Since 2017, the EU has invested in one project alone at least €57 million to counter migration from Libya. The Brussels backers also are worried about their reputation.
Since the so-called “migration crisis”, the European Union has been investing in increased surveillance of Libya’s maritime borders. In 2017, Italy was tasked with installing a maritime coordination centre in the capital Tripoli and establishing a Search And Rescue (SAR) zone, for which Libya has since been solely responsible.
A year later, with Italian support, Libya registered this SAR zone with the United Nations Maritime Organisation. Now, however, it turns out that even after five years of EU support, the associated centre in Libya is in fact “not operational” at all. This was announced by the High Representative and Vice-President of the EU Commission, Joseph Borrell, in response to a parliamentary question. MEP Özlem Demirel had asked about the EU-funded technology in the centre.
SOLAS Convention not fulfilled
A Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) is necessary to comply with the worldwide Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), which was concluded by many maritime states in 1974. Libya had also signed the convention, but did not implement the resulting obligations for years. Operations in the Libyan Maritime Rescue Zone were instead coordinated by MRCC’s in Italy or Malta and people were then disembarked in these two countries.
From 2018 onwards, however, European coastguards, but also Frontex and the EU military mission IRINI, increasingly informed the Libyan coastguard to stop and return the refugees on their way to Europe. Under international law, this procedure seemed to be valid; the SOLAS Convention stipulates that the MRCC responsible for a rescue zone must be informed of an emergency at sea. However, there is a backdoor behind this, in that the EU ships do not bring the refugees themselves to a country where persecution is imminent, but instead assign Libyan authorities with “pullbacks”.
However, if there is no MRCC in Tripoli or elsewhere, Libya does not fulfil the SOLAS requirements of the United Nations for having its own SAR zone. Private rescue organisations have been pointing this out for years. According to them, the Libyan coast guard is often unavailable or the crew does not speak English. However, according to the United Nations, both of these are part of the principles of a SAR zone.
Three competing authorities against migration
The significance of Borrell’s response should therefore not be underestimated. For the first time, a senior EU representative admits that the objectives of the support from Brussels have not been achieved. In previous enquiries, both the Commission and the Council could not say where the MRCC would even be located.
For the establishment of the MRCC, the EU initially paid €42 million from the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa in the project “Support to Integrated Border Management and Migration Management in Libya – SIBMMIL”, followed by another €15 million for a second phase.
However, the Italian Ministry of the Interior wants to keep concrete details, including the whereabouts of the funding, secret. The journalist Sara Creta is therefore suing the government in Rome.
Where did the purchased equipment go?
According to the answer, there is still no coordinated procedure for sea rescue in Libya. In fact, in addition to the military coast guard, which consists of militias, there are other units that declare themselves responsible for returning refugees back to Libyan shores.
For example, the maritime police (General Administration for Coastal Security; GACS), supported by Frontex, is carrying out more and more missions. Last year, the Stability Support Authority (SSA), notorious for its brutality, also entered the scene.
It is unclear with which of the militias the equipment purchased for an MRCC has remained. Presumably, the coast guard, the maritime police and the SSA are also fighting over responsibilities. But this does not detract from the migration defence in the service of the EU. In 2021, at least 32,425 people were intercepted by Libyan units and crammed into inhumane camps, among them 1,500 minors. Compared to 2020, this number has almost tripled.
New attempt with MRCC in containers
Now the EU is making a new attempt to set up a sea rescue centre in Libya. In December, the Italian navy shipped ten containers with new technology for this purpose. According to the newspaper Altreconomia, this mobile equipment is to be stationed along the coast and connected to Libyan navy systems. The surveillance and communication equipment was supplied by ELMAN, the radar systems by GEM elettronica, both from Italy. The equipment also includes systems for receiving emergency and warning messages from Inmarsat from Great Britain and radios from Rohde & Schwarz from Germany.
The EU surveillance technology will expose even more people to the brutal methods of the Libyan coast guard and militia camps. Reports of this are also becoming a problem for the EU. In a document on the SIBMMIL project, for example, the Commission writes that the treatment of refugees during search and rescue operations needs to be improved, otherwise “further damage the narrative and reputation of the EU“.
So far, this has not worked: recently, even the fundamental rights commissioner at Frontex attested to the mistreatment of people who were to be rescued from distress at sea by the Libyan authorities. According to the report, the coast guard there had even shot at the refugees at sea on several occasions. This has also been documented several times by private sea rescuers. Most recently, maritime border troops from Libya even threatened to shoot down a plane belonging to the Sea-Watch organisation with a missile.
Image: Libya’s coast guard setting fire to boats of refugees taken on board (Sea-Watch).