EU development aid: Italy is gifting more surveillance technology to the Libyan coastguard

With a mobile maritime monitoring centre, EU member states hope to improve the migration deterrence of authorities in Libya. The delivery with an Italian warship is also a signal to Turkey.

Libya has received new technology for monitoring the Mediterranean Sea from Italy. The equipment, financed with EU funds, is installed in containers and was brought to Tripoli by the „San Giorgio“ helicopter carrier. The daily newspaper „Repubblica“ describes the transfer as a „covert operation“. However, it is the long-announced delivery of a mobile Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC).

It is being financed from development aid funds within the framework of the EU project „Support to Integrated Border and Migration Management in Libya“ (SIBMMIL). In a first phase, the EU had approved €46 million from the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa for this purpose, followed by another €15 million in 2018. With this money, the EU wants to equip the Libyan coast guard for better migration deterrence.

Rohde & Schwarz radios

The information and monitoring technology installed in containers is intended to help detect refugees in small boats on their way to countries such as Malta or Italy and then bring them back to Libya. For this purpose, the country is receiving another three patrol vessels from Italy, which are also financed by the Emergency Trust Fund.

The contract for the delivery of the mobile MRCC went to the Italian company ELMAN. Their equipment consists of various communication systems as prescribed in the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). This includes radios from the German company Rohde & Schwarz and equipment for receiving emergency and warning messages from the British company Inmarsat. The Italian Ministry of the Interior is to train Libyan personnel to operate the technology.

Information from EU air surveillance

For several years, the EU has monitored the central Mediterranean Sea with aircraft in the military mission IRINI or in missions of the border agency Frontex and rescued people in distress at sea with ships. In the meantime, the maritime units have been withdrawn from the region or – as in IRINI – positioned far away from the routes of refugees. At the same time, the EU has expanded its civilian and military air surveillance, and the Libyan coast guard is then informed about sightings of boats.

However, such reports of distress at sea must be sent to an MRCC. This is stipulated in the regulations of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), which Libya has actually had to comply with since 2018. Without having such a Coordination Centre, the government declared three years ago that it was responsible for its own Search And Rescue zone and received €1.8 million from the EU Commission for this. The disbursement of the money was tied to the preparation of a feasibility study on the establishment of an MRCC.

Two competing coast guards

According to European Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi, the Libyan Coast Guard subsequently procured all-terrain vehicles, ambulances, protective suits, rescue equipment as well as „communication devices“ needed for such an MRCC. This, too, was funded by EU development assistance. However, it is unclear where the equipment has remained.

It is also not known who is to operate the container-based MRCC on Libya’s coasts. There are two major authorities in the country with maritime surveillance responsibilities, made up of partly competing militias. The civilian General Administration for Coastal Security (GACS) belongs to the Ministry of Interior and is responsible for the twelve-mile zone. The Libyan Coast Guard (LCG), which is part of the military, is responsible for security tasks on the high seas. Both take on port security tasks.

Unsuccessful previous missions

Eight years ago, the EU launched an Italian-led „Integrated Border Assistance Mission to Libya“ (EUBAM Libya). It is supposed to support the country’s authorities in monitoring the land borders in the south as well as the maritime borders, and the EU Commission and the External Action Service as well as Frontex also participate. One of the tasks of EUBAM Libya is the reorganisation of the two coast guards. However, due to the flare-up of the civil war, the mission has only existed with a minimum of personnel for two years.

The EU project „Seahorse Mediterranean“, which started in 2014, apparently also came to nothing. Under the leadership of the Spanish gendarmerie, the Libyan coast guard was to be connected to an information system of all EU Mediterranean countries. Libya would have been the first third country to be indirectly linked to the EU surveillance system EUROSUR, which is operated by Frontex in Warsaw. So far, however, there is no evidence that the € 5.5 million project has ever been implemented.

Signal to Turkey

With the container-based MRCC, the EU is making a new attempt to instrumentalise Libya as a gatekeeper for migration. But the arrival of an Italian helicopter carrier in the port of Tripoli is also a signal to Turkey, which had sent troops and military equipment to support the „Unity Government“ after the beginning of the civil war. The Turkish navy subsequently also trained the Libyan coast guard – a task previously undertaken by the EU military mission. Repeatedly, the European External Action Service in Brussels has tried to persuade Libya to resume training by IRINI. However, Turkey’s military presence has prevented this.

The newspaper „Repubblica“ therefore celebrates the delivery of the mobile MRCC as a successful action against „Turkish activism in Libya“ and a new beginning of good relations with the EU. The next few months will show whether the relationship is really improving. Planned for 24 December, a new president is to be elected in Libya. Almost a hundred candidates are running for office, including a son of the former ruler Muammar Al-Gaddafi and General Chalifa Haftar, who started the civil war in 2019.

Image: The MRCC for Libya (ELMAN).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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