[Eyes on the central Med #17] European authorities affirm cooperation with Libya on migration while interceptions and violence against migrants and refugees continue

The following publication by SOS MEDITERRANEE intends to shed light on events which unfolded in the central Mediterranean in the past two weeks. It is not intended to be exhaustive, but rather to provide a general update on maritime search-and-rescue-related matters occurring in the area we have been operating in since 2016, based on public reports by different NGOs, international organisations and the international press. 

People continue to flee across the Central Mediterranean in the absence of civilian search and rescue assets 

In the last days of March and in the beginning of April, hundreds of people attempted to flee Libya via the sea in the absence of dedicated search and rescue assets in large parts of the Central MediterraneanSome of them were intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard and returned to unsafe Libya, while others reached Italian territory or were rescued by Italian authorities. 

During the first weekend of April, NGO Alarm Phone reported on several boats in distress, one of which the emergency hotline lost contact with while it was adrift in the Maltese Search and Rescue Region with 110 people on board. The Armed Forces of Malta later released a statement saying that the boat reached Italian territory, refuting allegations of non-assistance. 

All of this occurred while no civilian search and rescue assets have been operating in the Central Mediterranean since the beginning of the month. On April 1st, the 208 people rescued by the Open Arms disembarked in Pozzallo, Sicily, after waiting for a place of safety for 4 days on board the rescue vessel. The Open Arms crew is nearing the end of a 14-day quarantine in the port of Pozzallo. 

After the completion of a 14-day quarantine and crew change in Augusta, the new team on the Ocean Viking is preparing for the ship’s upcoming mission in the Central Mediterranean. 

Last weekend, the detention of the Alan Kurdi of German NGO Sea Eye was suspended through an urgent measure of the administrative court of Olbia. This interim decision will allow the Alan Kurdi to sail to Spain for necessary inspections and maintenance work to be carried out. A court date is set for November 3rd, 2021, to establish whether the detention itself was legal. 

One person killed, two injured in shooting in Tripoli detention centerUN-sanctioned alleged human trafficker walks free as EU authorities confirm cooperation with Libya on migration 

On April 8, one person was killed and two teenagers of 17 and 18 years were injured in a shooting in Al-Mabani Collection and Return Centre, a detention centre in Tripoli. According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), shots were fired indiscriminately into cells of the detention centre. 

The incident is yet another tragic reminder of the dangers that thousands of men, women and children face in arbitrary detention across Libya. According to MSF, many of these detention centres are becoming increasingly overcrowded, partly due to the rise in interceptions by the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG). Most of those who are intercepted by the LCG and returned to Libyan shores end up in arbitrary detention, as was the case for the 138 men, women and children who were disembarked in Tripoli by the Libyan Coast Guard on the night of March 31st, as the UNHCR reported. 

Last weekend, former head of Zawiya coastal security and alleged human trafficker Abdel-Rahman Milad, known as Bija, was released from prison for lack of evidence. Milad was sanctioned by the UN Security Council in 2018 for human trafficking and arrested last October on charges of smuggling of fuel and human traffickingBefore his release, he was promoted to the rank of Major in the Libyan Coast Guard, as Italian newspaper Avvenire reports. 

Both Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi made visits to Libya in early April. Abela announced that Malta would reopen its embassy and resume flights to Libya, while Draghi applauded the Libyan authorities’ efforts to “curb the flow of migrants to Europe”. European Council President Charles Michel also made a visit to Tripoli earlier this monthdeclaring the EU would continue to support the unity government in various policy fields, including illegal immigration.  

Phone calls of human rights lawyers and journalists covering migration in the Central Mediterranean intercepted by Italian prosecutors 

An investigation by Italian public broadcaster Rai News and newspaper Domani revealed that Italian prosecutors intercepted phone conversations of journalists, human rights lawyers and NGO workers in an investigation into claims of complicity with people smugglers in Libya. Among the conversations that were secretly recorded by prosecutors from Trapani are calls between journalists and their lawyers as well confidential sources, and phone calls by employees of NGOs Save the Children and MSF. 

The Italian Ministry of Justice announced that preliminary investigations into the Trapani prosecutor’s office would be carried out urgently.