EU hands Libya coast guard boats ahead of migration summit

The EU commission gave the Libyan Coast Guard the first of five new EU-funded patrol boats to help prevent migrants and asylum seekers from fleeing to Europe.

The handover on Monday (6 February) in Italy by EU commissioner Oliver Varhelyi to Libya’s minister of foreign affairs comes just days ahead of an EU summit on migration.

  • A Libyan patrol boat which had chased a boat of migrants into Malta’s search-and-rescue zone (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

“Today’s delivery of the search and rescue vessel for the Libyan Coast Guard is a milestone in our fight against illegal migration,” said Varhelyi.

The boats have been billed as a life-saving exercise by the EU, despite knowing many of those returned to Libya face persecution, rape, torture and enslavement.

They were procured under a border management budget from the EU’s emergency trust fund for Africa.

It also comes after Italy’s rightwing government renewed a deal to provide Libya with more funds and equipment to intercept people fleeing the country by sea.

The European Commission says its Libya policies adheres to the “do no harm principle”. But it will not provide evidence, and refuses to name the outside contractor it hired to carry out the assessments.

“We are not giving further details of who they are,” said a European Commission spokesperson.

The coast guard is a militia-linked outfit known to use dangerous interception tactics in search and rescue zones under Maltese oversight.

The patrol boats are part of a wider European Union push to offshore policing onto north Africa states and the Western Balkans, a topic set to be discussed later this week at a summit in Brussels of EU heads of state and government.

EU looking to curtail migration

Leaked draft summit conclusions suggest a desire for more control of the EU’s external borders, including full support for the EU’s border police Frontex.

“On migration, the talks will focus on the external aspects,” Laurence Boone, France’s minister of state for Europe, told reporters on Monday.

Leaders also plan to discuss how to leverage EU incentives, like visas, to force countries to curtail migration and take back their nationals.

This includes forcing Western Balkan states like Serbia to cancel visa-free travel for some nationals that then go on to seek refuge in the EU. And figures are being cited to drum up the political support.

Last week, EU commission president Von der Leyen said over 900,000 people applied for asylum in 2022.

She also said there had been 330,000 detections of irregular crossings in the EU, a 64-percent increase since 2016. Von der Leyen was citing Frontex numbers.

But that agency’s own fine print also notes that “the same person may cross the border several times in different locations at the external border.”

The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), a Brussels-based NGO, also disputes the alarm behind the figures.

“Most people who applied for asylum did not cross the borders ‘irregularly’ — they arrived on a visa,” they said, in a recent blog.

It is therefore likely fewer people arrived in 2021 and 2020 due to Covid-related travel restrictions, leading to a spike last year.

ECRE also pointed out that most arrivals are entitled to protection, noting that many receive a protection status after appeals.

Fences and drones

Meanwhile, the European Commission is promoting more surveillance along the external EU border between Bulgaria and Turkey.

The push comes as some EU states press to have the European Commission finance fences and walls.

“Let’s be frank and open. Fences are working and they shouldn’t be condemned,” said Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, deputy minister of foreign affairs of Greece.

Charity rescue vessels are also being forced by Italy’s new rightwing government to disembark people rescued at sea at distant ports.

The move follows an Italian decree condemned by Dunja Mijatovic, Europe’s human rights commissioner at the Council of Europe. The decree forces NGO vessels to ignore other distress calls in the area if they already have rescued people onboard.

For its part, the European Commission declined to comment when asked its views on Mijatovic’s evaluation.

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