EU considering giving ships armed with machine guns to Libyan coastguard accused of killing migrants

Libyan government sends list of requested equipment including boats, helicopters and weapons

Lizzie Dearden
Wednesday 26 April 2017 17:54 BST
A Libyan coastguard boat observing a rescue by MSF's Bourbon Argos ship on 4 November 2016
A Libyan coastguard boat observing a rescue by MSF's Bourbon Argos ship on 4 November 2016 (Lizzie Dearden )

Libya is asking the EU for armed ships and helicopters to increase its refugee patrols in the Mediterranean Sea amid allegations of widespread abuse against migrants.

The German parliament said a “list” of wanted equipment, including diving suits, ambulances, communications equipment and night vision gear, was being considered by the European Commission.

EU states are already deploying submarines, ships and aircraft to assist in reconnaissance efforts, although they have been criticised for focusing on smuggling rather than rescue missions as a record number of refugees die at sea.

Libya’s latest request was revealed by a parliamentary question from the opposition Die Linke party, with broadcaster ARD reporting vessels equipped with machine guns were among a total of 130 boats of varying sizes and capacities called for.

They would be used by the Libyan coastguard, which stands accused of beating and shooting refugees while pushing back boats launched by smugglers into the Mediterranean Sea.

Regardless of the agency’s alleged abuses, including attacks on aid agencies’ rescue ships, Britain is among the countries supporting the coastguard with offshore training.

The first round has been completed and discussions are underway for a second batch, The Independent understands.

Desperate journeys: Rescued at sea, refugees detail abuse in Libya

European states backed an agreement struck by Italy to support the fragile Government of National Accord’s (GNA) ability to stem the crisis earlier this year, but the prospect of sending arms has raised alarm.

Isis and Islamist factions are among the countless groups waging a bloody battle for territory in the continuing civil war, where a Russia-backed warlord holds increasing sway.

As well as the threat of extremists gaining weapons and equipment donated by the EU, human rights groups have been outraged by the prospect of European support for Libya forcing migrants into detention centres where they report being raped and tortured in dire conditions.

Some are controlled by authorities affiliated with the GNA, while many are operated by smugglers who abduct migrants and force them into labour, prostitution or extort them for ransom in a lucrative industry.

The International Organisation for Migration revealed that hundreds of young African men are being traded in public in what they described as “slave markets” earlier this month.

“Migrants who go to Libya while trying to get to Europe have no idea of the torture archipelago that awaits them just over the border,” said IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle.

“There they become commodities to be bought, sold and discarded when they have no more value.”

The human trade has expanded rapidly amid the chaos following the Nato-backed removal of Muammar Gaddafi in the 2011 uprising and ensuing civil war.

Widespread lawlessness has allowed smugglers to thrive along Libya’s Mediterranean coastline, which is now the main launching point for refugee boats heading for Europe.

Almost 1,100 migrants have died on the treacherous route to Italy this year, with 44,000 rescued and taken to land, while 4,900 have crossed the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece.

That route has slowed to a trickle since the controversial EU-Turkey deal came into force last March, seeing all asylum seekers arriving on Greek islands detained under threat of deportation.

But the prospect of implementing a similar agreement with Libya looks slim given the government’s reduced capacity and human rights concerns raised by the UN.

A spokesperson for the GNA has not yet responded to The Independent’s request for details of the reported list of equipment requested from the EU.

Jalal Othman said authorities take all allegations of human rights abuses “very seriously”, after fresh evidence of abuse against migrants emerged earlier this year.

Migrants wait to receive aid distribution provided by the International Organization for Migration in Libya
Migrants wait to receive aid distribution provided by the International Organization for Migration in Libya (AFP/Getty Images)

“The Libyan judicial and law-enforcement systems are facing extreme pressures at this time due to the very challenging security situation in the country,” he added.

“We condemn all mistreatment of migrants without reservation. While we have to be realistic about the state’s current law-enforcement capacity, action will be taken wherever possible against those who break the law.

“The Libyan Government of National Accord continues to work closely and productively with our European partners on illegal migration and people-smuggling.”

The refugee crisis shows no sign of slowing after the arrival of more than a million asylum seekers in Europe, as conflicts continue in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq alongside insurgencies and instability across sub-Saharan Africa.

EU nations granted refugee status or some other protection to more than 700,000 people last year the latest statistics show.

Eurostat said Germany granted asylum to the highest number of applicants, approving 445,000 claims, followed by Sweden, Italy and France.

Of those accepted across Europe, 405,600 were Syrians, 65,800 were Iraqis and 61,800 Afghans.

Lengthy waits continue for migrants stranded in Italy, where 176,000 people are living in reception centres, and Greece, where 62,000 asylum seekers have been trapped by the EU-Turkey deal and border closures through the Balkans.

Update, 28 April:

A spokesperson for the European Commission said: "A Libyan request for equipment support has been sent to the EU and member states from the Libyan coastguard. This request is currently being assessed.

"Improving the capacity of the Libyan authorities to better manage borders and migration is a key objective of the EU's approach including that agreed by the EU and member states in Malta on 3 February.

"The EU is already working closely with the Libyan coastguard, notably through its Operation Sophia which has already trained 93 coastguards since October 2016, as well as through project Seahorse."

Federica Mogherini, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs, told a defence ministerial meeting held on Thursday that it is early to say when equipment would be provided.

“We have concluded the first round of training for the Libyan coastguards and navy and are continuing aiming at a larger number of trainees," she added.

"We are looking at ways in which we can follow this up in terms of providing non-military assets that would enable those that we have trained to do their job in the Libyan territorial waters.

"So we are currently already looking at the assets that might be required, assessing the needs, the sustainability and the correct and proper use they can be devoted to.”

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