The EU’s “do-no-harm” policy in Libya is hit by the latest revelation proving that the armed Libyan group Tarek Bin Ziyad (TBZ) carried out pullbacks based on information shared by the European Border Agency (Frontex) and Maltese authorities amid ongoing abuses of refugee rights in Libya and Tunisia. The Director of Frontex is on a visit to Morocco to expand co-operation on border management amid calls for the need to finalise a Tunisia-like deal with Egypt.

The latest investigation by Lighthouse Reports and partners finds that a shadowy Libyan armed group, Tarek Bin Zeyad (TBZ), one of the most dangerous militia groups in the world run by Saddam Haftar, the powerful son of East Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar and accused of unlawful killings, torture, arbitrary detention and enslavement, with alleged links to Russia’s Wagner Group, has been forcibly returning refugees with the help of European authorities. According to the investigation, the group has been operating a vessel, also called TBZ, in the Central Mediterranean since May, during which time it has intercepted more than 1,000 people at sea off the coasts of Libya and Malta, and returned them to Libya. The pattern observed reveals that the European Border Agency (Frontex) and Malta’s armed forces, who are aware of Haftar’s abuses of human rights, are working directly with TBZ by sharing coordinates of refugee boats to carry out pullbacks and prevent arrivals on European shores. Malta and Frontex defended their co-operation with TBZ claiming that sharing the coordinates aims “to help people in distress” although analysis shows that there were safer options available in all distress cases including merchant vessels and NGO rescue ships. Several refugees reported abuse and torture at the hands of the militia. Some refugees also reported that the militia fired at them resulting in causalities and fatalities. Bilal, a 23-year-old Syrian refugee who attempted to cross the Mediterranean, said “Severe beating and violence ensued,” when the boat was boarded by TBZ militia. “[TBZ militiamen] confiscated our passports and mobile phones and transferred us to a prison within the port, a large hangar about 50 metres long, already crowded with about 600 people”, he added. A Syrian teenager recounted that the militia allegedly killed an Egyptian refugee who was unable to answer their questions and dumped his body overboard. The Egyptian refugee in question “replied that he did not know, so the soldier shot and killed him, then threw him into the sea”, the Syrian teenager said.

The investigation comes as a blow to the European Commission’s (EC) self-declared policy of doing “no harm” in Libya despite mounting evidence of violations by the so-called Libyan coastguard and claims made by the Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, that the Libyan coast guard is infiltrated by criminals.  A senior communication official last year said that the EC had hired external contractors to ensure its operations in Libya respect the “do no harm” policy. Green MEP, Tineke Strik, said that she sent written questions to the Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Oliver Varhelyi, five months ago regarding EU funding to Libya and its potential contribution to human rights violations. “It’s pretty telling that he remains silent despite five official reminders”, she underlined. Cornelia Ernst, a German Left MEP, described the move by Frontex as a “new low for an agency that is attempting to repair its tarnished reputation”. “When it comes to stopping people fleeing it seems like the EU is willing to do anything, no matter the cost” she said. The director of Mixed Migration Center, Bram Frouws, wrote on X that the findings prove “the EU’s complicity in supporting illegal pullbacks of refugees and migrants by Libyan militia”. Meanwhile, abuses towards people on the move in Libya are ongoing. The Libyan authorities announced on 28 November preparations for the deportation of a total of 250 migrants to Chad and Niger as part of the fight against “criminal networks of traffickers” in the two African countries. Moreover, the emergency hotline operated by Refugees in Libya association receives more than 100 calls per day on weekdays from boats in distress and nearly 400 on weekends as the organisation struggles to meet basic needs of refugees such as food, medicine etc. In addition, the International Organisation for Migration reported that the so-called Libyan Coastguard intercepted 105 migrants from 3 to 9 December. So far in 2023, 15,383 migrants, including 556 children, have been intercepted and returned to Libya.

Meanwhile, the Tunisian authorities intercepted nearly 70,000 migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean from the North African country to Italy this year, more than double the 2022 figure, according to figures from the Tunisian National Guard. The high number of interceptions is a direct result of the controversial memorandum of understanding between the authoritarian Tunisian president, Kais Said, and his European counterparts, represented by Team Europe, to curb departures from the North African country in exchange for millions of euros amid ongoing abuse and violence towards people on the move by Tunisian border officers. On 27 November, Refugees in Libya posted a video showing Tunisian border officers firing at sub-Saharan African migrants whose only option to escape the violence was to jump into the sea. Additionally, a recent article from Al Jazeera has documented the testimonies of migrants in Tunisia reporting increased violence by Tunisian police towards people on the move sleeping rough near Sfax. The violence has reportedly led to anger among the migrant community and triggered confrontation with the police. The local member of parliament, Fatma Mseddi, accused the refugees of “terrorising” local inhabitants and being members of Boko Haram despite the majority of them coming from Sudan: not a location typically associated with the armed group.

The Executive Director of Frontex, Hans Leijtens, who vowed to ensure respect for fundamental rights during his mandate, is visiting Rabat to “strengthen dialogue and co-operation with the country’s border management authorities”. “Morocco is one of our strategic partners, and it’s evident that we need each other in co-operation to fight cross-border crime [and] to manage borders,” Leijtens said. He further praised Morocco for its commendable performance in border management, “a testament to the country’s dedication to security and co-operation”. “I want to congratulate [Moroccan authorities] with the results they are doing right now; a perfect job at their borders,” he said despite the fact that this “strategic partner” has obstructed efforts to complete a credible investigation into the Melilla Tragedy that resulted in the killing of at least 23 people in June 2022. Meanwhile, the EU is strengthening co-operation with the Egyptian authorities led by President Abdelfattah al-Sisi who made the country “even more authoritarian than under Hosni Mubarak”. A recent article by Carnegie Europe on “How the EU Supports Authoritarianism in Egypt” states: “Once again, the EU and its member states turn a blind eye on the lack of political reforms in exchange for co-operation in questions of, inter alia, energy, migration, and security” underlining that through such support “the EU contradicts and ridicules its proclaimed aim to promote democratisation”. In late October, following the tragedies unfolding in Gaza, EC President Ursula von der Leyen suggested increasing support for Cairo with the number of migrants, hinting at a deal that could be somewhat comparable to the EU-Tunisia agreement. EC Vice-President Margaritis Schinas stated that the need to engage with Egypt is “even more pressing”, adding “We are also stepping up now in this same area of co-operation with partners with Egypt. We will work with Egypt in the same vein”.

Israel has divided the Gaza Strip into 2,375 blocks in its second phase of its aggression on Gaza ordering Gazans to “familiarise themselves with the areas, understand directives, and relocate from specific areas for their safety” amid intensifying attacks and large destruction of infrastructure. While Israeli forces called this plan as a “safe zone relocation map”, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) announced its clear position: “We will not participate in the establishment of any ”safe zone” in Gaza that is set up without the agreement of all the parties, and unless fundamental conditions are in place to ensure safety and other essential needs are met and a mechanism is in place to supervise its implementation” while referring to ongoing hostilities against Gazans. After the displacement of more than 1.6 million people in the Gaza Strip, Egypt keeps the Rafah border closed to obstruct Israel’s plan for permanent displacement of the strip population in the Egyptian Sinai Desert while allowing a limited amount of humanitarian aid into the Strip after inspection by the Israeli side that aims to open additional checkpoints for humanitarian aid trucks bound for the Gaza Strip. As the war on Gaza that has so far left nearly 25,000 killed, including almost 10,000 children, reports about Israel losing EU support are mounting especially after the UN vote on 12 December in which a majority of 17 out of 27 EU countries backed a UN General Assembly resolution in New York calling for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire” in Gaza. US president, Joe Biden, warned about the loss of EU support saying that Israel was “starting to lose that support by indiscriminate bombing that takes place”.

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