FEATURE: NGO ships under pressure in the Med

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Marinaio56

Some 500,000 irregular migrants (IM) have reached Europe by sea, mainly by way of Libya, in the past two years, while more than 6,000 people are estimated to have perished in the attempt. Inevitably, resistance in European countries to this human wave continues to grow, and a number of nations are now refusing to accept any more IRs for resettlement.

It is not surprising, therefore, that mounting domestic pressures have forced EU politicians, particularly in Italy, where many of the IR holding camps are situated, to adopt a progressively harder line against the migratory flow.

Rome decided late last year that the only viable way ahead was to substantially boost Libya’s threadbare maritime capabilities. The intent is to enable the Libyans to counter the activities of the organised crime groups, who are making vast profits from arranging the transit of IRs, mainly using racketeer supplied large, but flimsy, Chinese-made RIBs, into Italian waters.

The cornerstone of this new policy is the provision, financed by the EU, and Italian national organisations, of direct support to the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG), including refitting of the LCG’s previously inactive ex-Italian customs service class patrol craft, the provision of new RIBs, and personnel training. An Italian naval flotilla is also scheduled to deploy in support of the LCG at the end of August.

The activities of the non-government organisations (NGO) which have been operating, mainly Italy-based, “rescue ships” off the Libyan coast for some months, and have recently been picking up, at sea, about 40 per cent of the ex-Libya IMs, have come under particular scrutiny by the Italian authorities. There have been reports, strongly denied by the NGOs, that they are colluding with people smugglers, and August has seen the commencement of executive action against them.

Rome has enacted restrictions on the NGO ships activities, and on August 2 the former standby safety vessel Iuventa, operated by the German Jugend Rettet charity, was arrested and impounded by the Italy Coast Guard for alleged collusion with people smugglers.

The Libyans meanwhile, have instituted a controlled search and rescue zone, extending 70 nautical miles from the Libyan coast, which is being intensively patrolled by the now very proactive LCG. Numerous NGO vessels have reportedly been threatened by LCG patrol boats and ordered to leave the zone; one has allegedly has warning shots fired at it.

Furthermore, the former private maritime security vessel C-Star, chartered by Defend Europe, has been tracking, and verbally harassing, the crews of NGO ships off the Libyan coast.

Three of the NGOs, have so far withdrawn vessels as a result of these activities, while numbers of IMs leaving Libya have very recently declined markedly.

There is no indication that mass migration across the Mediterranean is about to cease, though. Rather the problem has shifted, with hundreds of IMs arriving on the Spanish coast in recent days, having departed the Moroccan coast in a wide variety of small craft. The Spanish search and rescue services are finding it difficult to cope, and it seems likely that the European maritime and air assets, currently deployed on Operations Sophia and Triton in response to the migratory outflow from Libya, will have to shift their focus to the waters between Morocco and Spain.


Trevor Hollingsbee

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.