Privatized Pushbacks: How the EU and Libya Use Merchant Ships to Block Migrant Boats

Reporting by Patrick Kingsley, New York Times: “[O]ne day a few months ago the Libyan Coast Guard ordered [a German merchant ship] to divert course, rescue 68 migrants in distress in the Mediterranean and return them to Libya, which is embroiled in civil war. The request, which the [merchant ship] was required to honor, was at least the third time that day, Jan. 11, that the Libyans had called on a merchant ship to assist migrants. The Libyans could easily have alerted a nearby rescue ship run by a Spanish charity. The reason they did not goes to the core of how the European authorities have found a new way to thwart desperate African migrants trying to reach their shores from across the Mediterranean. And some maritime lawyers think the new tactic is unlawful. Commercial ships like the [German ship] Panther must follow instructions from official forces, like the Libyan Coast Guard, which works in close cooperation with its Italian counterpart.  Humanitarian rescue ships, on the other hand, take the migrants to Europe, citing international refugee law, which forbids returning refugees to danger. After the Panther arrived in Tripoli, Libyan soldiers boarded, forced the migrants ashore at gunpoint, and drove them to a detention camp in the besieged Libyan capital. ‘We call them privatized pushbacks,’ said Charles Heller, the director of Forensic Oceanography, a research group that investigates migrant rights abuses in the Mediterranean. ‘They occur when merchant ships are used to rescue and bring back migrants to a country in which their lives are at risk — such as Libya.’ [***] Since the 2015 crisis, European governments have frequently stopped the nongovernmental rescue organizations that patrol the southern Mediterranean — like the Spanish ship, Open Arms — from taking rescued migrants to European ports. European navies and coast guards have also largely withdrawn from the area, placing the Libyan Coast Guard in charge of search-and-rescue. Now Europe has a new proxy: privately-owned commercial ships. And their deployment is contested by migrant rights watchdogs. Although a 1979 international convention on search and rescue requires merchant ships to obey orders from a country’s Coast Guard forces, the agreement also does not permit those forces to pick and choose who helps during emergencies, as Libya’s did. ‘That’s a blatantly illegal policy,’ said Dr. Itamar Mann, an expert on maritime law at the University of Haifa in Israel. [***] Between 2011 and 2018, only one commercial ship returned migrants to Libya, according to research by Forensic Oceanography. Since 2018 there have been about 30 such returns, involving roughly 1,800 migrants, in which merchant ships have either returned migrants to Libyan ports or transferred them to Libyan Coast Guard vessels, according to data collated by The New York Times and Forensic Oceanography. The real number is likely to be higher….” Full story here.

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