Libyan Coast Guard Accused of Abandoning Survivors

Open Arms rescue swimmer searches the debris field (Oscar Camps / Twitter)

Published Jul 17, 2018 8:52 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Tuesday, the maritime rescue NGO Proactiva Open Arms accused the Libyan Coast Guard of abandoning three migrants on the wreckage of a makeshift boat in the Central Mediterranean. Two died shortly before they were found by the rescue vessel Astral, according to the ship's physician. Open Arms released a graphic video of the debris field and the remains. [Note: this content is not suitable for all audiences, and viewer discretion is advised.]

The Libyan Coast Guard reported Monday that it intercepted a boat with 158 maritime migrants on board at a position off Khoms. The occupants included 34 women and nine children, the agency said. The Astral's crew overheard radio traffic related to the interdiction, and they found a debris field at about the same position. The crew recovered two deceased individuals, one woman and one child, along with one survivor. Open Arms asserted that the migrants had been abandoned and their vessel destroyed, and it accused the Libyan Coast Guard of a "flagrant omission of assistance." The group's founder, Oscar Camps, went further: in a social media post, he described the agency as "assassins enlisted by the Italian government to kill." 

Italy and the European Union both underwrite the Libyan Coast Guard's operations, and Italy's government encourages the agency to manage rescue operations within a large zone of the central Mediterranean. The policy has resulted in an increase in the return of maritime migrants to Libyan shores and a sharp decline in the number of arrivals in Italy. Foreign merchant vessels, warships and NGOs typically deliver survivors to European ports, as the rescuees are at risk of abuse if brought back to Libya.

The surviving occupant of the migrants' vessel, a woman from Cameroon, told a journalist from Internazionale that she had been at sea for two days and two nights. She asserted that the Libyan Coast Guard interdiction team had beaten the boat's occupants, and begged not to be returned to Libya. 

In an update Wednesday, Open Arms said that Italy's government agreed to accept the survivor at a port of refuge, but had refused to permit the remains of the deceased to enter the country. The Astral has reportedly elected to head for the Spanish port of Palma de Mallorca instead. 

The Libyan Coast Guard has come under scrutiny over its SAR activities before. The UN has blacklisted one Libyan Coast Guard leader, Zawiyah unit head Abd Al Rahman al-Milad, for allegedly sinking migrant boats and participating in human smuggling. The U.S. Treasury has imposed its own sanctions on al-Milad, alleging that his militia has been "directly involved in the sinking of migrant boats using firearms, some reportedly in an attempt to undermine the smuggling business of [his] competitors."