Commission, experts call for code of conduct on migrant sea rescues

Rescued migrants arrive aboard 'Alan Kurdi' rescue vessel at the port of Taranto, southern Italy, 03 November 2019. [EPA-EFE/RENATO INGENITO]

The EU should stop channelling funds to Libya to manage migration and train its coastguard as it is not a “safe country” for disembarkation of people rescued at sea, MEPs in the European Parliament’s LIBE Committee heard on Monday (27 April).

Ahead of a videoconference of EU home affairs ministers on Tuesday, EU lawmakers met with the Commission, EU border agency Frontex, UNHCR, the Council of Europe and NGOs to discuss the migration situation in Libya and on the Central Mediterranean route.

In the hearing, EU lawmakers discussed the situation at sea after the EU launched its new naval and air mission in the eastern Mediterranean, Operation IRINI. Its aim is to stop more arms reach warring factions in Libya but it cannot patrol the Egypt-Libya land border, through which artillery is still being delivered.

Libya’s conflict escalated sharply this month, with fierce fighting on several different fronts in the west of the country despite urgent calls from the UN and aid agencies for a truce to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

EU finalises 'Operation Irini' to enforce Libya arms embargo

The EU will launch its new naval mission to enforce an UN arms embargo on Libya by the end of the month, but it still needs to be determined which member states will contribute to the operation, EU’s chef diplomat Joseph Borrell said on Tuesday (31 March).

Fabrice Leggeri, head of Frontex, told EU lawmakers that due to the COVID-19 outbreak and civil war, Libyan authorities’ ability to control migrant departures and patrol its own waters had been seriously constrained.

By last week, he said, his agency has documented a 400% increase in migrant arrivals compared to 2019, while according to UNHCR, 3,277 persons have arrived in Italy by sea, and 1,135 in Malta, significantly lower figures than those arriving in Spain (4,934) and Greece (7,569) this year.

“Since 24 April, more than 3,000 migrants have registered claiming to have been rescued at sea by the Libyan coastguard and brought back to Libya: over 800 of the rescued people are refugees from Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Pakistan,” UNHCR‘s Sophie Magennis told the European Parliament hearing.

Magennis urged member states to step up search and rescue capabilities in the central Mediterranean but also to adopt a “predictable disembarkation mechanism” to relieve frontline states like Malta and Italy.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Italian and Maltese authorities declared their own ports “unsafe”, preventing people rescued at sea from landing. Authorities in Libya have also blocked disembarkations due to heavy shelling around Tripoli.

The EU has repeatedly voiced concerns an escalating conflict could worsen regional instability and swell the flow of migrants from the Middle East and Africa.

“The Commission is trying to find a harmonised approach with member states for search and rescue and disembarkation, but I reiterate that this is a member state competence,” Martin Schieffer from the Commission’s DG HOME told MEPs.

He acknowledged that a “political agreement” between member states on a set of guidelines on search and rescue at sea is not within reach.

Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, said that although the epidemic was not the main cause of human rights violations, it has aggravated the situation.

Mijatovic stated that human lives cannot be adequately protected at sea without adequate search and rescue capacity if there are not enough state-funded ships to rescue.

However, Inmaculada Vazquez from Doctors Without Borders told MEPs that none of the organizations working in the field had the capacity to provide sufficient assistance to refugees rescued and returned from the sea.

According to Julian Pahlke from humanitarian NGO Sea Eye, which operates the search and rescue vessel Alan Kurdi, it has become more dangerous to work in the area as Libyan authorities had fired shots around its volunteers.  

Complaint to Court of Auditors

Earlier on Monday (27 April), three organisations launched a complaint to the European Court of Auditors, requesting an audit into the EU’s cooperation with Libya to determine whether the EU has breached its financial regulations and its human rights obligations in its support for Libyan border management.

The complaint was submitted by Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI) and  Italian Recreational and Cultural Association (ARCI), and supported by 10 more organisations.

Based on an opinion by German EU budget and development law experts, the signatories argued the Commission would provide financial support for projects that result in the return of people to Libya, where they face abuse, breaching its obligations not to contribute to serious human rights violations.

The signatories called on the auditors to initiate a special review of the ‘Integrated Border Management programme’ run through the EU Trust Fund for Africa that supports Libyan authorities and recommended the Commission suspend it pending necessary legal revisions.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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