and the German security firm Signalis are all involved in the development and marketing of such facilities. Their platforms can be expanded as required and can integrate systems for coastal surveillance, ship observations or coordination of rescue measures – a growth market, likely to ensure millions in profit over the years as a result of the further militarisation on the external borders of the EU. The surveillance systems are able to incorporate images from optical or radar-based satellite reconnaissance, depending on equipment.

Navigation data from the Automatic Identification System (AIS) and the long-range identification and tracking (LRIT) system can also be used to identify ships. In addition, there are radar units, cameras and infrared sensors that are either permanently installed along the coast or on board ships and planes to improve situation reporting. This allows ships to be tracked and monitored both at open sea and in harbours. Software is used to automatically recognise whether a ship is considered suspicious if it sails an unusual course or is travelling at a conspicuous speed.

Who controls Libyan borders?

Questions remain, however, regarding which sections of the coast will be monitored at all by the Libyan Government of National Accord and at which sites the partially remote-controlled surveillance systems can be set up. The Libyan coastguard operates from several bases across several sectors (including Zuwara, Tripoli, Misrata, Benghazi, Derna and Tobruk). According to the German Government, the troops comprise around 3500 people.

In many of these harbours, however, the coastguard is controlled by militias that are not always loyal to the Government of National Accord or are even engaged in direct combat with militia from Tripoli. The influence of the regime recognised by the European Union is limited at any rate, with only two crossing points in Tripoli under its control out of a total of around 25 land, air and sea crossing points at the external borders.

Migrants can be brought back to Libya

This situation could change with the new initiative to establish a maritime situation centre. If the European Union were to manage to encourage the Government of National Accord to disclose a legally watertight maritime rescue zone, then the rescue missions off Libya could be coordinated by the authorities in the region.

Unlike the ships in the EU military mission EUNAVFOR MED or merchant ships, the Libyan patrol boats would be able to escort the rescued parties on board back to Libya without infringing upon the principle of non-refoulement enshrined under international law. Thus the creation of such a coordination centre means a nightmare for hundreds of thousands of refugees and independently-organised rescue missions that have been repeatedly shot at by coastguard units. There is already evidence about the Italian navy’s involvement in such a facilitating return of migrants to Libya.

Image: Italian navy meets Libyan counterparts in December 2017 (all rights reserved Forze Armate Stato Maggiore Difesa).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.