EU continues to train Libyan partners despite migrant abuse

By RENATA BRITO, FRANK JORDANS and LORNE COOK

BRUSSELS (AP) — A confidential European Union military report calls for the continuation of a controversial EU program to train and equip the Libyan coastguard and navy despite growing concerns over their treatment of migrants , an increasing number of deaths at sea and the pursuit the absence of any central authority in the North African nation.

The report, distributed to EU officials this month and obtained by The Associated Press, offers rare insight into Europe’s determination to support Libya in the interception and return of tens of thousands of men, women and children in Libya, where they face unbearable abuse.

Compiled by Italian Navy Rear Admiral Stefano Turchetto, Head of the EU Arms Embargo Monitoring Mission, or Operation Irini, the report acknowledges the “excessive use of force” by the Libyan authorities, adding that EU training is “no longer fully followed”.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants hoping to reach Europe have crossed into Libya, where a lucrative trafficking and smuggling trade has flourished in a country without a functioning government, fragmented for years between rival administrations to the east and east. west, each supported by armed groups. and foreign governments.

The EU report acknowledges that the “political stalemate” in Libya has hampered Europe’s training agenda, noting that the country’s internal divisions make it difficult to garner political support to enforce “standards appropriate behaviour… consistent with human rights, especially when dealing with irregular migrants.”

The European Commission and the EU’s External Action Service – the foreign ministry equivalent of the 27-nation bloc – declined to comment on the report. But spokesman Peter Stano confirmed that the EU was committed to training coastguard personnel and boosting Libya’s capacity to manage a large search and rescue area in the Mediterranean.

The EU training program “remains firm on the table to increase the capacity of Libyan authorities to save lives at sea”, Stano said.

Criticisms of European migration policies have multiplied. At least three petitions have been filed with the International Criminal Court demanding that Libyan and European officials, as well as traffickers, militiamen and others be investigated for crimes against humanity. A UN investigation published in October also found evidence that abuses in Libya may constitute crimes against humanity.

Last week, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on countries to “re-examine policies that support the interception at sea and the return of refugees and migrants to Libya”.

Stano dismissed those criticisms. “When it comes to migration, our goal is to save people’s lives, protect those in need, and fight human trafficking and migrant smuggling,” Stano said.

Human rights defenders and asylum seekers disagree.

“The Europeans pretend to show the right face,” said a Cameroonian who arrived in Libya in 2016 with her child, thinking she would find work. Instead, she was trafficked and forced into prostitution after being separated from her daughter. The AP does not identify victims of sexual violence.

In 2018, she boarded a smugglers’ boat bound for Europe, but her group was arrested by Libyan authorities and taken to the notorious Tajoura detention center where the detainees were beaten and abused. She was only released after a friend paid the guards a $700 ransom.

“They call it saving lives? How does it save lives when those lives are tortured after being saved?” the woman asked.

Asked about detention centers in Libya, Stano said the EU’s position was clear: “They are unacceptable. The current system of arbitrary detention must end.”

But despite these claims, nothing has changed on the ground. Last month, the Libyan government appointed Mohammed Al-Khoja, a militia leader implicated in abuses against migrants, to head the Department for Combating Irregular Migration, which oversees detention centers.

“The same people tasked with busting the traffic are the traffickers themselves,” said Violeta Moreno-Lax, founder of the immigration law program at Queen Mary University of London.

The EU report noted the “excessive use of physical force” by a Libyan patrol during the September 15 interception of a wooden boat with around 20 migrants off the coast of Libya.

Libyan forces used tactics “never seen before and inconsistent with (EU) training…as well as international regulations”, the report said. He provided no further details on what exactly happened.

A spokesman for the Libyan Coast Guard did not respond to AP requests for comment on the incident or the EU report. In the past, interior ministry and Libyan coast guard officials have said they are doing their best with limited resources in a country plagued by years of civil war.

In response to questions from the AP, Frontex, the European coast and border guard agency that documented the September 15 interception, said it had filed a “serious incident report” but could not. disclose the details.

Ozlem Demirel, a member of Germany’s Left Party in the European Parliament, said the report offered “further evidence that there should be no cooperation with this force”.

“The fact that Irini is even looking for further training is, in my opinion, outrageous,” he said.

The violent tactics employed by the Libyan authorities at sea have been widely documented for years. Last week, activists aboard a volunteer rescue vessel reported seeing a Libyan patrol boat “shoot a person who had jumped into the water”.

Some €455 million ($516 million) has been allocated to Libya since 2015 through the EU Trust Fund for Africa, substantial amounts of which have been used to fund migration and border management .

However, colossal sums have been diverted to networks of militias and traffickers who exploit migrants, according to a 2019 PA survey. Members of the Coast Guard are also complicit, returning migrants intercepted at sea to detention centers under deals with militias or demanding payments to let others go.

EU money, much of which transits through Italy, has been used to train staff and refurbish boats for the Libyan authorities. The Libyan Coast Guard has also received satellite phones and uniforms and will receive three new patrol boats over the next two years.

To intercept the small boats of migrants unfit to navigate in the Mediterranean, the Libyan authorities also rely on surveillance gathered and shared by drones, planes and European radars. But even then, the political chaos in the country often has an impact on search and rescue operations.

Irregular migration from North Africa to Italy and Malta increased in 2021 after a decline in 2020 largely due to the coronavirus pandemic. Crossings in the central Mediterranean accounted for a third of all reported illegal border crossings into Europe, according to Frontex.

But as starts increased, so did interceptions. Last year, the Libyan Coast Guard picked up and returned to Libya more than 32,000 migrants, nearly triple the number in 2020.

Yet despite all the equipment and training provided to Libya to save lives, more than 1,500 people died or went missing last year, the highest death toll since 2017.

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Brito reported from Barcelona, ​​Spain. Jordans reported from Berlin.


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