Rescue NGO Calls for Clear Rules for Libyan Coast Guard
The migrant rescue NGO SOS Mediterranee is calling for more clarity on the SAR role of the Libyan Coast Guard in the central Mediterranean. The NGO saves maritime migrants in distress off Libya, and like other groups in the area, it reports potentially dangerous interactions with Libyan forces during rescue operations in international waters.
On March 30, the SOS Mediterranee-chartered vessel Aquarius was mobilized by the Italian maritime rescue coordination center (IMRCC) to respond to a dinghy in distress about 40 nm north of Zuwarah. An Italian Navy helicopter crew had spotted the raft and reported it to authorities in Rome. Despite the raft's deteriorating condition, the Aquarius' crew completed the rescue, and all migrants were safe before the arrival of a Libyan patrol boat.
The next day, the IMRCC informed the Aquarius of another overcrowded inflatable boat nearby. However, the center transferred operational authority to the Libyan Coast Guard, which ordered the Aquarius to stay clear of the area. After a discussion with the Libyan authorities, the Aquarius proceeded to distribute life vests to the raft's occupants and took the most vulnerable occupants on board, including 39 children, parents and pregnant women. The balance of the migrants were rescued by the Libyan Coast Guard and returned to Libya.
Francis Vallat, the president of SOS Mediterranee France, called for the EU to release a clear, transparent public framework for the involvement of the Libyan Coast Guard in rescues at sea. "The current conditions of rescue at sea, ever more complicated and with confusing and perilous transfers of responsibility during the operations, are unacceptable," said Vallat. "While the means at sea to save lives are increasingly inadequate, operations are delayed, human lives are threatened, [and] the return of people in distress to Libya is prioritized instead of their safety."
Other migrant rescue NGOs have also reported problems with the Italian and Libyan authorities. On March 16, during a rescue operation in international waters, a Libyan Coast Guard patrol boat threatened to kill the crew of the Spanish-flagged rescue vessel Open Arms if they did not relinquish possession of maritime migrants in distress. The Open Arms refused and headed north in search of an EU port to disembark its passengers. After a formal request from the Spanish flag state, authorities in Sicily allowed her to dock.
Shortly thereafter, the public prosecutor for Catania alleged that the Open Arms "violated the law and international agreements by not handing over the migrants to Libyan authorities" on the high seas. The Open Arms has been detained in Pozzallo, Sicily while the case proceeds.