Despite criminal links and continued abuse against civilian rescue operators and migrants the EU is offering new assets to so-called Libyan Coast Guard. Desert deportations and incited violence against Sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia puts EU-Tunisia migration deal under scrutiny.

Despite the mounting evidence of criminal activity and systematic human rights violations by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard EU funding continuous to flow. The European Commission acknowledges a clear indication that the Libyan coast guard is infiltrated by criminal groups. On 6 July, Home Affairs Commissioner, Ylva Johansson stated: “I also have to say some of the countries that are neighbouring and transit are more difficult than others, like Libya, where we also have clear indication of criminal groups being … infiltrating also in the coastguards”. After a recently documented incident of the Libyan coast guard firing shots near a migrant boat, a former Libyan police officer stated: “The Libyan coast guard and smugglers are one together” adding: “They are not under the law, they are above the law”. The former police officer further explained that: “The smugglers pay money to the Libyan coast guard to let them pass [to Europe by sea]”. He further confirmed to the EU Observer how the “coast guard robs intercepted migrants and refugees of all their possessions before handing them over to someone else. Those that can be squeezed for more cash are returned to detention centres, while the more impoverished are sent to state-run Libyan prisons”. He described it as “a circular business where everyone takes a cut from the victim. A smuggler first collects money from the families of those detained, then pays those running the detention centre a fee for their release” stating “They give 7,000 Libyan (dinars), he takes 5,000 Libyan for the jail and he takes 2,000 for his pocket”.

Another shooting episode occurred on 7 July when the Libyan Coast Guard fired amid a rescue operation by SOS Mediterranée. The civilian rescue operator reported: “During the operation, crew & 11 survivors faced a security incident with a Libyan patrol vessel shooting in close range of our fast rescue boats”. In a statement from 13 July, the organisation confirmed the detention of its rescue vessel Ocean Viking by Italian authorities just five days after the episode, writing: “gunshots were fired less than 100 meters from the humanitarian rescue crew and the shipwrecked persons by the Libyan coastguard after a rescue – including a woman and five unaccompanied children – as they were trying to get back to the Ocean Viking”.  Politico commented on 11 July how: “MEPs don’t mince words on the Libyan coast guard, in the spotlight again after it fired at an NGO vessel rescuing people on Friday. The draft motion accuses Libyan authorities of detaining migrants in “inhumane conditions” and carrying out “torture, rape and arbitrary killings.” It’s a far cry from the more ambiguous stance of the European Commission, which continues to provide vessels to the Libyan coast guard and dodged questions from reporters on the latest allegations on Monday’s media briefing”. According to EURACTIV, present on the scene, the shots came from a vessel that the EU donated to the Libyan coast guard in a ceremony on 22 June. Despite the shooting involving EU funded assets another two boats are underway to the Libyan coastguards – a European Commission spokesperson could not confirm the date of delivery, but noted the two vessels are under construction. Giorgia Jana Pintus, a researcher at ARCI, an Italian NGO, estimates the Libyan coast guard received a total of some 100 million Euros in aid from EU and Italian authorities. But told the EU Observer: “this is only partial because a lot of the money is shrouded in secret memorandum of understandings and inter ministerial agreements”, adding “To this day, the majority of the funds located under the EU’s trust fund programme is not traceable by the public,” and noting “we don’t know how and with which criteria human rights monitoring and assessment was carried out”.

Meanwhile, at least 150 sub-Saharan African migrants, including children remain trapped in a militarised border zone between Libya and Tunisia – another close partner of the EU on migration prevention. Footage shared by Human Rights Watch showed the group begging for water and saying people were dying. Reportedly, Tunisian authorities had rounded up 800 to 1000 people and dumped them in the area without food or water. According to local aid groups 500 to 650 were later brought back to the southern Tunisian towns by authorities. The expulsions followed unrest in the coastal city of Sfax where hostility and violence towards people from sub-Saharan Africa has exploded after the death of a local man on 3 July. Refugees in Libya released footage and reported on 5 July: “When public law enforcement violates the law, the common people become confident in committing crimes & believing they’re the law. In this footage you will see law enforcement officials in military cars and ordinary citizens with machetes while chasing sub-saharan Africans to death. It is happening under the guidance of the Tunisian government which is clearly instrumentalising it’s African citizens to the European racist policy. Europe’s migration policy has failed and is inhumane. Migrants are not assets that can be used for political negotiations”. The EU Observer reported on 7 July how: “Sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia’s coastal town of Sfax are “afraid for their lives” amid a violent crackdown against them that has resulted in hundreds of attacks, evictions, and expulsions to the Libyan border, say rights groups and migrants” further noting that: “The racist backlash has reignited scrutiny over a proposed €1bn-plus EU-Tunisia migration deal that would bolster Tunisia’s security services and encourage frontline European states to send asylum-seekers back to the North African country”. On 9 July Green MEP, Tineke Strik asked president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen and the Council of the EU to: “watch the increasing number of migrants deported by president Saied to the Libyan border. Stuck between autocratic and a criminal regime, no water, food, shelter, medical care. Is this part of the deal or is it the effect? I urge you: protect these people”.

Tunisian president Kais Saied, notorious for his racist incitement stated after the clashes in Sfax: “Tunisia is a country that accepts onto its territory only those that abide by the laws. It does not agree to be used as a transit zone or settlement territory for people coming from other African countries, nor does it agree to be the guardian of any borders other than its own”. A statement issued by the president’s office asked “There is a great deal of proof that this is anomalous. How can these migrants travel for thousands of kilometers and head to a specific city or district? Do they know these cities or districts when they are in their countries? Are they migrants or people displaced by criminal groups that exploit their misery and traffic their members, and in this way target social peace in Tunisia?”. In response to alleged lies spread by unnamed foreign powers, Saied said: “These migrants are receiving humane treatment emanating from our values and traits, contrary to what colonial circles and their agents are circulating”.

Meanwhile, in addition to those expelled to the Libyan border, a large group of Black migrants was taken by bus from Sfax to the desert frontier with Algeria by Tunisian authorities. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher, Lauren Seibert speaking on 11 July “they still remain without any aid”. Nizar Skander, spokesperson for the court in the southeast town of Tozeur, told AFP on the same day that “A first body was found at least 10 days ago in the [Algerian] Hazoua desert and another last night”. NGOs have lost contact with the group. Alarm Phone reported – also on 11 July: “After being in touch for several days, we lost contact to all the groups in distress in the Tunisia & Algeria border region, possibly because their mobile phones batteries ran out. We assume many are still stuck there. Now they can’t even reach out anymore to call for help” adding: “We urge everyone to continue to pressurise the authorities and international organisations to rescue them! We fear that without intervention, even more people will die there. End this cruel policy of violence, displacement and abandonment!”.

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