Not piracy, but self-defence against EU’s deadly abdication – NGOs on El Hiblu rescue

After stopping EU rescues and banishing rescue NGO ships from the Mediterranean, commercial vessels are now being forced to return rescued migrants to Libya

The ‘Alan Kurdi’ is currently the only remaining ship of an aid organization. On Tuesday, the crew documented the rescue of refugees by the ‘El Hiblu 1’ (Photo: Fabian Heinz/
The ‘Alan Kurdi’ is currently the only remaining ship of an aid organization. On Tuesday, the crew documented the rescue of refugees by the ‘El Hiblu 1’ (Photo: Fabian Heinz/

The 108 men and women who commandeered a motor tanker that was about to take them back to Libya against their will, were acting in self-defence, rescue NGOs have said.

108 boat migrants fleeing persecution and torture in Libya were rescued in Libyan territorial waters by the ‘El Hiblu 1’, when the ship attempted to return them to Libya.

The tanker was then secured by the Armed Forces of Malta, which brought the migrants to a safe port in Malta.

“We must look to these 108 people with an eye of humanity and understand that any actions taken yesterday were in self-defence against the deadly consequences forced upon them by Europe’s inhumane border policy,” said Johannes Bayer, chairman of rescue NGO Sea-Watch.

The act of returning survivors to a place where they face a well-founded fear of persecution is illegal and a violation of international law.

But the European Union is facilitating this illegal ‘refoulement’ by financing the Libyan coast-guard to intercept boat migrants at sea and to force commercial vessels to return rescued migrants to the Libyan navy.

“The EU must be held to account for allowing illegality, inhumanity and complete disregard for human rights to become the new norm,” Sea-Watch said.

News of the ‘El Hiblu 1’ “hijack” prompted a storm of rhetoric from Italy’s firebrand minister Matteo Salvini, of the far-right Lega party, who accused the survivors of being pirates.

But NGOs like Sea-Watch are challenging this narrative, saying these people are legitimately fleeing and seeking protection. “The horrifying conditions for people in Libya have been widely documented by a wide array of human rights monitors, including UN agencies. Migrants and refugees are known to be systematically subjected to arbitrary imprisonment, torture, sexual violence, kidnapping, extortion, slavery and even murder. It is entirely legitimate for people found in distress at sea to reject being returned to Libya.”

Italy has led a blockade of European ports, with Malta following suit by refusing to allow Sea-Watch assets from leaving Malta as they wish. With the end of Operation Sophia, the situation inside the Mediterranean sea has left merchant vessels who engage in rescues steer clear of European ports and seek to disembark survivors to Libya instead.

Council of Europe human rights commissioner

The European Union is to stop the sea patrols that have rescued thousands of refugees and migrants from the central Mediterranean, after Italy’s populist government threatened to veto the entire operation.

Operation Sophia, which has two vessels and five planes and helicopters, was set up in 2015 to prevent loss of life at sea in a year when 3,771 people died or went missing attempting to reach Europe in rickety boats.

The Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights Dunja Mijatović said the decision by the EU stop Operation Sophia would lead to even fewer naval assets in the Mediterranean. “Lives are continuing to be lost in the Mediterranean. This should remind states of the urgency to adopt a different approach, one that should ensure a sufficiently resourced and fully operational system for saving human lives at sea and to safeguard rescued migrants’ dignity.”

Mijatović reiterated her call to all states to refrain from hindering and criminalising the work of NGOs who are trying to fill the ever-increasing gap in rescue capacity. “States should rather support and co-operate with them, including by ensuring that they can use ports for their life-saving activities. Finally, the decision to continue only with aerial surveillance and training of the Libyan Coast Guard further increases the risks that EU member states, directly or indirectly, contribute to the return of migrants and asylum seekers to Libya, where it is well-documented, in particular recently by the United Nations, that they face serious human rights violations.”

Sea-Eye and Amnesty

Another rescue NGO, the Sea-Eye, said that while searching for 41 missing people south of Lampedusa, its crew aboard the ‘Alan Kurdi’ witnessed several cases of distress at sea in the east of Tripoli.

“On Tuesday afternoon, the crew could hear the radio communications between a European naval aircraft and the cargo ship ‘El Hiblu 1’. The aircraft reported the position of two so-called rubber boats to the cargo ship and called for the captain of the ‘El Hiblu 1’ to help, as the people were in mortal danger and the Libyan Coast Guard would be ‘out of service’.

“The captain of the ship rescued the people and requested assistance. He said unequivocally on the radio that people are very upset and do not want to be brought back to Libya. Tripoli, however, was the destination port of the cargo ship.”

Sea-Eye said the EU was putting an end to sea rescue. “The Libyan Coast Guard is out of order; merchant ships must rescue and bring totally frightened people back to Libya, to become agents of illegal repatriation. The rescued persons have gone through hell and are now facing completely overwhelmed and unprepared crew members of a cargo ship, who have to explain to them that they are being returned to exactly the place they were trying to escape by risking their lives,” spokesman Gorden Isler said.

“The EU will have to take responsibility for this renewed escalation, if cargo ships have to take on government responsibilities which the Libyan Coast Guard is often unable to fulfil.”

Amnesty International said this was an outrageous abdication of EU responsibilities.

“Having already used every excuse in the book to banish NGO rescue boats from the Mediterranean, and having already stopped carrying out rescues several months ago, EU governments are now removing their own ships, leaving no-one to save the lives of women, men and children in peril,” Matteo de Bellis, migration researcher, said.

“EU governments will continue to use aerial surveillance to alert the Libyan Coast Guard when refugees and migrants are spotted at sea, so they can be taken back to Libya, despite knowing that people there are arbitrarily detained and exposed to widespread torture, rape, killings and exploitation.”