Pro-migrant rescue NGO Sea-Watch has complained the Libyan coast guard interfered in their rescue operations whilst the Libyans allege the NGO was operating within its territorial waters.
NGO Sea-Watch, a Berlin-based organisation that picks up migrants in the Mediterranean and ferries them to Europe, has accused the Libyans of acting outside its territorial waters after its ship was accosted by a vessel from the Libyan coast guard on Wednesday.
In a press release, the NGO claimed they were 20 miles off the coast of Libya when a wooden boat packed full of migrants approached their position. Before the group could take the migrants on board, and take them to Europe, the Libyan patrol intervened, almost running into the NGO ship. The Libyans then took the migrants back to North Africa.
Sea-Watch claims the coast guard was operating outside of the sovereign waters of Libya, which extend 12 miles off the coast.
The organisation claims they were directed to the migrant boat by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome.
The Libyan government has a different perspective on the encounter with Tripoli coastguard spokesman Ayoub Qassem saying: “An international rescue organisation called Sea-Watch tried to hinder the work of our coastguard … in a bid to take the migrants, claiming Libya is not safe for migrants.”
Qassem also alleged the coastguard had been in a gun fight with smugglers operating the boat, which carried around 500 migrants on board.
Sea-Watch said the European Union may have been involved in the incident, claiming to have received an email from Tripoli which was also addressed to the EU border agency Frontex.
Frontex has been heavily critical of the role of NGOs operating in the Mediterranean saying many of them have links to people smugglers who entice migrants to make the voyage to Europe. Frontex has said pro-migrant activists encourage more migrants to attempt the journey, which in turn leads to more drownings in the sea.
Italian prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro has been even more clear saying NGOs directly conspire with the people smugglers. “We have evidence that there are direct contacts between certain NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and people traffickers in Libya,” he said.
So far this year, the number of migrants crossing from Africa to Italy has increased drastically since last year. Over the Easter weekend alone a record-breaking number of migrants, more than a thousand, made the crossing to Europe.
The large numbers have also led to an increased in drownings, as well. Since last year, migrant deaths in the Mediterranean are up 42 per cent.
Follow Chris Tomlinson on Twitter at @TomlinsonCJ or email at firstname.lastname@example.org