Libya

The Guardian: Italy bars two more refugee ships from ports

Italy’s interior minister has sparked a new migration crisis in the Mediterranean by barring two rescue boats from bringing refugees to shore, a week after the Aquarius was prevented from docking.

“Two other ships with the flag of Netherlands, Lifeline and Seefuchs, have arrived off the coast of Libya, waiting for their load of human beings abandoned by the smugglers,” Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigrant party the League, wrote on his Facebook page. “These gentlemen know that Italy no longer wants to be complicit in the business of illegal immigration, and therefore will have to look for other ports [not Italian] where to go.”

Italy’s closure of its ports to the migrant rescue ship Aquarius, which was carrying 620 people, triggered warnings from aid agencies of a deadly summer at sea for people trying to cross the Mediterranean.

Axel Steier, the co-founder of Mission Lifeline which operates the Lifeline ship, said his crew had rescued more than 100 migrants off Libya on Friday in an operation with a US warship, and transferred them to a Turkish merchant vessel.

He said his ship was too small to make the journey from Libya to Italian ports and that he always transferred migrants to other ships, but insisted those craft should have the right to land in Italy.

“I am sure there is an obligation for Italy to take them because its closest safe harbour is Lampedusa. We hand over migrants to Europe because of the Geneva convention,” he said.

Vessels chartered by an assortment of European NGOs have plied the waters off Libya for three years, rescuing migrants from leaking boats and transporting them to Sicily.

Following Salvini’s decision to prevent the Aquarius from docking, however, Malta quickly followed suit, leaving the vessel stranded at sea until Spain offered to take the ship. It is due to arrive in Valencia on Sunday.

Crews of the NGO boats say Salvini’s port closures leaves them without anywhere close by to take the people they rescue, and that the move will prove counterproductive.

“It will not stop people coming,” said Ruben Neugebauer, of the German charity ship Sea Watch. “They will come anyway, but more of them will die.”

Sea Watch refused last week to take 40 migrants rescued by the US navy ship Trenton off Libya, fearing a fate similar to that of the Aquarius. Trenton waited four days before being allowed to dock in Sicily.

Charities say the NGO boats are a vital lifeline, rescuing more than 88,000 people in the past two years, but critics say they are a pull factor, encouraging people to make the dangerous sea journey. 

More than 600,000 migrants have made the crossing from Libya to Italy in the past four years, and Salvini’s stance reflects frustration that the rest of Europe refuses to take its share of arrivals. At least 13,000 people have drowned trying to reach European shores.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, accused Salvini last week of cynicism and irresponsibility, but at the same time refused to allow the Aquarius to dock at French ports. 

“Malta and Italy didn’t open their ports, but then most other European governments didn’t help either,” said Izza Leghtas, a senior advocate at Europe for Refugees International. “They are all passing the ball among themselves.“

If the NGO boats are unable to land the people they rescue and cease to operate, Operation Sophia, an EU anti-smuggler mission patrolling the Mediterranean, may take up some of the slack. NGOs, however, say its warships operate too far out to sea, given that people traffickers favour towing rubber boats full of migrants to the edge of Libya’s 12-mile territorial waters before setting them adrift.

Italy’s port closures come despite an 85% fall in migrant crossings since last year. The decrease is in part the result of the EU and Italy training and funding Libya’s coastguard to intercept vessels.

Read full article in The Guardian, here.

Financial Times: UN sanctions target alleged Libya people traffickers

By Michael Peel and Heba Saleh 

The UN has slapped sanctions on six alleged human traffickers in Libya, including a regional commander in the country’s EU-trained coastguard.

The Security Council imposed travel bans and asset freezes on two Eritreans and four Libyans in response to a Dutch proposal, in a sign of European concerns about abuses of migrants and the flow of refugees along the central Mediterranean route to Italy. It is the first time the UN has used sanctions against human traffickers.

The most prominent target is Abd al-Rahman al-Milad, head of a regional coastguard unit that a UN panel of experts says has been “directly involved in the sinking of migrant boats using firearms”. The EU said it had not trained Mr Milad, a former militia leader in the 2011 uprising that toppled Muammer Gaddafi, the late dictator. It did not provide information on whether it had trained other personnel in his unit.

Izza Leghtas, senior advocate for Europe for Refugees International, said the UN move highlighted broader questions over European support for anti-migration efforts in Libya, where abuses are rife in detention centres holding people taken off boats intercepted by coastguards.

“The people who were abused by [Mr Milad] are the very kind of people Europe is trying to stop reaching its shores,” said Ms Leghtas. “The overt imperative of preventing people arriving in Europe at any cost has to stop.” 

The EU said the more than 200 Libyan coastguards it trained had gone through a “thorough and robust vetting procedure”. It added that it had been working “tirelessly” on fighting people-trafficking and smuggling networks.

But the Security Council’s Libya sanctions committee said Mr Milad’s coastguard division was “consistently linked with violence against migrants”. Several witnesses in criminal investigations have stated they were picked up by armed men on a coastguard ship used by Mr Milad and taken to a detention centre where they were held in brutal conditions and subjected to beatings, the committee said.

The UN list also includes two alleged militia leaders in Zawiya, a city west of Tripoli where Mr Milad is coastguard commander. The fourth Libyan is Mus’ab Abu-Qarin, who is accused of organising sea crossings for more than 45,000 people in 2015 alone. Mr Qarin allegedly organised a journey in April 2015 that ended in a shipwreck in the Sicilian channel, killing 800 people, the sanctions committee said.

One of the Eritreans, Ermias Ghermay, is the subject of Italian arrest warrants issued in 2015 in relation to the alleged smuggling of thousands of migrants under inhumane circumstances. Those voyages include an October 2013 shipwreck near the island of Lampedusa in which 266 people died.

Libya is split between two rival governments based in the east and west, and control in many parts lies in the hands of local militias. Some of the armed factions have turned to people smuggling as a lucrative business, exploiting proximity to Europe and the lack of effective authority.

In some areas, militias act as the self-styled coast guard, intercepting boats and detaining migrants, often subjecting them to torture and extortion.

In December, the African Union said that between 400,000 and 700,000 migrants were thought to be in at least 40 detention centres across Libya. Last year, Amnesty International accused Libya’s coast guard of “violent and reckless” conduct during interceptions. It cited an incident in which some 50 people drowned after the coast guard intervened during a rescue attempt by a ship operated by a non-governmental agency called Sea-Watch.

In May, more than a hundred migrants, who had been kidnapped and held captive by human traffickers near the western town of Beni Walid, managed to escape. However, they shot at by their captors and at least 15 were said to have been killed.

Survivors, mostly teenagers from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, told Medecins Sans Frontieres, the French charity, that some of them had been held for up to three years.
 

This piece originally appeared here.