I posed several questions to NATO Maritime Command Naples asking what NATO’s policy is in regard to encounters between NATO ships and migrant boats leaving Libya. NATO Maritime Command Naples is responsible for enforcing the maritime embargo of Libya known as Operation Unified Protector. I also asked for more information about the encounter on 25-26 March between the Canadian navy ship, HMCS Charlottetown, and what was probably the first recent migrant boat from Libya. This particular migrant boat was subsequently taken to Linosa by the Italian Coast Guard.
Today’s response from NATO’s public affairs office is fairly straightforward and states that NATO ships will respond to vessels or persons in distress. The response suggests that NATO ships will otherwise not interfere with the passage of migrant boats unless a boat is suspected of carrying arms or mercenaries. Presumably NATO would also seek to stop and board migrant vessels suspected of carrying any persons of particular interest to NATO, e.g. Libyan officials.
Here are my questions and the responses from the Public Affairs Office at NATO Maritime Command Naples:
Q: Does Operation Unified Protector have plans or procedures in place regarding what to do in the situation where a NATO vessel encounters a boat or inflatable that is carrying irregular migrants or asylum seekers out of Libya and attempting to reach another country, e.g. Italy or Malta?
NATO: Operation Unified Protector is part of the broad international effort to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack. The maritime portion of the operation foresees NATO warships and aircraft patrolling the approaches to Libyan territorial waters to reduce the flow of arms, related material and mercenaries to Libya as called for in UN Security Council Resolution 1973. Issues of migration or asylum seekers are not within the mandate of this specific NATO operation.
Q: If there are plans or procedures for encounters with migrant boats, what do they provide for?
NATO: A master of a ship at sea which is in a position to be able to provide assistance on receiving information from any source that persons are in distress at sea, is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance, if possible informing them or the search and rescue service that the ship is doing so. This obligation to provide assistance applies regardless of the nationality or status of such persons or the circumstances in which they are found.
Q: Additionally, can you provide details regarding what HMCS Charlottetown did on/about 26 March when it encountered a migrant boat carrying approximately 350 African migrants from Libya? Did HMCS Charlottetown request assistance in connection with this encounter from the Italian Coast Guard or Navy or from Frontex? What assistance, if any, was provided to the migrant boat?
NATO: On 25 and 26 of March 2011, NATO ships patrolling in International Waters attended a boat to ensure there was not a case of Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). Assistance was offered in the form of technical expertise and supplies. NATO ships monitored the situation constantly throughout the stated period. For action taken by Italy with regard to this event we recommend you contact the appropriate authorities.
Q: Does NATO anticipate that there may at some point be large numbers of non-Libyans or Libyans attempting to leave Libya by sea?
NATO: We do not feel that we can speculate on this matter.