By Karlos Zurutuza

The EU has pinned its hopes on cooperation with a deeply unstable Libya and a ragtag, resource-poor coast guard as it seeks to show it can control migration in a year of major elections in countries including France, Germany and the Netherlands.

When the first cadets of an EU-sponsored training course for the Libyan coast guard graduated in Malta earlier this month, no less a figure than Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, was on hand to celebrate.

The new recruits are part of a multi-million euro program the EU hopes will help it stop the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean — and lower the death toll of a dangerous journey that claimed the lives of 5,000 people last year.

But human rights groups are concerned that the EU’s coast guard program and its efforts to beef up Libyan naval resources will inadvertently boost the smugglers and local militias who exploit migrants and refugees desperate to cross into Europe at any cost.

Six years after the uprising that ended Muammar Gaddafi’s four-decade rule, Libya has no functioning national security services. Rather, a myriad of militias exert control across the country. Three governments vie for power in Libya: one in the East and two in the West. Every town has its own local council, its own armed forces and, in the case of the coastal cities, its own coast guard.

The country’s coast guard struggles with corruption and infiltration by people smugglers. In a series of incidents last year, the coast guard was accused of beating refugees.

We have no resources,” Reda Issa, who became chief commander of the Libyan coast guard fleet last November, told POLITICO from the port of Misrata. “We need 10 ships exclusively dedicated to rescue missions as well as helicopters and other equipment.”

Much of the fleet was destroyed during the 2011 revolution. Today, three medium-sized ships and three rigid, inflatable rafts patrol the 600-kilometer shoreline between Zuwara and Sirte, according to officials.

The coast guard has so few resources that an offensive to expel the Islamic State from their stronghold in Sirte late last year was forced to rely on private vessels tricked out with anti-aircraft guns mounted on the deck — the naval equivalent of the armored pickup trucks that can be seen ashore.

Germany, Italy, Greece, Belgium and Britain have pledged to provide training and equipment to Libya’s coast guard as part of Operation Sophia, the EU’s joint naval operation launched in the spring of 2015, aimed at combating human and arms trafficking in the central Mediterranean. At a summit in early February, EU leaders approved an additional €200 million for projects to tackle illegal migration into Europe, which included an additional €3.2 million toward the Libyan coast guard training program.

Issa acknowledged that collaboration between coastal towns, which currently find themselves on different sides of a civil conflict, “could be better” but expressed optimism over the EU-backed program that has trained 89 Libyan cadets and officials since its inception in October.

Migrants hang from a boat as they wait to be rescued as they drift in the Mediterranean Sea off Libya last October | Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

But Operation Sophia has sparked controversy, partly owing to several incidents between the Libyan fleet and NGOs engaged in search-and-rescue missions in the area.

Corruption and infiltration

The country’s coast guard struggles with corruption and infiltration by people smugglers. In a series of incidents last year, the coast guard was accused of beating refugees.

Sea-Watch, a German NGO, asked the EU to reconsider its project to train the coast guard after Libyan sailors reportedly attacked refugees with clubs last October, killing at least four.

Libyan authorities have rejected the allegations and accused NGOs in the area of “violating Libyan territorial waters.”

We understand the humanitarian goal of these organizations but we ask them to abide by international law. If they want to contact us, all the lines are open,” Ayub Qassem, spokesman for the Libyan Navy in Tripoli, told POLITICO.

Other groups have reported similar incidents. In August 2016, an unidentified speedboat reportedly fired at the Bourbon Argos, a rescue boat chartered by Doctors Without Borders, according to the organization’s communication adviser Alessandro Siclari.

After some meetings with the Libyan authorities we arrived at the conclusion that the incident was triggered by an initial problem in establishing correct communication lines between the two boats,” Siclari said.

In December, a man who claimed to be a former security force member in the region of Zawiya said the local coast guard charged migrants a fee for every inflatable raft that crossed its territorial waters. He requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. Rafts that had not paid the coast guard’s fees were intercepted by boats carrying local militias and taken back ashore, where the migrants were detained and not released until they paid a ransom, he said.

While such claims are difficult to corroborate independently, the U.N. Support Mission in Libya‘s most recent findings support witness accounts that local officials routinely extort and mistreat refugees, and have participated in human trafficking.

Part of the problem is the lack of a command structure in the Libyan coast guard that goes back years.

It has always been like that. They have these units which operate mostly on their own,” said Antti Hartikainen, the director general of Finland’s National Board of Customs, who headed an EU mission in 2013 to help the Libyan authorities improve and develop border security.

According to Hartikainen, it is nearly impossible to identify and reprimand crew members on the boats as they don’t wear uniforms or name tags, making it easier for corrupt crew to act with anonymity and impunity.

Operation Sophia’s public reports don’t outline how the EU training program coordinates with a Libyan fleet that lacks a central command.

The economic situation has deteriorated dramatically over the last years. The government is not able to guarantee [their] salaries so the chances that members of the Libyan coast guard could be linked to mafias are greater,” said Hartikainen.

Operation Sophia’s public reports don’t outline how the EU training program coordinates with a Libyan fleet that lacks a central command. Neither does it address any measures taken to avoid infiltration by individuals linked to the smuggling business.

Despite repeated requests, officials from Operation Sophia declined to comment on the Libyan coast guard’s alleged breach of human rights, the obstacle posed by the lack of a central command in the Libyan Navy and corruption cases within its ranks.

However, a leaked internal Operation Sophia report seen by POLITICO notes that “migrant smuggling and human trafficking networks are well ingrained into local patterns of life, employing facilitators while paying off authorities and other militias.”


Top Image: Migrants and refugees sit on a rubber boat before being rescued by a ship run by Maltese NGO Moas and Italian Red Cross off the Libyan coast | Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images


Karlos Zurutuza is a roving correspondent covering conflict along parallel 33, from Western Sahara to Eastern Baluchistan.



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