The EU’s border agency has a duty to inform Libya’s coast guard about migrant boats, official says

Migrants disembark from the SOS Humanity 1 humanitarian ship in the Italian southern port town of Crotone, Monday, March 4, 2023. German charity SOS Humanity said the Libyan coast guard used violence and fired live bullets as its crew rescued migrants in the Mediterranean Sea on Saturday. The charity said that several migrants aboard three unseaworthy boats had to jump into the water. It said that it rescued 77 people, but that others were forced aboard a coast guard vessel. Some family members were separated and at least one migrant drowned. (Antonino D'Urso/LaPresse via AP )

Migrants disembark from the SOS Humanity 1 humanitarian ship in the Italian southern port town of Crotone, Monday, March 4, 2023. German charity SOS Humanity said the Libyan coast guard used violence and fired live bullets as its crew rescued migrants in the Mediterranean Sea on Saturday. The charity said that several migrants aboard three unseaworthy boats had to jump into the water. It said that it rescued 77 people, but that others were forced aboard a coast guard vessel. Some family members were separated and at least one migrant drowned. (Antonino D’Urso/LaPresse via AP )

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union’s border and coast guard agency has a duty to inform Libyan authorities about migrant boats in trouble in the country’s waters and will keep doing so, the head of Frontex insisted Tuesday, after a charity accused Libya’s coast guard of threatening its crew during a rescue.

German charity SOS Humanity said the Libyan coast guard fired live bullets and used violence as its crew rescued migrants in the Mediterranean Sea on Saturday.

The charity said several migrants aboard three unseaworthy boats had to jump into the water. It said it rescued 77 people but others were forced aboard a coast guard vessel. Some family members were separated. At least one migrant drowned.

Frontex uses aircraft, drones and other equipment to monitor the EU’s outside borders, including in international waters. Libya’s vast search and rescue area in the Mediterranean reaches well beyond its maritime border to almost halfway to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

The agency provides the Libyan coast guard with the location of boats that it believes are in danger.

Frontex’s executive director, Hans Leijtens, told The Associated Press that the organization is obliged by international law to report such incidents to “appropriate authorities,” and “if it’s in the Libyan search and rescue zone, it means also the Libyan authorities.”

Not to inform them “would be playing with the lives of the migrants, because that would mean that assets that are available to save lives will not be allocated to the incident,” Leijtens said. “That’s a gamble I will never take.”

The EU has funded the Libyan coast guard since 2015 as part of its effort to stop migrants from the North African country reaching Italy. As part of the deal, the coast guard intercepts migrants in Libyan and international waters and returns them to Libya.

Libya was plunged into chaos following a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime autocrat Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. Over the years, several witness accounts of abuses by the coast guard and detention center staff on land have been reported.

Some EU countries have asserted that charity ships looking for migrants in trouble at sea are only encouraging more people to come to Europe. Italy has sought to impound some aid vessels.

But Leijtens said it’s important for Frontex to work with nongovernmental organizations.

“I think it’s important that that we are not blocking any cooperation,” he said. “Whatever it takes to save lives is very important.”

According to the International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project, at least 962 migrants were reported dead and 1,563 others missing off Libya in 2023. Around 17,200 migrants were intercepted and returned to Libya last year.

Leijtens said Frontex lacks a mandate, sufficient funds and equipment to carry out rescue work.

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