EU Commission continues to upgrade surveillance in Libya – and worries about its reputation

The EU is using development aid funds to finance a deployable radar system for the Libyan coast guard. The force, known for its brutality, wants to use it to detect refugees crossing to Europe. Then they will be intercepted by three new patrol boats.

Since 2017, the European Union has been investing in increased surveillance of Libya’s maritime borders. As part of the project „Support to Integrated Border Management and Migration Management in Libya – SIBMMIL“, Italy was tasked with installing a Maritime Coordination Centre in the capital Tripoli and defining a sea rescue zone, where the Libyan Coast Guard has been responsible ever since.

The establishment of the centre was initially financed by the EU with €42 million from the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, and a further €15 million was approved for a second phase of the project. However, neither the EU Commission nor the EU Council could say where the facility is located. It is therefore unclear what the money was spent on and where the purchased equipment has remained.

Surveillance technology in a container

In December, the Italian navy shipped further maritime border surveillance technology to Libya. It is based on a total of ten containers, their delivery was made to the military coast guard in Libya, which is part of the navy. Most of the containers contain housing units, one houses the new control centre for sea rescue. According to the Italian newspaper Altreconomia, it will be deployed along the coast and connected to Libyan Navy surveillance systems at the Abu Sitta base in Tripoli. Italy’s navy is also stationed there.

The mobile control centre consists of surveillance equipment and housing units (RI Group).

The container was equipped with surveillance and communication technology by the Italian company ELMAN. The installed radar equipment comes from GEM elettronica from Italy. According to Altreconomia, it is 30 per cent owned by the Italian defence giant Leonardo, and the group also has a purchase option to take control of the company. The container equipment includes systems for receiving emergency and warning messages from Inmarsat of the UK and radios from Rohde & Schwarz of Germany.

According to Altreconomia, the delivery to Libya stems from a cooperation between the border police of the Italian Ministry of the Interior and a procurement agency that is part of the Ministry of Defence. Under an agreement signed in October 2021, the agency has since been responsible for projects in countries outside the EU. One of the contracts was to equip the Libyan coast guard with further „means and materials“.

EU-funded patrol boats to be operational before summer

Through the SIBMMIL project, Libya will also receive three new patrol boats. They were built at the Cantiere Navale Vittoria shipyard in Veneto and are about to be delivered. The order included the modernisation of another vessel that Italy had already supplied to Libya. The shipyard is also delivering five engines and communication equipment to „naval units“ of the Libyan maritime police.

According to Henrike Trautmann, who works in the EU Commission’s Directorate-General for Neighbourhood Policy, the three patrol boats should be operational by the summer. In addition, the EU is paying for the refurbishment of two more vessels for the coast guard. These will be tested in Italy in the presence of „Libyan authorities“ in February.

The EU-funded ships are to be used „exclusively to support search and rescue operations“, writes Olivér Várhelyi, the EU commissioner responsible for neighbourhood policy. However, it is unclear how this is to be controlled. Their operation is likely to be at least indirectly in cooperation with the EU border agency Frontex, which launched its aerial surveillance off the Libyan coast in 2018. All sighted boats have since been reported to the EU-funded control centre in Tripoli.

Treatment of migrants to damagenarrative and reputation of the EU“

From the EU’s point of view, the system is successful: in 2021, at least 32,425 people were intercepted by the Libyan coast guard and crammed into inhumane camps in Tripoli, among them 1,500 minors. Compared to 2020, this number has almost tripled. At the same time, the ships of the rescue organisations continue to be prevented from leaving by Italy. More than 1,500 people therefore drowned in the Mediterranean last year, counts the International Organisation for Migration.

Actually, the EU’s Emergency Trust Fund, from which Italy finances the equipment of the Libyan coast guard, should address the causes of irregular migration. In fact, the funds are being used for a new deterrence regime. The Libyan coast guard is known for its brutal attacks on refugees, and private sea rescuers have been threatened and shot at several times.

In a document on the SIBMMIL project, the Commission also writes that the treatment of refugees during search and rescue operations must be improved. Otherwise, it will further damage the narrative and reputation of the EU“.

Image: Libyan coast guard intercepting a boat with refugees on 19 February 2022 (Pilotes Volontaires).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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