2015 saw more than a million irregular migrants (IM), from a range of nations, complete the risky sea crossing from the coast of North Africa to Europe. Most made the journey in large, but fragile, Chinese-made inflatable boats, supplied by the criminal groups which arranged the trips.
Enforcement and political action, in particular the controversial “outsourcing” of sea patrolling, and search and rescue (SAR), to the Libya Coast Guard (LCG), have radically reduced the scale of the problem with the LCG patrols both constituting a strong deterrent, and, reportedly, intercepting some 40,000 IMs off Libya in 2017- 2018.
The apprehended IMs nowadays are mostly taken back to Libya for detention, and eventual repatriation. According to a recent UN report, about 6,000 IMs are currently detained in holding centres in Libya.
The EU has supplied the LCG with vessels, mainly former Italian Coast Guard, and Customs Service, craft, as well as training, and copious funding. The IM problem, though, has not disappeared.
About 38,000 IMs have crossed by sea to Europe so far in 2019, with a recent surge seeing some 15,000 arrive since the beginning of June.
An estimated 900, furthermore, have so far this year perished in the attempt, with a major incident in late July seeing probably more than 150 drown, when two boats capsized off Libya. The LCG subsequently attended the scene and reportedly rescued more than 100 survivors.
By 2017, 14 non-government organisation (NGO) SAR craft were operating off the coast of Libya, picking up IMs at sea, and transporting them mainly to Italian ports. They were widely seen in government circles as a powerful “pull factor”, and were progressively forced to curb their operations, with a number being impounded by the Italian authorities.
Now, though, coinciding with the recent current surge in IM activity, comes news that a highly capable vessel, the 1986-vintage, 69-metre, Norwegian-registered former OSV Ocean Viking, which features a forward helicopter deck, and carries four RHIBs, is about to revive the NGO presence in the Mediterranean. The vessel is operated jointly by the Médicins Sans Frontiéres and SOS Mediterranée charities, and has a crew of 31 people, including navigation, medical and managerial staff.
Recent reports, meanwhile, suggesting that a naval war between the two main factions in Libya’s de facto civil war is imminent, are raising fears that the LCG will be diverted from its SAR role,
This could mean that the Ocean Viking might be facing a busy future. Many European governments, though, particularly Italy’s, remain resolutely opposed to the presence of such craft, and major confrontations between the NGO ship and Italian paramilitary vessels are probable.
Maritime security expert and columnist, Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police, Assistant Secretary for Security in the British Hong Kong Government Security Branch, and Intelligence Analyst in the UK Ministry of Defence. As an independent defence and security analyst he has had some 1,500 articles on maritime security, and geopolitical topics, published in a range of international journals and newspapers. He is an Associate Fellow of the Nautical Institute, and a past Vice-Chairman of the Institute’s Hong Kong branch.