Is Brussels training human traffickers in Libya?

While the European Frontex border agency accuses NGOs of contributing to the migration crisis, human traffickers in Libya might be benefiting from a controversial EU training program worth millions. Karlos Zurutuza reports.

Refugees aboard the Astral-Proactiva Open Arms NGO vessel, one of several conducting search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean. © Karlos Zurutuza

It was a short sea patrol through Libyan waters aboard the only operational coast guard boat in port. It’s just 11 nautical miles between Zuwara – a coastal town close to the Tunisian border – and the oil and gas refinery of Mellitah. The quay of the Italian-run complex marks the boundaries between Zuwara and the neighbouring town of Sabratah.

‘We cannot go further east because those waters belong to Sabratah,’ explained one of the two sailors on aboard. ‘Each one controls their waters without interfering in the neighbours, you know?,’ he added, over the rattle of the outboard motor.

Six years since the uprising that ended Muammar Gaddafi’s four decades of rule, three governments vie for power in the Libya: one in the east, and two in the west, and only one of them is backed by the UN. The rule of law, however, is enforced on the ground by none of them. Rather, a myriad of militias across the country carry this responsibility. Each town has its own local council, its own armed forces and, in the case of the coastal cities, its own coastguard.

An average rate to jump on one of these rafts is around 500 euros (USD$545). Despite their apparent fragility, they are much more reliable than the majority of the wooden boats used by smugglers.

Karlos Zurutuza

Murky waters

‘We have no resources,’ Reda Issa, commander-in-chief of the Libyan Navy blurted from a corrugated iron barrack at the port of Misrata. It’s a statement that echoes in almost every office of the fractured Libyan administration.

Much of the fleet was destroyed during the 2011 NATO bombing campaign and, according to the high official, three medium ships and three RIBs (Rigid Inflatable Boat) are all that currently comprise the core of a Libyan navy tasked with patrolling a 600km-long shore between Zuwara and Sirte. It’s such a shorthanded force that an offensive that expelled the Islamic State from their stronghold in Sirte at the end of last year relied on private vessels, including a civilian ship with a mounted anti-aircraft gun on deck – very much the naval version of the ragtag armoured pick-ups ashore.

‘We need 10 ships exclusively dedicated to rescue missions, as well as helicopters and other equipment ... We are in bad need of the most basic resources, you know?’ Issa said.

Migrants and refugees in Libya wishing to cross to Europe get occasional work in construction.

Karlos Zurutuza

The Libyan Coast Guard commander acknowledged that collaboration between coastal towns ‘could be better’, but expressed optimism over EU-backed training of 89 Libyan cadets that officials began to receive at the end of October 2016. The training program was included as part of Operation Sophia, the EU’s joint naval operation to combat human and arms trafficking in the central Mediterranean. And, on 8 February, Federica Mogherini, High Representative for the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Vice President, delivered the first diplomas to those Libyan coast guards trained by the programme.

Begun in the spring of 2015 as a 12 month, 11.82 million euro program (about USD$13 million), Operation Sophia was last extended in June 2016 until 27 July, adding two supporting tasks: the training program for the Libyan coastguard and navy, and contributing to the implementation of the UN arms embargo on the high seas off the coast of Libya.

The operation has proven a controversial program, partly owing to several incidents between the Libyan fleet and some NGOs engaged in search and rescue missions in the area. Sea Watch, a German NGO operating in the Central Mediterranean, asked the EU to reconsider its project to train the Libyan coastguard after a tense incident last October.

A spokesperson for the NGO said Libyan sailors ‘attacked the refugees, hitting them with clubs’, while preventing the German group’s two speedboats from intervening. Dozens of migrants are feared to have died after the attack.

‘Migrant smuggling and human trafficking networks are well ingrained into local patterns of life, employing facilitators while paying off authorities and other militias’

Libyan authorities rejected the accusations and accused NGOs of working in the area of ‘violating Libyan territorial waters’.

‘We understand the humanitarian goal of these organizations but we ask them to abide with international law. If they want to contact us all the lines are open,’ Ayub Qassem, spokesman for the Libyan Navy said from his desk in downtown Tripoli.

In 2013, the Italian navy set up a rescue operation called ‘Mare Nostrum’, which turned out immensely successful and saved some 150,000 people. But the high political cost added to Rome´s difficulties to finance the mission – nine million euros per month (US $9.90 million) – led to its suspension in October 2014. A few days later, FRONTEX took over and pulled back to European territorial waters. As a result, the death toll in the central Mediterranean was 30 times higher than when the Italian vessels were conducting rescue operations. On a recently released report, the European Border agency suggested that NGOs have become accomplices to human traffickers by providing a reliable shuttle service for migrants from Africa to Europe, lowering smugglers’ costs and improving their ‘business model’.

‘EU authorities accuse us of contributing to a “pull factor” but what happened after Mare Nostrum was discarded proves that, whether we are here or not, migrants and refugees will keep trying to cross these waters,’ said Juan Matias, former MSF project coordinator aboard Dignity 1 – one of the three rescue boats operated by the NGO.

In 2016, more than 5,000 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean, hitting a record high.

Karlos Zurutuza

Sea fees

Last December, a man who claimed to be a former member of Zawiya’s security forces explained under condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals that the local coastguard was charging a fee for each rubber boat willing to cross its territorial waters. Smugglers rafts which had not been paid for were allegedly intercepted by boats crewed by local militias and taken back ashore, were the migrants would be retained and only released after paying a ransom.

Such claims could not be corroborated independently. However, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya claims to have received credible information that some members of state institutions and some local officials have participated in the smuggling and trafficking process.

Old trends

Operation Sophia has precedents. In the spring of 2013, the EU Border Assistance Mission in Libya (EUBAM) launched a mission to support the Libyan authorities in improving and developing the security of the country’s borders

Antti Hartikainen, Director-General of Finnish National Board of Customs who was heading the EUBAM's mission in Libya in 2013 told this reporter that the lack of a central command in the Libyan navy was a problem already back then. ‘It has always been like that. They have these units which operate mostly on their own,’ said the official.

Hartikainen claims it’s nearly impossible to identify crew on the boats, or even identify the identities of officials in the local command structures.

‘The economic situation has deteriorated dramatically over the last years. The Government is not able to guarantee the salaries so the chances that members of the Libyan coastguard could be linked to mafias are greater,’ stressed Hartikainen.

Refugees aboard the Bourbon Argos – run by Doctors Without Borders – look at the Sicily coast just before disembarking

Karlos Zurutuza

Public operational reports available at Operation Sophia’s website does not address how the EU training program coordinates with a Libyan fleet lacking a central command, and do not address how the program avoids infiltration by individuals linked to smuggling mafias among their trainees.

A leaked document disclosing a six month report for Operation Sophia, covering the period 1 January to 31 October 2016, acknowledged that ‘migrant smuggling and human trafficking networks are well ingrained into local patterns of life, employing facilitators while paying off authorities and other militias.’ The document also stated that mafia groups relied on the NGO fleet in the area to carry out the rescues, but that presence of European naval joint operations had not contributed to increasing the flow of migrants, as the ‘push factors’ – the incentives causing people to board boats in Libya – are in each passengers’ country of origin. ‘The number of persons rescued by our assets accounts for only 13 per cent of the total number of migrants rescued so it cannot be regarded as decisive in terms of a “pull factor”,’ the report also underlined.

Despite repeated requests for comment spanning the past two months, officials from Operation Sophia declined to comment for this story.

This article has been amended on 5 May 2017 to include the quote by Juan Matias, former MSF project coordinator aboard Dignity 1 – one of the three rescue boats operated by the NGO – and an improved description of the Italian navy's Mare Nostrum operation.