Libyan coastguard capacity depleted by renewed fighting and COVID-19, Frontex chief says

Malta and Italy experienced 400% increase in migrant arrivals this year, Frontex executive director Fabrice Leggeri tells MEPs

Frontex chief says Libyan coastguard has less capacity to detect migrant departures
Frontex chief says Libyan coastguard has less capacity to detect migrant departures

Renewed fighting in Libya and the COVID-19 emergency have left the country’s coastguard with less capacity to detect migrant departures, the EU border chief said.

Fabrice Leggeri, executive director of Frontex, the EU border agency, said that even Operation Themis based in Italy was hampered by constraints as a result of the coronavirus restrictions.

Operation Themis is based in Italy and sees Frontex cooperating in rescue missions and intelligence gathering on migratory flows in the central Mediterranean.

Leggeri was one of the guest speakers at a meeting of the European Parliament’s civil liberties, justice and home affairs committee (LIBE) on Monday afternoon.

He said migrant arrivals in Malta and Italy this year saw a 400% increase over the same period in 2019. Malta had 1,135 migrant arrivals and Italy 2,800.

Leggeri sidestepped accusation levelled towards Malta by some MEPs over what they claimed was its failure to rescue migrants at sea but insisted that all states must comply with international law.

Some MEPs also called on the EU to suspend its cooperation and funding of the Libyan coastguard because migrants would be returned to detention centres with dismal conditions.

Easter boat incident

On the migrant boat incidents that characterised the Easter weekend, Leggeri said Frontex had spotted four boats while still in the Libyan search and rescue zone and informed all maritime rescue coordination centres in the area.

Leggeri said Frontex constantly monitored the boats for five days from the air but admitted the agency had no capacity at sea.

Malta was taken to task by some MEPs for failing to rescue a migrant vessel from which 12 people are believed to have died. Malta finally coordinated a rescue that saw the people being returned to Libya.

The country has since faced accusations that it commissioned a fishing vessel to carry out the rescue of 51 migrants that took them back to Tripoli.

Malta has insisted it coordinated the rescue when the boat entered its search and rescue zone. A magisterial inquiry has been launched to determine whether the country reneged on its duty to save people at sea.

Malta and Italy declared their ports shut because of the COVID-19 crisis.

Leggeri did not indicate when the migrant boat in question had entered Malta SAR and whether the authorities failed to initially coordinate the rescue.

He refuted claims by some NGOs that Frontex did not share its information.

“There is nothing classified about the sightings and we shared the information in real time with maritime rescue centres in the region and we also had informal contacts with NGO boats in the area,” he said.

Leggeri said Frontex training of the Libyan coastguard took place more than a year ago and this consisted of civilian law enforcement and rescue missions with a focus on human rights.

However, he urged the EU to work with upstream countries where asylum seekers originate.

Sophie Magennis from the UNHCR, another guest speaker, urged EU member states to step up search and rescue capabilities in the central Mediterranean but also to adopt a “predictable disembarkation mechanism” to relieve frontline states like Malta and Italy.

However, Magennis reiterated that Libya was not a safe place of disembarkation and more had to be done to end the conflict there.