How Libyan and Italian Authorities Are Hindering Migrant Rescue Ships

A recent incident involving a humanitarian vessel reveals the dysfunction at the heart of the system that is supposed to save refugees

How Libyan and Italian Authorities Are Hindering Migrant Rescue Ships
The wreckage of a ship that was carrying migrants washed up on the beach in Crotone, Italy, in late February. (Valeria Ferraro/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A migrant rescue ship in the Mediterranean, the Humanity 1, plucked almost four dozen refugees from the water near Libya at the end of November and landed them at Crotone, on the southern Italian coast. Italy slapped the captain with a fine and detained the German ship for almost three weeks, transforming what should have been a routine mission into a legal struggle. The case reflects a profound dysfunction at the heart of Europe’s ongoing trouble with irregular migration.

It happened early on Nov. 30, after a Libyan patrol boat approached a crowded rubber raft of refugees to round them up and return them to land. They had floated about 35 miles from the Libyan coast. The interception started peacefully, but when a civilian sea-rescue plane called Sea-Bird filmed refugees in the water, the Humanity 1 responded and rescued 46 people; an unknown number were brought on board the Libyan ship. No one died. But on Dec. 2, Italian officials accused the Humanity 1 of ignoring an order from the Libyans to back off.

The Humanity 1’s captain, who is known as Joachim and asked that his last name be withheld, said that there was no radio contact. “I did not receive any instructions from the Libyan patrol boat,” he told New Lines. “On the contrary — I tried to contact both the Libyan rescue coordination center by email and telephone and the Libyan patrol boat by radio, without receiving a reply.”

Libyan officials did not respond to New Lines’ requests for comment.

Nonprofit vessels like the Humanity 1 perform the sometimes unpopular humanitarian work of saving people from the water when human smugglers send an unstable boat out to sea. Within a 12-mile limit off Libya’s shores — its territorial waters — the coast guard is responsible for all rescues and interceptions. Beyond that, the Libyans have an agreed-upon search and rescue zone (SAR), where their patrol boats can take priority and ask a ship like the Humanity 1 not to intervene. But the Libyan SAR still belongs, legally, to international waters, where rescues can be coordinated among various ships, and European nongovernmental organizations complain that the Libyans fail to do enough to save refugees’ lives.

This appears to be the crux of the dispute in Crotone. The raft remained in the Libyan SAR, but video from Sea-Bird shows dozens of people jumping off the raft and swimming away from the Libyan patrol vessel. The Italians said the Humanity 1 approached the raft while the Libyans were busy moving the refugees onto their patrol boat. “At the sight of the Humanity 1 ship,” the Crotone prefecture claimed, “[the] migrants jumped into the water by swimming toward the dinghies supplied to the NGO … risking their lives due to the current sea conditions and the low water temperature.”

But Joachim denied to New Lines that his ship had caused the problem. “At the time we were [about 3 miles] away, which is not within a visible distance … The Sea-Bird told us there were people in the water — so they jumped off that boat or fell into the water, we don’t know which — and then we decided to launch our boats to rescue the people.”

On the surface, it is odd that the Humanity 1 and the Libyan coast guard should compete in the Mediterranean, because both, in theory, are supposed to save refugees’ lives. But the Libyans are under contract with the European Union to return migrants to Libya, while the nonprofit vessels want to land them in Europe.

Italian officials grounded the Humanity 1; it was prohibited from returning to its usual patrol zones in the Mediterranean for 20 days, which slows down migrant rescues. A fine of about $3,500 has been levied on the captain. Italy, meanwhile, accepted the 46 migrants for asylum processing at Crotone and allowed the ship to move to its home port of Syracuse, on Sicily. But the operator of the ship, a Berlin-based NGO called SOS Humanity, has filed an appeal in an Italian court against the fine and detention.

SOS Humanity staff members say the penalties are just a strategy by Italy’s right-wing government under Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni to slow the pace of rescues on the water. They argue that a policy of slowing rescues has been consistent since Meloni came to power in October 2022. In a statement, the organization said that the detention of the Humanity 1 was a direct consequence of the implementation of a law, “which creates a series of bureaucratic obstacles to search and rescue at sea and has already led to the detention of nongovernmental rescue vessels in 13 cases in 2023.”

I was on the ship in the spring of 2023, when the crew pulled 69 people out of the water near Libya. The Italians assigned Ravenna, in the far north, as a landing port. A nominal reason for this distant assignment is to spread the burden of asylum processing around the Italian regions. But it also resulted in a five-day voyage up the eastern side of Italy, and it kept the ship out of rescue zones for more than 10 days.

Critics of civilian sea rescue argue that the NGO ships serve as a “pull factor,” a reason in itself for people to brave the Mediterranean, even in winter. Libyan traffickers probably do factor sea rescue into their business model — German navy officials have told me that traffickers provide the boats with about 12 miles’ worth of fuel, or enough to leave Libyan waters — but before sea-rescue ships first responded in a coordinated way in 2014, migrants were drowning off Libya by the hundreds. By 2017, Italy and the European Union had announced a massive aid package to shore up and train a Libyan coast guard, which was intended as a long-term solution. But the Libyan coast guard is not a normal law-enforcement body, because Libya is not a normal state.

Rival governments have been locked in civil war on land since about 2014, following the death of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. So the coast guard has no single governing authority, and the Libyans who run its vessels tend to be a patchwork of militia members related to regional clans. Because some of these clans run the human trafficking business on land, some “coast guard” groups take money from the EU and Italy to fight human trafficking while acting, also, as a long arm of the traffickers.

“Their abuses and mistreatment of migrants is well documented,” writes Jason Pack, a Libya expert and author of “Libya and the Global Enduring Disorder,” “as is their direct involvement in the smuggling networks which they are being funded by the EU to intercept.”

One migrant I met aboard the Humanity 1 last spring was a woman from Nigeria who called herself “Happiness,” a translation of her name from her native Bini. She had tried to cross the Mediterranean once before, only to be intercepted by the Libyans. When they returned her to shore, the police imposed a $200 fine for trying to cross illegally. To pay it, she took out a loan, then found a housecleaning job in Libya to pay her debt.

“I was working, working, working, until I paid the man,” she told me.

A Libyan rescue of a refugee boat therefore means a resumption of an exploitative cycle for the refugees, who may spend months or even years in filthy camps near the coast, waiting for a chance to cross. Each attempted crossing costs money — another reason to take out a loan and another reason to look for work. So it’s not unusual for refugees to jump into the water when a vessel from the Libyan coast guard approaches their boat.

“We call [an interception by the Libyans] an ‘illegal pullback,’” said Joachim, “because we know their human rights are not being observed.”

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