Libya navy bemoans lack of EU support over migrants

Libyan coastguards stand on an armoured boat as they patrol the sea off Libya's western coast on July 28, 2017
AFP

Tripoli (AFP) – The Libyan coastguard, charged with patrolling the frontline of Europe’s efforts to halt irregular migration, has only three working patrol boats, which often stay in port for lack of fuel.

“We don’t get any support, either from inside the country or from overseas,” said Ayoub Kacem, spokesman for the navy which oversees Libya’s coastguard, adding that the force’s only vessels have been on loan from Italy since 2010.

In a country wracked by violence since the 2011 fall and killing of longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi in a NATO-backed uprising that destroyed Libya’s navy, officials say European powers have abandoned them — despite their efforts on Europe’s behalf to prevent migrants crossing their territory.

Colonel Abu Ajila Abdelbarri, who captains one of the coastguard’s patrol vessels, said they regularly break down.

“These are old boats, not even designed for search and rescue… their capacity is very limited,” he said, warning that the service was on the point of “total collapse”.

Kacem said the European Union, which Thursday was holding a crucial summit overshadowed by deep divisions on how to tackle irregular migration, had “failed in its commitments”.

“With the exception of training, which was not a priority, we only got crumbs — no technical, material or financial support, only promises, words, token support,” he said.

He bemoaned the poor work conditions and low salaries of coastguard officials.

But, he said, “despite everything, we continue to do our duty, because if we left, 1,000 migrants would reach European shores today and another 10,000 would want to follow tomorrow”.

– ‘Only promises’ –

Abdelbarri said officials had informed European countries of “all our needs” in terms of vessels and equipment.

“So far we have only received promises,” he said. 

Italy, whose island of Lampedusa lies just 300 kilometres (180 miles) off the Libyan coast, has been trying for years to stem the influx of migrants.

Rome provides Libya’s coastguard with logistical support via its “Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre”, locating migrant boats to intercept or rescue, as well as providing basic maintenance.

But Libyan officials say one out of four Italian patrol boats on loan to the navy is already out of service.

The navy says that since the start of the year, it has intercepted or rescued over 7,000 migrants, including 1,000 on Monday alone. 

Kacem said smugglers had raised the pace of their operations in recent days, fearing that Europe’s borders would be shut after Italy closed its ports to rescue boats run by charities.

The Libyan official welcomed Italy’s decision and accused non-governmental organisations of colluding with people-smugglers and “exploiting the misfortune of migrants to collect more funds”.

“Since they came, the number of migrants hasn’t stopped growing,” he said.

After several European NGOs launched boats to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean in 2014, smugglers have started using cheaper, badly-equipped inflatable boats because they no longer need to be able to reach the Italian coast, Kacem said.

“All they have to do is reach the NGO boats in order to complete the crossing to Europe,” he added.

Ahmed Maiteeq, deputy head of Libya’s unity government who hosted Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini in Tripoli on Monday, has urged European states to reach an agreement on migration.

– ‘Direct agreements’ –

Maiteeq said Libya would host a migration summit in September, and told Italy’s La Repubblica daily that Europe “must think of structural measures to be taken in African countries to stop migrants”.

Rome appears to have realised that accords with Libyan authorities are not enough to stem the flow of migrants as long as they are unable to control the former Italian colony’s powerful militias and smuggling gangs.

Instead, according to sources in Libya, Italy has reached direct agreements with key actors on the ground — something Rome officially denies.

An agreement with militias in longtime smuggling hub Sabratha, 70 kilometres (40 miles) west of Tripoli, led to a dramatic turnaround in July 2017.

The head of a former people smuggling network, Ahmad Dabbashi, was reportedly among people smugglers who decided to halt the lucrative trade.

The United Nations Security Council has also imposed sanctions against six people trafficking chiefs, including Dabbashi.

But despite growing restrictions west of Tripoli, traffickers have been able to carry on, simply moving east to ports such as Zliten.

For Kacem, “the solution to trafficking is not at sea or on the coast”.

“If Europe wants to stop the flow of migrants to its shores, it needs to help Libya monitor its southern border and put pressure on the countries of departure,” he said.

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