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European migration control in Libya

The Libyan navy and the coastguard under its authority are being groomed as gatekeepers of Fortress Europe. Even a migration partnership is under discussion.

By Andrej Hunko

EUNAVFORMEDSince the forcible regime change in 2011, the European Union has been supporting what it calls reform of the security sector in Libya. Its policy is based on the Berlusconi motto of ‘more oil, less migrants’. The new Libyan Government of National Accord scarcely exercises any control outside Tripoli. For this reason, the police and military forces are being trained with Western assistance to guard borders and oil installations. One unresolved problem is that of the militias, which number more than 1,000 and which serve as the recruiting base for the national security forces. The coastguard also comprises members of such units, whose loyalty to the authorities is prone to waver. 

By establishing the military mission EUNAVFOR Med, the European Union raised its action against illegal migration in the Mediterranean to a new level. The forces of the Member States participating in EUNAVFOR Med were officially deployed for the purpose of “fighting the smugglers”, and the Federal Government speaks of the “perfidious business model of human-smuggling and -trafficking networks”. This is an inadmissible generalisation, designed to gain public acceptance for the military mission. In fact, although the phenomenon known as people-smuggling is indeed on the increase in the central Mediterranean, traffic in human beings is not. Moreover, the material published by the participants in EUNAVFOR Med omits to point out the migration policy of the European Union is precisely what makes the smugglers’ trade profitable. That is why tens of thousands of migrants have drowned at sea. 

On 18 May 2015, EUNAVFOR Med was defined by the EU Foreign and Defence Ministers as a three-phase mission. On 22 June 2015, the EU Foreign Affairs Council approved the operating plan and the start of phase one, comprising surveillance and intelligence gathering. EUNAVFOR Med was initially launched with vessels or aircraft from nine nations under the command of EU operational headquarters in Rome. The formation currently comprises eight vessels from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Belgium and Spain along with three reconnaissance aircraft from Luxembourg, Spain and France. As part of a national operation, Spain is even deploying a submarine to “fight the smugglers”. EUNAVFOR Med was previously assisted by submarines from Italy and Greece. Italy contributes reconnaissance data from its military drones.

Bundeswehr on board

In June 2016, the Council of the European Union decided to assign two more ‘support tasks’ to EUNAVFOR Med. One of these involves enhancing the capacity of the Libyan coastguard and navy to combat ‘human-smuggling’ on the central Mediterranean route. Implementation details were laid down in a memorandum of understanding signed on 23 August 2016. The first step consisted in the training of members of the coastguard, part of the Libyan navy, on EUNAVFOR Med warships. ‘Training package 2’ follows this up with onshore training modules in Greece and Malta as well as Italy. It is totally unclear, however, whether the trained units are actually loyal to the UN-recognised Government of National Accord. The Federal Government has identified more than 1,000 militias of various sizes in Libya, whose loyalties are switched time and again. Fayez al-Sarraj, Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord, has been unable to specify which units are under the command of the Presidential Council. The same applies to the navy and the coastguard, which is under naval authority. According to the Federal Foreign Office, their units operate from eight bases in six population centres, namely Zuwarah, Tripoli, Misrata, Benghazi, Derna and Tobruk. There are also said to be an unknown number of rigid-hulled inflatable boats. 

The Bundeswehr has also been on board ever since EUNAVFOR Med was launched. The ‘support task’ of training members of the Libyan coastguard was performed for a period of five weeks by the German Navy. The Bundeswehr also has a force of 30 frogmen off the Libyan coast to take a close look at suspect vessels, inspect their cargoes and possibly apprehend their crews. The Navy is also involved in the investigation of suspicious activities in the Mediterranean, obtaining its intelligence from surveillance technology as well as tip-offs (referred to as ‘human intelligence’). People brought aboard Bundeswehr vessels are questioned by members of a field intelligence unit on matters such as the circumstances that caused them to flee, the expenditure they have incurred and their transit routes. The collected data are stored in the national command and information system for use by military intelligence. The Federal Intelligence Service BND is also involved in EUNAVFOR Med. 

Assistance from NATO

The purpose of the EUNAVFOR Med military mission is to concentrate military forces off the coast of Libya. The fight against ‘human-smugglers’ is a pretext and would in any case be a hopeless task. The refugees are being used as levers for the militarisation of the African Mediterranean coast, as is testified by the paltry number of a few dozen arrests of suspected people-smugglers. Indeed, it is not even certain whether those arrested are actually smugglers, for menial crew duties may be performed by boat passengers, who would presumably obtain privileges in return. In fact, the paramilitary commanders of the Libyan coastguard themselves are known to exploit the refugees’ distress and cash in on the perilous crossings. A report produced by Frontex in 2015 confirms this, stating that almost all those who run the Libyan people-smuggling networks are active or former members of the military or police forces. 

In the meantime, EUNAVFOR Med has started to receive assistance from NATO, which has reconfigured its presence in the Mediterranean for that purpose. German armed troops are involved in NATO’s new Operation Sea Guardian, designed to “ensure full situational awareness and conduct maritime surveillance”. In addition, Sea Guardian is to assist EUNAVFOR Med by refuelling the vessels deployed in the area and, if necessary, caring for the injured. The fact that European intelligence services are operating in and over Libya was exposed last October when an aircraft crashed for no apparent reason near Malta’s international airport. The plane had been chartered by the French Government, and the five people on board lost their lives in the crash. Initial reports indicated that they belonged to Frontex, the EU border agency, but it was later stated that they were French customs officers “tracing routes of illegal human and drug traffickers”. Both organisations, however, denied these reports. According to the French newspaper Le Monde, the crew comprised members of the foreign intelligence service, and the aircraft had been hired by the Defence Ministry for a reconnaissance mission. 

Joint patrols in Libyan territorial waters would be risky

EUNAVFOR Med is now engaged in Phase 2a, patrolling the area adjacent to Libyan territorial waters. It is able to stop and search foreign vessels in international waters if its troops have grounds for suspicion. In Phase 2b, joint patrols with the Libyan coastguard will be able to pursue suspect vessels into Libya’s territorial waters. This, however, would be extremely dangerous, because the people of Libya would surely regard warships within sight of their coast as a provocation. As if that were not enough, interference by NATO would bring back unpleasant memories of the air raids of 2011. It is the final straw that would plunge Libya into total chaos. This was the warning given in Rome by the Ambassador of the Government of National Accord headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. Expansion of the EU military mission, he said, would endanger his country’s stability and unity.

Enlisting Libya’s assistance in the creation and preservation of Fortress Europe puts a great deal of money into the coffers of arms conglomerates. There are still plans to include Libya in the European Border Surveillance System (Eurosur). For the purpose of investigating and combating illegal migration, Libyan liaison officers would be stationed in Rome and Malta, where the Mediterranean countries of the EU operate the Seahorse Mediterraneo network. Seahorse Mediterraneo is the regional subsystem of Eurosur. The Libyan border authorities would then receive reconnaissance data from satellites and from EU missions, including Frontex. It is possible that joint migration control would also entail the use of satellite-based installations which Italian arms giant Finmeccanica sold to Libya in the preceding decade. 

Cooperation with Frontex

As soon as Colonel Muammar Gaddafi had been overthrown at the instigation of the West, the European Union sought to gain a foothold in Libya. The EU Border Assistance Mission in Libya (EUBAM Libya) was established with a view to training armed government units to guard the country’s land and sea borders. The purpose of the EUBAM missions is to reform the security sector in countries that have undergone regime change. They cover the domains of policing, anti-terrorism and criminal justice as well as border and migration management. In Libya the work of EUBAM is closely coordinated with that of UNSMIL, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya.  

More than 20,000 former combatants from the rebel forces were selected, in the framework of EUBAM Libya, for a new gendarmerie under the command of the Defence Ministry. Its focus was on controlling Libya’s Saharan borders. The plan was that refugees from Western and Central Africa would then be stranded in Niger, Chad and Sudan and would be unable to reach the Mediterranean coast at all. Libyan military, police and border officers had also visited the EU border agency Frontex in Warsaw on several occasions in connection with joint migration control. 

Recasting of the EUBAM mission

Besides the prevention of migration, the EU Border Assistance Mission EUBAM was also focused on oil. The proposed new gendarmerie, according to an EU planning paper, was intended to guard what was classed as critical infrastructure. This included oil installations. Libya’s oilfields and oil wells are located far from the coast and are chiefly exploited by the Italian Eni group. The Deutsche Erdöl company operates oilfields and the requisite processing facilities several hundred kilometres to the south-east of the capital, Tripoli. Wintershall, a German subsidiary of BASF, also exploits eight oilfields in the east as part of a consortium which includes the Russian Gazprom corporation. The German installations are guarded by a paramilitary body known as the Petroleum Facilities Guard. As is customary in Libya, these units also consist of armed groups that are subject to different authorities, depending on the region in which they operate. 

When civil war flared up again two years ago, the EU put the EUBAM Libya mission on ice. Now it is planned to resume EU security capacity-building measures for Libyan military and police forces. EUBAM Libya has now been entrusted with the task of assessing the border surveillance situation, after which further measures can be implemented. Together with the Libyan Government of National Accord, it is collating plans for border security measures and framework legal provisions. The risk inherent in any recasting of EUBAM Libya, however, is that the assisted units might end up firing at each other. This has already been observed during the previous phase of the mission. In the current situation, there is even a possibility of civil war between the rival governments in Tobruk and Tripoli. The United Nations faces the same problem if it decides to accede to the requests for exemptions to the present embargo so that the new Government of National Accord can obtain arms supplies. 

Attacks on rescue missions

At the time, cooperation with the Libyan coastguard was considered to be the only success achieved by EUBAM Libya. In actual fact, that division of the Libyan Navy was responsible not only for guarding the maritime borders but also for search and rescue within and beyond the country’s territorial waters. Although Libya acceded to the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (the SAR Convention) of 1979, it is not honouring its obligations under the Convention. For example, the Libyan Government has not provided the required notification regarding the limits of its search and rescue region, nor has it designated a responsible rescue coordination centre. This means that the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome has no official contact body in Libya and therefore speaks of a ‘self-styled coastguard’. Until last autumn, the Federal Government used the term ‘so-called Libyan coastguard’.

In the recent past, this ‘so-called Libyan coastguard’ was making a name for itself by disrupting rescue missions in the Mediterranean; in some cases shots were even fired. Some of the rescue operations it obstructed were being conducted by lifeboats sent by the Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome. This occurred outside territorial waters – the 12-mile zone – and was therefore illegal, because no notice is needed for shipping movements in the 24-mile zone. On 24 April 2016, armed uniformed officers attacked a speedboat belonging to the rescue organisation Sea-Watch outside Libya’s territorial waters, intimidating the crew by firing warning shots. On 17 August, a rescue vessel, the Bourbon Argos, operated by Médecins sans Frontières, was shot at and boarded from a Libyan speedboat; the bridge of the vessel was hit by 13 bullets. On 7 September, two members of the German rescue charity Sea-Eye were arrested at sea because their speedboat had allegedly entered Libyan territory from Tunisian waters. In October 2016, the Iuventa, a ship belonging to German rescue organisation Jugend Rettet, was stopped and searched. During the search, the crew of the Libyan patrol boat pointed Kalashnikovs at the rescuers. 

Refugees drowned in incident with coastguard vessel 

On 21 October, a rescue operation conducted by Sea-Watch came under attack, as a result of which up to 30 refugees were drowned. A Libyan coastguard patrol boat initially obstructed the rescue action, which was being conducted in the 24-mile zone by the vessel Sea-Watch 2 on the instructions of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome. A uniformed man boarded the refugees’ inflatable dinghy and began to hit out at the occupants with a stick. During this action, the stern of the coastguard boat damaged one of the air chambers of the dinghy, which immediately began to deflate. Panic broke out, and almost all of the 150 or so occupants slid overboard, whereupon the coastguard vessel left the scene. In fact, the Libyan militia members ought to have taken their instructions from the Sea-Watch crew, because the captain of the rescue vessel was acting as an ‘on-scene coordinator’ on the instructions of the Italian rescue coordination centre; under the international law of the sea, this means the captain of the first vessel to arrive at the scene, of the most suitably equipped vessel or of the vessel designated by the coordination centre. On-scene coordinators can also give instructions to other ships that subsequently arrive at the scene. 

Following the attack on the Bourbon Argos, the Libyan Navy promised an internal inquiry, but that came to nothing. As far as we know, the attacks on the Sea-Watch 2 and the Iuventa were not investigated either. It would have been easy to find those who carried out the attacks, because  several incidents have been captured on photographs in which the vessels, their identification markings and even the members of their crew are clearly recognisable. According to its own statements, however, the Federal Foreign Office is not even able to establish which Libyan militia seized the speedboat belonging to the charity Sea-Eye and detained its two crew members in custody. With this inactivity the Federal Government is undermining private rescue missions. In its answer to one of our minor interpellations, it stated that the cases in which firearms had been used by the coastguard were ascribable to “inexperienced and inadequately trained personnel”. This statement from the Federal Foreign Office is the pinnacle of cynicism, because we are always given the impression that the Libyan militias can be subdued and held in check by EU troops. The EUBAM Libya mission has already shown that efforts to do this are not working. 

Migration partnership with Libya?

The situation in Libya remains unstable. Among the sources of instability is the conflict between, on the one hand, the Government of National Accord and, on the other hand, the rival parliament in Tobruk and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who is in charge there. He is regarded as a power-hungry maverick and commands much of the former army and air force. Haftar has at his disposal a considerable arms arsenal from the former Gaddafi regime, including fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, tanks, armoured combat vehicles and artillery. A few months ago, militias belonging to Haftar’s Petroleum Facilities Guard occupied all of the oil terminals in the east of the country. Only the Petroleum Facilities Guard in Central Libya, where some fields operated by European conglomerates are located, has declared its loyalty to the Government of National Accord in Tripoli. Even in the capital, however, militias have risen up time and again against Prime Minister Fayed al-Sarraj. Last autumn, units loyal to former Prime Minister Khalifa al-Ghweil occupied government buildings, a hotel and a radio station. The Government of National Accord described the skirmishes as an attempted coup; Ghweil, on the other hand, demanded that his faction be included in the new government. It is becoming clear that the United Nations – and the Federal Government too – were too quick to recognise and support the Libyan Government of National Accord. 

Be that as it may, pressure on the Libyan Government has been cranked up. Last summer, the European Commission named Libya as one of the countries whose conduct was to be influenced by a ‘carrot and stick approach’. Money beckons in the form of development projects and trade deals, but there are strings attached. The arrangements known as migration partnerships are a favourite means of exerting pressure. Participating countries obtain preferential conditions for the issuing of visas, and smallish quotas are created for legal labour migration. In return, the governments of those countries must sign deportation agreements; at first they are required to take back their own nationals, and later they must readmit nationals of any other country who entered the European Union from their territory but were unable to obtain asylum. The Management Board of the Frontex agency has now given its Executive Director a mandate to negotiate a working agreement with Libya, and there are plans to conclude similarly worded agreements with Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. As requested, the Libyan Presidential Council has created a new department known as the National   Team for Security and Border Management to serve as its liaison body.

Federal Government support for ‘border management’ in Libya

The European Union has also promised a “package of immediate and substantial measures in support of the GNA and the Libyan people” with a total value of €100m. This sounds reasonable, because assistance is needed for UN Refugee Agency projects for the protection of refugees and asylum-seekers. The purpose of the EU programmes, however, is to keep migrants out of Europe and to do so by force if necessary. This aim was set out recently by the European External Action Service in a secret strategy paper. According to that paper, consideration must be given to the establishment of more camps or detention centres in Libya. These facilities, however, are likewise operated by militias with unclear terms of reference. The brutal and inhumane conditions that obtain there were recently described by Amnesty International and are known to the Federal Government. When asked about these conditions, the Federal Foreign Office confirmed that refugees are being subjected to abuse and torture in detention centres and that some are even being murdered. 

The Federal Government, too, is pursuing projects of its own in Libya, focusing on what is described as ‘border management’. At the present time, the competent German government ministries are awaiting specific requests from the Government of National Accord. In addition, the Federal Foreign Office has announced information campaigns targeting “potential migrants” and designed to warn them of the “risks and realities of a crossing to Europe”. That is cynical, because the greatest risk is Fortress Europe, which condemns refugees to perilous crossings. That is why the European Union shares the guilt for the loss of thousands of lives. 

EU policy in Libya draws its inspiration from former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who coined the motto ‘More oil, less migrants’. The Libyan coastguard remains Europe’s most reliable partner. The military cooperation in which the EU and NATO engage with these marauding units sums up a migration policy which is focused solely on repelling refugees and whose path is strewn with corpses. And now even joint EU-Libyan military operations in Libyan territory are on the agenda. Besides control of migration and oil, the militarisation of the central Mediterranean is also about geopolitical interests. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Russian Government is now talking about a military base in Libya and wants to cooperate with the Tobruk government to that end. What is needed, however, is not additional military adventures but safe crossings for refugees and development prospects for Libya and the surrounding region. For this reason, the EU Member States need to rethink their entire policy on North Africa with its focus on interference and control. 

Andrej Hunko (The Left Party), from the Aachen I constituency, is a member of the Bundestag. The Left Party group appointed him as its spokesman on EU affairs, and he is also a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Among his areas of special interest are EU affairs and foreign policy. Other focal points of his parliamentary activity are the German drones programme, cross-border police cooperation and the neighbourhood policy of the European Union. All of his parliamentary initiatives, including numerous minor interpellations regarding Libya, can be found on the Bundestag website and at http://www.andrej-hunko.de

Andrej Hunko, MdB 2017