Amid criminalisation, delayed rescue, and mass dying, NGO says struggle for freedom of movement continues

Over the past two months, the ‘helpline’ manned by volunteers has witnessed several incidents off the coast of Libya

In the past two months, the WatchTheMed Alarm Phone was alerted to situations of distress in all three regions of the Mediterranean Sea
In the past two months, the WatchTheMed Alarm Phone was alerted to situations of distress in all three regions of the Mediterranean Sea

The WatchTheMed alarm phone set up for migrants crossing over the treacherous Mediterranean waters has been ringing incessantly.

Over the past two months, the ‘helpline’ manned by volunteers from Welcome to Europe, Afrique Europe Interact, Borderline Europe, Noborder Morocco or Watch The Med – all based around southern Europe as well as north Africa and EU capitals like London, Vienna, and Berlin – has witnessed several incidents off the coast of Libya. They are scenes that the NGOs say will “presumably become even more common if the EU realises its recently reinforced plans to shut down the sea-migration route across the Central Mediterranean Sea with the help of a future Libyan coastguard.”

They contend that with recent accusations against NGOs conducting Search and Rescue (SAR) operations in this area, this EU strategy can only prolong the suffering of people imprisoned in inhumane conditions in Libya, and make their maritime journeys even more dangerous.

On 24 February, the Alarm Phone – since October 2014 a self-organized hotline for refugees in distress in the Mediterranean Sea that makes their SOS noticeable – was alerted to a boat in distress in international waters north of Al-Khums/Libya, carrying more than 100 people.

“Although we immediately informed the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome and forwarded the boat’s position, due to a complete lack of rescue assets in the Central Mediterranean on that day, it took another 11 hours of desperately waiting and drifting until two small Italian coastguard vessels reached the travellers and conducted a SAR operation,” the NGO said.

Following the emergency call, the coastguard vessels embarked from the Italian island of Lampedusa, which was about 200 nautical miles away from the boat in distress.

Just four days earlier on 20 February, at least 87 bodies were washed ashore the Libyan city of Zawiya, after theboat of the travellers had capsized after it was attacked and its engine removed within Libyan territorial waters by Libyan coast guard officers.

“Both of these cases vividly illustrate the violent effects of EU border deterrence which can be expected to exacerbate in light of the plans and announcements that the EU has advanced over the past weeks.

“On the one hand, the EU increasingly relies on Libyan forces to act as their watchdog and henchmen over the Central Mediterranean route by training and collaborating with Libyan naval forces to pull-back migrant boats… on the other hand, the EU and particularly its Border and Coast Guard Agency Frontex seek to delegitimize and undermine the humanitarian work of civil NGOs who form an important presence in the deadliest zone off Libya and continue to save thousands of lives.”

Libya is expected to play a key role in migration control in the Mediterranean, with the EU hoping this will replicate its Turkey deal despite the unstable political situation and grave human rights violations inside the country.

In early February, EU leaders met in Malta to strategize about how to fight unauthorised sea-migration, seeking to pave the way for an EU-Libya deal and similar plans to push back travellers to Tunisia and Egypt. 

“What we see here is a political strategy that we have observed for many years now, the so-called externalisation of the EU border. In the case of Libya this is done by establishing and training a Libyan coastguard that does not yet exist, so that migrant boats are prevented from reaching international waters where they could potentially be rescued by EUr actors and brought to Italy,” the NGOs said.

Libya’s own UN-backed prime minister Fayez Serraj has even suggested that NATO and EU forces could be allowed to operate within Libyan waters, despite objections from the war-torn country’s militias.

While the EU seeks to pump money and know-how inside Libya to control and securitise its southern border however, the NGOs says that this strategy only makes it harder for people to cross and therefore more profitable for smugglers to diversify access routes.

“The harder it is for people to cross borders, the more support they require, thus the need for smugglers in the first place. The longer the journey, the costlier, the more dangerous, and the deadlier it becomes. More than 500 deaths in the Mediterranean have been officially counted since the beginning of 2017, while the number of travellers who crossed the sea has increased by 50% compared to the same period in 2015 and 2016.”

In the past two months, the WatchTheMed Alarm Phone was alerted to situations of distress in all three regions of the Mediterranean Sea – engaged in 13 distress cases, of which four took place in the Central Mediterranean, three in the Western Mediterranean and six in the Aegean Sea.

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