56 organisations released a joint statement calling for an end to the obstruction of civil search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean amid ongoing deaths and crossings. EU-funded so-called Libyan coastguard continues to tow migrants back to Libya where detention and torture are inevitable as criticism of the EU-Tunisia deal carries on.
56 organisations call for an immediate end to the obstruction of humanitarian assistance at the Mediterranean Sea in a joint statement following the detention of three civil search and rescue vessels – Aurora, Open Arms and Sea-Eye 4 and amid alarm about harsh weather conditions in the Mediterranean. ‘The administrative harassment of NGO vessels is based on a recent law passed by Italy which increased requirements for carrying out search and rescue activities and introduced sanctions in case of non-compliance. The new measures are part of a long history in Italy of criminalising and obstructing civilian search and rescue activities’, the statement reads, adding: “If humanitarian assistance at sea continues to be obstructed, we are likely to see a drastically decreased – or even non-existent – presence of civilian search and rescue vessels in the Central Mediterranean by the end of the year. The result will be yet more lives lost, as the blocking of civilian rescue efforts will not stop people from attempting to cross the sea” and urged “member states to act urgently to stop the illegitimate obstruction of civilian search and rescue vessels by Italy”.
Meanwhile, despite restrictive policies, deadly sea crossings as well as rescue operations continue. On 29 August, six people died from a boat carrying 60 people who left from Morocco towards Spain. On 28 August, Alarm Phone reported about a group who escaped Libya days prior and were drifting in bad weather conditions as they had run out of fuel. The NGO hotline stated: “The 39 people were finally rescued by the merchant Vessel NIKKEI SIRIUS which brought them to Malta today, where they probably got imprisoned – as usual”. On the same day, Alarm Phone reported “46 lives at risk in the Atlantic!” including four women and another group of 12 boys who left Algiers towards Spain on 25 August and have disappeared. On 27 August, Louise Michel rescued 25 people from an overcrowded boat. “Libyan patrol boat came dangerously close to our ship and endangered the safe rescue additionally”, the organisation said. On 26 August, Louise Michele conducted another rescue operation of 99 people including children and women from a rubber boat. A total of 124 people were disembarked in the port of Trapani on 27 August. On 24 August, the crew of MSF Sea operated Geo Barents conducted two rescue operations and saved lives of 168 people from two overcrowded rubber boats in the Libyan search and rescue (SAR) zone. According to the organisation: “Over 65% of the survivors consist of unaccompanied minors who are traveling without their parents or guardians”. On the same day, Ocean Viking operated by SOS Mediterranee rescued 272 people including 32 unaccompanied minors, nine babies and five people with disabilities from three crowded boats in distress in the Libyan SAR.
Meanwhile, EU-funded Libya’s Tarek Ben Ziyad brigade (TBZ) – an armed group linked to a catalogue of horrors including unlawful killings, torture, enforced disappearance, rape and forced displacement – affiliated with General Khalifa Haftar militia – continues its dangerous and unlawful practice of towing back people on the move attempting to escape the country. Sea-Watch International published visuals showing a ship of the so-called Libyan coastguard intercepting people on the move and stealing the engines of their boats afterwards to be sold later to smuggling networks. Also, the crew of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) spotted on 24 August a vessel belonging to the so-called Libyan coastguard forcefully taking migrants back to Libya. On the same day, the organisation announced the suspension of its medical activities in Tripoli, Libya, where it provides healthcare to migrants, asylum seekers and refugees held in detention centres and to those living in precarious conditions in urban settings, as a consequence of the increasingly challenging environment for international organisations in the country. Moreover, a vessel with a Libyan flag on 18 August chased a boat carrying 110 people including 40 children – who fled from Lebanon to Libya in an attempt to reach Italy – and shot at them injuring one person on board. Alarm Phone who was in contact with the group said that the people were unlawfully abducted to Libya to be held in a military prison in Benghazi despite repeated calls to the Maltese, Greek and Italian authorities to carry out an immediate rescue operation. Tarek Bin Ziyad militia reportedly demanded an initial ransom of $2,000 to $3,000 per person. However, due to the attention the story received from media, 80 of them were released and given “$10” per person on 26 August and an additional group of 15 was reportedly freed on 29 August. It’s still unclear whether they will be deported or will stay in Libya. The Guardian published footage taken by a group who arrived in Tunisia from Libya and was held in the Abu Salim detention centre in Tripoli. The video shows a malnourished woman appearing to lie dead on the ground, unclothed, her eyes open while a Nigerian woman says “This woman is dead” adding “She died this morning.” Vincent Cochetel, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)’s special envoy for the western and central Mediterranean, said: “Awful graphic footage reminding us that conditions of detention in Libya are not improving and that we should all pursue efforts to end arbitrary detention”. Meanwhile, around 150 people, mostly from Sudan, have been staying overnight outside UNHCR registration centre in Tripoli since late July demanding a speedy resettlement to a safe country.
The controversial EU-Tunisia deal praised as Europe’s “template” for migration by European Commission President Von der Leyen continues to spark criticism. Nesrine Zribi writes in an article that Tunisia’s security forces have been the policeman for other countries’ borders, adding that “In the past decade, millions of dollars have been used as development aid to control migration in Tunisia”. ECRE director Catherine Woollard wrote in an op-ed that the agreement is “far from preventing violations or operating with the famous “full respect for” human rights” and therefore, “is likely to increase human rights violations – a rather predictable outcome when engaged in old-school “train and equip” in repressive regimes”. “The idea that Saied would agree to any sort of human rights conditions is ludicrous,” said Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program. “He hasn’t been abiding by human rights for the past two years. He’s not going to start now”. Politico described the migration deal with Tunisia as “cash to do the dirty job” as Former Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans distances himself from the agreement saying “I take full responsibility for everything the EC does but that doesn’t mean that I agree with everything. That’s what you get in a collegiate administration”. Meanwhile, Refugees who lived in Tunisia for a period of time say that life has become “unbearable” after the racist remarks by the Tunisian President Kais Said back in February. “We are not safe anymore here, so we would prefer to die in the Mediterranean Sea.”, says Jaffar Mohammed, a 28-year-old from southwest Nigeria. Meanwhile, EPP chief Manfred Weber is on a trip to Tunisia, to push for results on the migration deal the EU recently struck with the country. “My message was clear: we need results. We are talking about a lot of European taxpayers’ money here, and the figures have to come down. I can’t explain to the European taxpayer that we are spending so much tax money here if we don’t get clear results,” Weber told Politico.
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