Author Archives: Niels Frenzen

About Niels Frenzen

Clinical Professor of Law, Gould School of Law, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, USA. Contact:; @migrantsatsea

European Council conclusions on migration, 18 October 2018

Yesterday’s European Council conclusions did not include any mention of “disembarkation platforms” in North Africa or address any specifics regarding an expanded mandate of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.  Instead, a list of non-specific conclusions was agreed to.  Agreed points included:

  • Strengthen “cooperation with countries of origin and transit, particularly in North Africa, as part of a broader partnership”;
  • Step-up “the fight against people-smuggling networks”;
  • Intensify “work with third countries on investigating, apprehending and prosecuting smugglers and traffickers”;
  • Establish a joint task force “at Europol’s European Migrant Smuggling Centre”;
  • Improve monitoring and disruption efforts directed at “smuggling networks’ online communications”;
  • “Develop a comprehensive and operational set of measures to this end by December”.

Full document here.

See also, Reuters, “EU moves closer to overcoming migration feud” and Washington Post, “EU looks to African nations, border control to stop migrants”.

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Week in Review– 14 October 2018

The death toll

IOM:  Mediterranean Migrant Arrivals Reach 88,049 in 2018; Deaths Reach 1,783

Libyan Coast Guard pull backs / interceptions exceed 14,000 and are increasing in frequency

According to UNHCR, Libyan Coast Guard (LCG) Pull Backs reached 14,156 as of 11 October. Interceptions are increasing in October (884 as of 11 Oct.) compared to August (552) and September (1,265). “So far in 2018, the LCG recovered 99 bodies from the sea.”

Discussions continue regarding expanded mandate of European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX)

In September the European Commission proposed a new and greatly expanded mandate for the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. The proposal includes an expansion of the standing corps to FRONTEX to 10,000 operational staff, encompassing the European Border Surveillance System (EUROSUR) into the Agency’s frame, and giving the Agency a wider scope for action with countries that are not neighbouring countries. It was decided at last week’s Justice and Home Affairs Council Meeting to continue work on the proposal at the “technical level.” “[S]everal ministers mentioned the need to take a practical approach, by firstly looking at the supporting tasks to be carried out by the agency to respond to operational needs, taking account of national responsibility. On this basis, the question of structure and size of the staff, as well as the budget and timing could then be approached.”

For analysis, see “The next phase of the European Border and Coast Guard: towards operational effectiveness” in EU Law Analysis by Mariana Gkliati, PhD researcher at Leiden University.

EUNAVFOR MED continues training of Libyan Coast Guard and Navy personnel

EUNAVFOR MED launched a new training module for 69 Libyan trainees at the Italian Navy Training Centre in La Maddalena.  “The course, hosted by the Italian Navy, will last 8 weeks, and it will provide knowledge and training in relation to the general activity on board an off shore patrol vessel and lessons focused on Human Rights, Basic First Aid, Gender Policy and Basic English language.  Additionally, with the positive conclusion of these two courses, the threshold of 305 Libyan Coastguard and Navy personnel trained by EUNAVFOR Med will be reached. Moreover, further training modules are planned in Croatia and other EU member states in favour of a huge number of trainees. From October 2016, SOPHIA is fully involved in the training of the Libyan Coastguard and Navy; the aim of the training is to improve security of the Libyan territorial waters and the Libyan Coastguard and Navy ability to perform the duties in their territorial waters, with a strong focus on respect of human rights, including minors and women’s rights, and the correct handling of migrants in occasion of search and rescue activities to save lives at sea.”

For more background see Bruxelles 2 which notes, among other things, the slow 7-week vetting process to identify suitable Libyan candidates for training.

For second time in two weeks Moroccan navy opens fire on migrant boat

 A Moroccan Royal Navy vessel fired on a migrant boat last week wounding a 16-year old boy. The Moroccan Navy killed a woman two weeks ago in a similar incident.

 Also in Morocco, the Moroccan NGO El Grupo Antirracista de Acompañamiento y Defensa de Extranjeros y Migrantes (Gadem) denounced the forced transfer of 7,700 sub-Saharans to the south of the country.  According to Gadem, the forced displacements of migrants began in June and have not stopped.

 UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants criticises EU migration policies towards Niger

Felipe González Morales, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights, issued a report at the conclusion of a recent visit to Niger: “Niger has become a major transit country for migrants travelling north and to the Mediterranean. More recently, especially since 2014, Niger has become a transit country for returnees, most of them expelled or forced to return, from Algeria and Libya. These returns have put a lot of pressure on Niger, which according to many interlocutors has become “a permanent transit centre” and “the Southern border of Europe” as a result of migration policies adopted in Niger and by third countries, with serious consequences for the human rights of migrants and questions as to their effectiveness and sustainability.”

“One of the main measures adopted by the national authorities in respect to migration is the Law concerning the illicit smuggling of migrants (Law No. 2015-36) of 26 May 2015. According to official authorities and IOM data, since its implementation in 2016 the number of migrants who migrate north to Algeria, Libya and the Mediterranean has significantly decreased (e.g. from 333,891 in 2016 to 43,380 in 2018, according to IOM data based on monitoring trends in Arlit and Seguedine). While IOM data suggests that onward movement to North Africa may have slowed down, it does not reflect the number of people who still move on shifting routes as a consequence of tighter controls that lead migrants to move around data collection points.”

“In reality, the implementation of the law has resulted in a de facto ban of all travel north of Agadez, e.g. in violation of the freedom of movement of ECOWAS nationals. Further, the lack of clarity of the law and its implementation as a repressive – instead of protection – measure has resulted in the criminalization of all migration upwards and has pushed migrants into hiding, which renders them more vulnerable to abuse and human rights violations.”

“Indeed, according to various sources, the law has not stopped or decreased migration, but instead it has pushed it underground and diverted the migration routes from Niger to the north through Chad and Sudan, or to the Western Mediterranean route.”

“Role of the international donors and in particular the EU – Although key state officials stressed that the objective of reducing migration towards the north is mainly a national policy decision, there is a need to highlight the role and the responsibility of the international community and donors in this respect. Indeed, several sources stated that Nigerien policy on migration is heavily influenced and pushed primarily by the demands of the European Union and its Member States to control migration in exchange for financial support. For instance, the fact that the European Union Trust Fund provides financial support to IOM largely to sensitize and return migrants to their countries of origin, even when the voluntariness in many cases is questionable, compromises its rights-based approach to development cooperation. In addition, from my exchange with the European Union, no support is foreseen for those migrants who are neither refugees nor have agreed to be voluntarily returned to their countries of origin. Furthermore, the EU’s role and support in the adoption and implementation of the law on illicit smuggling of migrants calls into question its ‘do no harm’ principle given the human rights concerns related to the implementation and enforcement of the law.”

“Preliminary Recommendations: To the European Union and its Member States:

  • Integrate rigorous human rights, due diligence, monitoring and oversight mechanisms into all external agreements and initiatives abroad and prioritize projects in Niger that will improve the human rights of migrants;
  • Fully recognize the push and pull factors of irregular migration, and the EU’s responsibility in managing and mitigating them;
  • Take a global leadership role whenever needed in relation to humanitarian and human rights crises and reduce the market for smugglers by increasing, in cooperation with other States, resettlement opportunities;
  • Develop and incentivize other regular and safe migration channels, including for workers with varying skills levels, and look at a variety of options for legal migration, such as humanitarian admission, humanitarian visas, temporary protection, family reunification, economic admissions at all skills levels, as well as for job seeking, student mobility and medical evacuation; and increase the number of migrants admitted under existing regular migration schemes;
  • All EU programs, policies and technical assistance to Niger concerning migration should further the realization of human rights for all migrants, including those that are neither refugees, asylum seekers or AVR applicants, in compliance with international human rights norms and standards.”

2018 migrant arrivals to Spain now exceed 2006 arrivals and the so-called year of the “Crisis of the Cayucos”

“So far this year, 40,209 people have arrived in Spain…”  “The figure exceeds for the first time the one recorded in 2006, when 39,180 people reached the Spanish coast in the so-called ‘crisis of the cayucos.’”

Spain has recently urged the EU to honor its promise to grant Morocco financial aid amounting to €30 million to help curb illegal migration. Earlier in August, EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker promised to release €55 million from the emergency fund to help Morocco and Spain tackle the rise of illegal migration in the Western Mediterranean.

In July, the EU agreed to spend €55 million ($64 million) to help Tunisia and Morocco manage their frontiers. However, none of these promises have been upheld yet as Spain has indeed overtaken Greece and Italy this year with more than 43,000 arrivals mostly through dinghies from Morocco.”

Greece criticizes Turkey for surge in migrant flows via land border

“Athens has lodged complaints with the European Commission and Ankara over the ‘relaxed stance’ of Turkish authorities.”  “Over 11,000 migrants have crossed into Greece through Evros so far in 2018, compared with 5,500 in 2017 and 3,000 in 2016, Migration Policy minister Dimitris Vitsas told local ANT1 TV.”

PBS: Libyan coast remains fertile for ISIS and migrant traffickers

US broadcaster PBS: “Less than two years after Libya with American forces regained control of its coast from Islamic State fighters, the most potent affiliate outside of Iraq and Syria, law enforcement and U.S. policymakers worry about a resurgence.”

EASO: Asylum applications remain stable in the EU throughout summer months

Analysis carried out by the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), based on data exchanged by EU+ Member States, reveals that this year, applications for asylum did not increase during the summer months.”  “The main countries of origin of applicants in August were Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey and Iran. With the exception of Syrians, all these nationalities lodged more applications for asylum than in July. In particular, nationals of Iraq lodged the most applications (4 020, + 12 % from July) so far in 2018, while levels of applications from Afghan nationals (4 010, – 8 % from July) were also considerable, dropping slightly from July. Turkish nationals continued to lodge a considerable number of applications (2 750, – 4 % from July). Similarly, applications from Iranian nationals rose sharply (2 460, + 19 %), reaching the highest level in almost two years.

In contrast, nationals of several Western African countries lodged fewer applications (between 25 % and 69 %) compared to a year earlier. This contrasts to trends in the past four years, when asylum-related migration from this region tended to rise over the summer months.”

UNHCR urges Australia to evacuate off-shore facilities as health situation deteriorates

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is urging immediate action by the Government of Australia to address a collapsing health situation among refugees and asylum-seekers at off-shore facilities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Australia remains responsible under International Law for those who have sought its protection. In the context of deteriorating health and reduced medical care, Australia must now act to prevent further tragedy to those forcibly transferred under its so-called “offshore processing” policy. UNHCR renews its call for refugees and asylum-seekers to be moved immediately to Australia, where they can receive adequate support and care.”

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Week in Review– 7 October 2018

Italy’s migration deterrence policies under Salvini sharply increase deaths at sea

New ISPI Commentary by Matteo Villa: “Sea Arrivals to Italy: The Cost of Deterrence Policies”: “We can now compare the two periods of [Italian migration] deterrence policies, moving from [former Interior Minister Marco] Minniti to [current Interior Minister Matteo] Salvini. [T]hese two periods show very different trends, in particular with regards to the number of dead or missing at sea. The period of Minniti policies coincided with a drop in migrants dead or missing at sea that was more or less in line with the drop in irregular sea arrivals to Italy. On the other hand, the period of Salvini policies was marked by a further decrease in sea arrivals (-48%), but also by a sharp increase in the number of dead or missing at sea (+147%, i.e. more than double the previous period). [***] To conclude, Salvini policies of further deterrence at sea have coincided with a drop in arrivals of around 28,000 units, which is equivalent to less than 20% if compared to the drop of 150,000 arrivals recorded during the Minniti period. At the same time, Salvini policies coincided with a strong increase in the number of migrants dying or going missing at sea, which reversed the previous declining trend. When evaluating public policies, it is important to consider the opportunity-cost of each decision. Four months after the tightening on sea rescues, in the light of the numbers available, the usefulness of deterrence policies appears questionable to say the least, when a relatively modest reduction in sea arrivals in Italy, has coincided with a sharp increase in the number of dead or missing.”

UN Security Council renews authorisation for inspection of vessels on high seas off Libya

Pursuant to Resolution 2437 (2018), adopted on 3 October 2018, the Council renewed the authorisation for member states to inspect vessels on the high seas off the coast of Libya that they have reasonable grounds to suspect are being used for migrant smuggling or human trafficking: The Council “…. Decides, for a further period of twelve months from the date of adoption of this resolution, to renew the authorisations as set out in paragraphs 7, 8, 9 and 10 of resolution 2240 (2015),reaffirms paragraph 11 thereof and otherwise reiterates its resolutions 2240 (2015), 2312 (2106) and 2380 (2017) and its Presidential Statement S/PRST/2015/25;…”

Libyan Coast Guard pull backs / interceptions in 2018 near 14,000

Per the UNHCR, as of 4 October, “the Libyan Coast Guard rescued/intercepted 13,898 refugees and migrants (9,560 men, 2,118 women and 1,364 children) at sea during 104 operations. This is an increase of 12.3% compared to the same period in 2017. Since the beginning of the year, 99 bodies were recovered in Libyan waters while 608 lives were lost at sea. Most of the individuals disembarked [in Libya] were Nigerian (1,830 individuals), Sudanese (1,765 individuals) and Eritrean (1,532 individuals).”

2018 migrant arrivals to Spain exceed arrival totals for 2015, 2016, 2017 combined

According to IOM, as of 28 September 2018, “total land and sea arrivals in the first nine months of this year have surpassed the arrival totals of 2015, 2016 and 2017 combined, but signalled that despite the higher number of arrivals the situation remains manageable. Migrant arrivals to Spain via the Western Mediterranean and Western African routes have reached a total of 36,654 this year. Another 4,820 migrants reached the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla by land. Sea arrivals to Spain currently account for 45 per cent of all Mediterranean arrivals this year given the reduced numbers of migrants arriving in Italy and Greece by sea….”

Moroccan FM reiterates Morocco’s refusal to host EU “disembarkation platforms”

Reported by DW: Morocco’s foreign minister Nasser Bourita said “‘Morocco is generally opposed to all kinds of centers. That is part of our migration policy and a national sovereign position … [it is] too easy to say that this is a Moroccan issue.’ ‘Migration comprises three percent of the world’s population, 80 percent of which is legal … So we are only talking about 20 percent of these three per cent.’ ‘Are we real partners or just a neighbor you’re afraid of?’ questioning Europe’s attitude towards Morocco. ‘The EU can’t ask Morocco to help with migration and the fight against terrorism and treat the country like an object.’”  Government spokesman Mustapha El Khalfi reiterated Morocco’s categorical refusal to host disembarkation platforms: “The creation of reception centres for migrants is only an attempt to externalize the problem and is not a solution.”

Dwindling search and rescue capabilities in the Med

UNHCR expresses concern over lack of search and rescue capabilities in the Mediterranean: “This time last year, five NGOs were conducting search and rescue operations on the Central Mediterranean. In 2017, NGOs saved over 46, 000 lives according to the Italian Coast Guard. The de-registration of the Aquarius is deeply worrying and would represent a dramatic reduction of search and rescue capacity at precisely the moment when it needs to be stepped up.” “UNHCR continues to call strongly for increasing search and rescue capacity in the Central Mediterranean and for leaving space for NGOs to contribute in a coordinated manner to these efforts. This is a collective responsibility, with saving lives as its primary concern.”

The death toll

IOM: Mediterranean Migrant Arrivals Reach 84,345 in 2018; Deaths Reach 1,777

Egypt, immigration detention, human rights abuses, and also an important EU partner

The Global Detention Project released an Egypt Country Report: “Immigration Detention in Egypt: Military Tribunals, Human Rights, Abysmal Conditions, and EU Partner” reporting on, among things, “intensified EU-Egyptian cooperation in ‘migration management,’ leading to a comprehensive crackdown on irregular migration on Egypt’s north coast.”

EU migration control policies enrich Libyan militias

The EUObserver reported on how on how “Libyan militia cash in on EU’s anti-smuggling strategy”. “Senior officials at the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have all shed doubt on some aspects of the EU’s grand anti-business smuggler plan, issued in mid-2015. ‘When we say we want to disrupt the smuggler business model, we talk about destroying boats in Libya, we talk about destroying the boats, all this makes the smuggler richer,’ Eugenio Ambrosi, the IOM’s EU regional director told this website.”

Deplorable conditions in EU’s largest refugee camp

Patrick Kingsley, now with the New York Times, formerly with The Guardian (and author of The New Odyssey: The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis, 2016), writes in depth on the deplorable conditions in Camp Moira, the EU’s biggest refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos – ‘a camp of around 9,000 people living in a space designed for just 3,100, where squalid conditions and an inscrutable asylum process have led to what aid groups describe as a mental health crisis.”

Royal Moroccan Navy opens fire on migrant boat

Samia Errazzouki, a former journalist and current PhD student at the University of California at Davis, writes about the killing of Hayat Belkacem who was killed when the Royal Moroccan Navy open fire on a migrant boat trying to reach Spain. Errazzouki writes about the dissent and disenchantment in Morocco pushing many people to risk the journey to Europe.

Dozens dead in shipwreck in Moroccan waters – Moroccan authorities reportedly delayed rescue efforts

At least 34 refugees died in a shipwreck in the western Mediterranean.  Salvamento Marítimo de España reportedly the alert and offered collaboration to Morocco “no response was received” from Moroccan authorities. The boat and survivors drifted for 24 hours.

60 dead in boat accident off West Africa

The Guinea-Bissau coast guard commander reported that up to sixty people drowned after their boat sank.  The boat was believed to be trying to reach the Canary Islands.

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FRONTEX to launch new mission in Central Mediterranean – increased efforts to identify terrorists on migrant boats; Operation Themis to replace Triton

FRONTEX announced on 31 January that it is launching Joint Operation Themis effective 1 February.  Themis replaces Joint Operation Triton in effect since 2014.  The FRONTEX press statement does not provide many details as to what will change under JO Themis, though the FRONTEX statement says that “[t]he security component of Operation Themis will include collection of intelligence and other steps aimed at detecting foreign fighters and other terrorist threats at the external borders.”

Media reports also state that there will be an enhanced focus by FRONTEX on efforts to identify terrorists posing as boat refugees or migrants.  If this is a major new focus, one has to wonder whether this may be a solution in search of a problem.

The FRONTEX statement quotes FRONTEX director Leggeri as saying that “[w]e need to be better equipped to prevent criminal groups that try to enter the EU undetected. This is crucial for the internal security of the European Union.”  The Telegraph reported that “[t]he new naval operation in the Mediterranean was announced as it was claimed that up to 50 Islamic State fighters crossed the Mediterranean by boat from Tunisia and landed in Italy last year with the intention of carrying out terrorist attacks in Europe. The Guardian reported that Interpol drew up a list of suspected ISIL extremists who are believed to have arrived on the coast of Sicily between July and October last year. The list was reportedly sent by Interpol to the Italian interior ministry in November. Italian authorities and security experts were skeptical about the report, however. … Some Italian security analysts were doubtful about the story. ‘Terrorists never arrive in migrant boats – no serious terrorist organisation would take the risk of putting their trained people on board an unsafe boat which risks capsizing when hit by the first big wave,’ Andrea Margelletti, president of the Centre for International Studies, told the Italian news agency Adnkronos….”

FRONTEX Press Statement:

Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, is launching a new operation in the Central Mediterranean to assist Italy in border control activities.

The new Joint Operation Themis will begin on 1 February and will replace operation Triton, which was launched in 2014. Operation Themis will continue to include search and rescue as a crucial component. At the same time, the new operation will have an enhanced law enforcement focus. Its operational area will span the Central Mediterranean Sea from waters covering flows from Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Turkey and Albania.

Operation Themis will better reflect the changing patterns of migration, as well as cross border crime. Frontex will also assist Italy in tracking down criminal activities, such as drug smuggling across the Adriatic,” said Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri.

The security component of Operation Themis will include collection of intelligence and other steps aimed at detecting foreign fighters and other terrorist threats at the external borders.

“We need to be better equipped to prevent criminal groups that try to enter the EU undetected. This is crucial for the internal security of the European Union,” Leggeri said.

As part of Operation Themis, Frontex will continue its presence in the hotspots in Italy, where officers deployed by the agency will assist the national authorities in registering migrants, including taking their fingerprints and confirming their nationalities.

Frontex vessels will continue search and rescue operations under the coordination of the responsible Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres. Last year, Frontex assisted in the rescue of 38 000 people at sea in operations in Italy, Greece and Spain.

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MSF operational update: Central Mediterranean & Libyan Operations: “It is not possible to provide meaningful medical care in a system of arbitrary detention that causes harm and suffering.”

MSF’s 29 January 2018 operational update.

Some key points:

  • The number of detainees [in Libyan detention centres] went down in December [2017] when thousands of people were mass repatriated to their countries of origin by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
  • The majority of physical and mental health problems requiring medical assistance still directly relate to the substandard conditions of detention.
  • It is not possible to provide meaningful medical care in a system of arbitrary detention that causes harm and suffering.
  • Italian ships have been deployed in Libyan territorial waters as part of a broader European strategy to seal off the coast of Libya and “contain” refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in a country where they are exposed to extreme and widespread violence and exploitation.
  • The MSF team onboard Aquarius witnessed refugees and migrants aboard unseaworthy vessels being intercepted by the Libyan Coastguard in international waters as EU military assets at the scene looked on.
  • Although these interceptions are presented as “rescue operations” and are celebrated by the Libyan Coastguard and their EU partners, the reality is that migrants and refugees are not being returned to a port of safety.
  • [T]here are several entities operating along Libya’s vast coastline that claim to be the Libyan Coastguard. Contact points on land and at sea were unclear, as was the chain of command.

Excerpts from MSF operational update:

Libya: dismal conditions in detention centres hinders medical treatment

In Tripoli, a huge increase in the number of people detained in October and November [2017] resulted in extreme overcrowding and a dramatic deterioration of conditions inside the capital’s detention centres. In some locations, up to 2,000 men were crammed together in one cell without enough floor space to lie down. … From September to December 2017 the MSF team treated over 76 people for violence-related injuries including broken limbs, electrical burns and gunshot wounds.

Under these circumstances, the impact of MSF’s medical work was minimal. The team was able to help only a small percentage of all those in need of urgent treatment and it was not possible to follow up medical cases. … Most medical complaints were related to the conditions of detention, with overcrowding and inadequate latrine and drinking water provision resulting in acute upper respiratory tract infections, musculoskeletal pain and acute watery diarrhoea. …

The number of detainees went down in December [2017] when thousands of people were mass repatriated to their countries of origin by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Conditions inside detention centres in Tripoli improved and there was less mistreatment and violence against patients. In the detention centres that MSF visits, teams are now able to access cells to provide medical care to refugees and migrants that remain in arbitrary detention. The majority of physical and mental health problems requiring medical assistance still directly relate to the substandard conditions of detention.

Few international organisations are able to work in Libya due to widespread violence and insecurity. Those who do – including MSF – do not have full and unhindered access to all detention centres where refugees and migrants are being held. It is not possible to provide meaningful medical care in a system of arbitrary detention that causes harm and suffering. An overwhelming number of detainees have already endured alarming levels of violence and exploitation in Libya, and during harrowing journeys from their home countries. As such, MSF reiterates its call for an end to the arbitrary detention of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in Libya.

Aquarius continues sea rescues as numbers attempting Mediterranean crossing fall

In the central Mediterranean, the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants rescued at sea and brought to safety in Italy has fallen since last year. Aquarius, a dedicated search and rescue vessel run by MSF in cooperation with SOS MEDITERRANEE, rescued 3,645 people in the period September – December 2017. This is fewer people compared to the same period in 2016 when 5,608 people were brought to a port of safety in Italy.

The fall in numbers appears to be due to fewer boats leaving Libya. Reasons for this are unclear, though likely factors include the weather and political developments on the ground in Libya. There have been media reports that local militias are being paid off by Italy to prevent departures. Italian ships have been deployed in Libyan territorial waters as part of a broader European strategy to seal off the coast of Libya and “contain” refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in a country where they are exposed to extreme and widespread violence and exploitation….

Unclear future for refugees amid challenging rescue environment for Aquarius

Carrying out search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean is becoming even more challenging and complex. People who manage to escape Libya are increasingly being turned back at sea with the EU-supported Libyan Coastguard active in international waters. The MSF team onboard Aquarius witnessed refugees and migrants aboard unseaworthy vessels being intercepted by the Libyan Coastguard in international waters as EU military assets at the scene looked on. On 31 October, 24 November and 8 December, Aquarius was instructed to standby and was forced to watch as hundreds of people were pushed back to Libya by the Libyan Coastguard.

Although these interceptions are presented as “rescue operations” and are celebrated by the Libyan Coastguard and their EU partners, the reality is that migrants and refugees are not being returned to a port of safety. The crimes committed against refugees and migrants in Libya are widely known and have generated international outrage. Under no circumstances should migrants and refugees aboard vessels in distress in international waters be returned to Libya, they must be brought to a port of safety.

In September, Aquarius was instructed to conduct three rescues in international waters under the coordination of the Libyan Coastguard. These unprecedented and highly unusual instructions from the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome presented MSF with an impossible choice. Fortunately for each rescue, Aquarius was able to render the necessary assistance and took all rescued men, women and children to a port of safety in Italy. In that situation, it was not possible to verify who exactly was coordinating rescue operations as there are several entities operating along Libya’s vast coastline that claim to be the Libyan Coastguard. Contact points on land and at sea were unclear, as was the chain of command. As there have also been numerous violent incidents in recent months between the Libyan Coastguard and the few other remaining humanitarian organisations running dedicated search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean, the security of our team was paramount during these interactions.

It’s unclear what the future holds for refugees and migrants who find themselves along the Central Mediterranean route, but with Libya remaining riven by widespread violence and insecurity, with no unified government, a plethora of armed groups, and active fighting ongoing in several parts of the country, it does not look like an end to their suffering is in sight.

MSF operational update: Central Mediterranean here.

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Libyan Coast Guard Migrant Interceptions (“Pull-Backs”) Steadily Increasing

Per UNHCR, the number of migrants being intercepted and subject to forcible return to Libya by the Libyan Coast Guard is steadily increasing:

UNHCR Flash Update, 26 Jan. 2018 – So far in 2018, over 1,430 refugees and migrants were disembarked in Libya by the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG). In January 2018, UNHCR has observed an increase in numbers of rescue/interception operations conducted by the LCG when compared to the same month in 2017 (1,025 individuals) and previous months such as November (1,214 individuals) and December 2017 (1,157 individuals). During January, departures were predominantly recorded in the area east of Tripoli, near Garabulli, and to a lesser extent in areas around Sabratha and Zwara. UNHCR partner International Medical Corps provided medical assistance and distributed core relief items at disembarkation points and detention centres.

UNHCR Flash Update here.

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ECtHR chamber judgment in J.R. and Others v. Greece finding no violations of ECHR in regard to detention of Afghan nationals in Vial migrant centre in Greece

Court press release here.  Chamber judgment here (only available in French). (See also Court’s Fact Sheet “Migrants in Detention” here.)

Excerpt from Court’s press release:

25 January 2018 – In today’s Chamber judgment in the case of J.R. and Others v. Greece (application no. 22696/16) the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been:

no violation of Article 5 § 1 (right to liberty and security) of the European Convention on Human Rights, a violation of Article 5 § 2 (right to be informed promptly of the reasons for arrest); no violation of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment); and no violation of Article 34 (right of individual application).

The case concerned the conditions in which three Afghan nationals were held in the Vial reception centre, on the Greek island of Chios, and the circumstances of their detention.

The Court found in particular that the applicants had been deprived of their liberty for their first month in the centre, until 21 April 2016 when it became a semi-open centre. The Court was nevertheless of the view that the one-month period of detention, whose aim had been to guarantee the possibility of removing the applicants under the EU-Turkey Declaration, was not arbitrary and could not be regarded as “unlawful” within the meaning of Article 5 § 1 (f). However, the applicants had not been appropriately informed about the reasons for their arrest or the remedies available in order to challenge that detention.

As to the conditions of detention in the centre, the Court noted the emergency situation facing the Greek authorities after significant numbers of migrants had arrived and the ensuing material difficulties. It observed that several NGOs had visited the centre and had partly confirmed the applicants’ allegations, but found that the conditions were not severe enough for their detention to be characterised as inhuman or degrading treatment had not been reached.  [***]

Court press release here.  Chamber judgment here (only available in French). (See also Court’s Fact Sheet “Migrants in Detention” here.)

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IMIn Working Paper: Counting migrants’ deaths at the border: From civil society counter-statistics to (inter)governmental recuperation, C Heller, A Pécoud

International Migration Institute Network working paper by Charles Heller, Research Fellow at the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths, University of London and Antoine Pécoud, Professor of Sociology, University of Paris 13.  Article here.

Abstract: Migrant deaths in border-zones have become a major social and political issue, especially in the euro-Mediterranean region and in the context of the refugee/migrant crisis. While media, activists and policymakers often mention precise figures regarding the number of deaths, little is known about the production of statistical data on this topic. This paper explores the politics of counting migrant deaths in Europe. This statistical activity was initiated in the nineties by civil society organizations; the purpose was to shed light on the deadly consequences of ‘Fortress Europe’ and to challenge states’ control-oriented policies. In 2013, the International Organization for Migration also started to count migrants’ deaths, yet with a different political objective: humanitarian and life-saving activities become integrated in border management and the control of borders is expected to both monitor human mobility and save migrants’ lives. IOM thus depoliticises these statistics, while at the same time imitating an activity first associated with political contestation by civil society actors. Finally, the paper explores ways in which statistics on border deaths can be re-politicised to challenge states’ immigration policies in Europe.

Non‐technical summary: The deaths of migrants in the euro‐Mediterranean region constitute a major issue in the context of the migration crisis. Media regularly report of shipwrecks or of dead bodies found on Southern European shores, while European governments and the EU are under pressure, by civil society groups in particular, to find ways of ending a tragedy that is at odds with the continent’s commitment to peace and human rights. This paper explores the ways in which statistics on migrants’ deaths are collected. The first data on this topic came from NGOs in the nineties; their objective was to denounce the deadly consequences of European policies and to challenge control‐oriented policies. Today, however, statistics on border deaths are collected by an intergovernmental actor, the International Organization for Migration: rather than criticizing states, this organization aims at conciliating the control of human mobility with the prevention of deaths – thus moving towards a ‘humanitarian border’.

Article here.

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Research shows lack of overarching coordination in criminal operations transporting people from the Horn of Africa into Northern Europe via Libya. Instead, transnational smuggling routes found to be highly segmented: each stage a competitive marketplace of “independent and autonomous” smugglers

Univ. of Cambridge press release here.  Dr Paolo Campana’s article in the European Journal of Criminology here.

University of Cambridge press release, 22 Jan. 2018:

Latest research shows a lack of overarching coordination or the involvement of any “kingpin”-style monopolies in the criminal operations illegally transporting people from the Horn of Africa into Northern Europe via Libya. Instead, transnational smuggling routes were found to be highly segmented: each stage a competitive marketplace of “independent and autonomous” smugglers – as well as militias and kidnappers – that must be negotiated by migrants fighting for a life beyond the Mediterranean Sea. […]

Dr Paolo Campana from Cambridge University’s Institute of Criminology conducted the research using evidence from the 18-month investigation by Italian prosecutors that followed the Lampedusa shipwreck, in which 366 people lost their lives. The work included data from wiretapped telephone conversations between smugglers at all stages, testimonies collected from migrants, interviews with police task force members, and background information on offenders.

“The smuggling ring moving migrants from the Horn of Africa to Northern Europe via Libya does not appear to have the thread of any single organisation running through it,” said Campana, whose findings are published today in the European Journal of Criminology. “This is a far cry from how Mafia-like organisations operate, and a major departure from media reports claiming that shadowy kingpins monopolise certain routes.” […]

“Authorities may wish to deliberately tarnish the reputation of smugglers in order to shut down their business,” said Campana.  “Criminal justice responses require the adoption of coordinated tactics involving all countries along the route to target these localised clusters of offenders simultaneously. “This is a market driven by exponential demand, and it is that demand which should be targeted. Land-based policies such as refugee resettlement schemes are politically difficult, but might ultimately prove more fruitful in stemming the smuggling tide than naval operations.”

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COE HR Commissioner Seeks Information Regarding Italian Interception and Rescue Actions in Libyan Territorial Waters

Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muižnieks has requested information from the Italian government regarding the nature of Italy’s maritime interception operations being conducted within Libyan territorial waters, the type of support being provided to Libya for these operations, and the nature of any safeguards that Italy may have in place to prevent intercepted migrants from being exposed to a risk of torture or inhuman treatment if returned to Libya.

Muižnieks’ letter notes that while the 2012 Hirsi Jamaa judgment dealt with interceptions in international waters, the Court’s findings clearly appear applicable to Italian operations in Libyan territorial waters.

Excerpts from the HR Commissioner’s 28 September 2018 letter:

“…It is my understanding that the Italian government, at the invitation of the Libyan Government of National Accord, has deployed ships in Libyan territorial waters, with the stated aim to support the Libyan authorities in curbing migrant flows…

Although the Hirsi Jamaa judgment [Hirsi Jamaa and others v. Italy [GC] (App. no. 27765/090) 23 Feb. 2012] deals with interceptions in international waters, the Court’s findings continue, in my view, to be relevant also in the context of the situation which might arise from operations in Libyan territorial waters…

[H]anding over individuals to Libyan authorities or other groups in Libya would [in my view] expose them to a real risk of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.  The fact that such actions would be carried out in Libyan territorial waters does not absolve Italy from its obligations under the Convention.

Indeed on several occasions, the Court has found that obligations arising from the Convention may, under certain circumstances, also apply when a state party is acting wholly on the territory of a third country.  This may be the case when a state party to the Convention exercises effective control or authority over an individual on the territory or in the territorial waters of another state.  Such a situation may, in my view, arise, when Italian vessels intercept or rescue migrants in Libyan territorial waters.

…I would be grateful if you would clarify what kind of support operations your government expects to provide to the Libyan authorities in Libyan territorial waters and what safeguards Italy has put in place to ensure that persons, should they be intercepted or rescued by Italian vessels in Libyan territorial , are not subsequently exposed to a situation in which they would face a real risk of treatment or punishment contrary to Article 3…

In addition, in the light of the recently adopted Code of Conduct for non-governmental organisations involved in migrants’ rescue operations at sea, I would appreciate any information you may provide about measures to ensure that search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, including those conducted by non-governmental actors, can continue to be carried out effectively and in safety….”

Full text of letter here.

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Reuters: New Armed Group May Be Responsible for Sudden Drop in Migrant Departures from Libya

Reuters’ article by Aidan Lewis and Steve Scherer: “An armed group is stopping migrant boats from setting off across the Mediterranean from a city west of Tripoli that has been a springboard for people smugglers, causing a sudden drop in departures over the past month, sources in the area said. … Sources in Sabratha, 70 km (45 miles) west of the capital, said the sudden drop had been caused by a new force in the seaside city, which is preventing migrants from leaving, often by locking them up. … The two Sabratha sources said the group was running a detention center for migrants who are turned back or taken from smugglers. One sent a picture of hundreds of migrants sitting in the sand in front of a high wall. … Frontex last week said ‘clashes in Sabratha’ contributed to July’s decline, also citing changeable weather and increased Libyan coastguard presence. The Sabratha sources were not aware of any clashes…..In the past, with no central authority to constrain them, smugglers have adapted and routes have shifted, as already is happening. Last week smugglers moved departures to east of Tripoli, near Al Khoms, Chris Catrambone, co-founder of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) charity, told Reuters. Three large rubber boats set out from the east, he said, while only a small boat with 26 people was found west of Tripoli. ‘The sea was like a lake last week and yet there were few boats,’ Catrambone said. Everyone on the Phoenix, a rescue vessel operated by MOAS, was taken aback because it was so unusual, he said….”  Full text here.

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Statements from MSF, Save the Children, and Sea-Eye Regarding Suspension of SAR Activities in International Waters Off Libyan Coast in Response to Threats Issued by Libyan Coast Guard

Statements from Save the Children (here) and Sea-Eye (here).

MSF statement (here) – Full text: On 11 August 2017, the Libyan authorities publicly announced the establishment of a search and rescue (SAR) zone and restricted the access to humanitarian vessels into the international waters off the Libyan coasts. Immediately afterwards, the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome warned MSF about security risks associated with the threats publicly issued by the Libyan Coast Guard against humanitarian search and rescue (SAR) vessels operating in international waters.

Following these additional restrictions on independent humanitarian assistance and increasing blockade of migrants within Libya, MSF has decided to temporarily suspend the search and rescue activity of its ship, Prudence. The MSF medical support team will still assist the rescue capacity of the SOS Méditerranée-run boat Aquarius, which is currently patrolling in international waters.

“If these declarations are confirmed and the orders are implemented we see two grave consequences – there will be more deaths at sea and more people trapped in Libya,” declared Annemarie Loof, MSF’s operational manager. “If humanitarian ships are pushed out of the Mediterranean, there will be fewer ships in the area to rescue people from drowning. Those who will not drown will be intercepted and brought back to Libya, which we know is a place of lawlessness, arbitrary detention and extreme violence.” These declarations came barely a week after the announcement of the Italian Navy deployment inside Libyan waters aimed at increasing the capacity of Libyan coastguards to intercept migrant and refugees and send them back to Libya.

“The recent developments represent another worrying element of an increasingly hostile environment for lifesaving rescue operations,” said Brice de le Vingne, MSF’s Director of Operations.  “European states and Libyan authorities are jointly implementing a blockade on the ability of people to seek safety. This is an unacceptable assault on people’s lives and dignity.”

MSF requests Libyan authorities to rapidly confirm that they will adhere to and respect the internationally recognised legal obligation to rescue boats in distress, and that they will allow this to take place in international and Libyan waters.  MSF further requests that Libyan authorities clarify that all boats, operated by NGOs or anyone else, will be permitted to conduct these rescue activities unhindered and unharmed and that Libyan and Italian authorities will not interfere with the legally guaranteed right to disembark people in a place of safety.

“MSF refuses to be coopted into a system that aims at all cost to block people from seeking safety,” continues de le Vingne. “We call on the EU and Italian authorities to stop implementing deadly containment strategies that trap people in a country at war with no regard for their protection and assistance needs. Safe and legal pathways for refugees and migrants are urgently needed in order to reduce unnecessary death and suffering.”

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IOM report: Up to 50 Somali, Ethiopian Migrants Deliberately Drowned by Smugglers off Yemen

IOM Press Release, 9 August: “Aden – Early this morning (09/08), a human smuggler, in charge of the boat, forced more than 120 Somali and Ethiopian migrants into the pitching sea as they approached the coast of Shabwa, a Yemeni Governorate along the Arabian Sea. The migrants had been hoping to reach countries in the Gulf via war-torn Yemen. Shortly after the tragedy, staff from IOM, the UN Migration Agency, found the shallow graves of 29 migrants on a beach in Shabwa, during a routine patrol. The dead had been buried rapidly by those who survived the smuggler’s deadly actions. IOM is working closely with the International Committee of the Red Cross to ensure appropriate care for the deceased migrants’ remains. … ‘The survivors told our colleagues on the beach that the smuggler pushed them to the sea, when he saw some ‘authority types’ near the coast,’ explained Laurent de Boeck, the IOM Yemen Chief of Mission. ‘They also told us that the smuggler has already returned to Somalia to continue his business and pick up more migrants to bring to Yemen on the same route. This is shocking and inhumane. The suffering of migrants on this migration route is enormous. Too many young people pay smugglers with the false hope of a better future,’ continued de Boeck. Since January 2017 to date, IOM estimates that around 55,000 migrants left the Horn of Africa to come to Yemen…”

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Italian Navy Ship, Comandante Borsini, Visits Tripoli Naval Base

Libyan media reported that the Italian naval ship, Comandante Borsini, (in background of photo) just concluded a five day working visit to Libya at the Tripoli Naval Base which “saw Italian experts and technicians conducting a closeup assessment of the needs of Libya’s naval vessels….. [a Libyan naval spokesman] indicated that the maintenance that is to take place is part of activating the 2008 agreement in the part related to Naval and Coast Guard personnel.” “An Italian service vessel will arrive Tuesday in Tripoli Naval Base to kick off the service work. … [The spokesman] explained that there are no concealed agreements and no articles in the current deal that would violate Libya’s sovereignty, saying the Libyan part of the deal did not ask for any intervention or operations inside the territorial waters….”

2017-08-06_Comandante Borsini at Tripoli Harbour(2)

Comandante Borsini in background. Libyan Coastguard Patrol Boat (Pennant 654) in foreground.

2018-08-06_Comandanti Borsini at Tripoli

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Italy and Malta Reportedly Prevent NGO Rescue Vessel from Disembarking Rescued Persons Due to Noncompliance with Italy’s New NGO Code of Conduct

Maltese newspapers are reporting that the Golfo Azzurro, which is currently chartered by the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms, “with some 10-20 migrants on board is anchored outside Maltese territorial waters waiting for instructions from Italian authorities on where to disembark the migrants.” Per the Times of Malta, “[u]nconfirmed reports say that … Italy has not given permission for [the Golfo Azzurro] to drop them off in Lampedusa, claiming that a new code of conduct for NGOs involved in such activities had not been observed.” Malta is reportedly refusing to allow the vessel to disembark in Malta, asserting as it has in the past that the rescued migrants were rescued closer to Italy and should therefore be taken to Italian territory.  Click here and here for articles.

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