France to supply Libya with speedboats to block migrant crossings


France is to supply the Libyan navy with six speedboats destined for coastguard operations to intercept migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. The move was described as “scandalous” by medical aid NGO Doctors without Borders, which underlined the horrific fate that awaits intercepted migrants, who are placed in notorious internment camps in Libya. A recent report by UN agencies denounced the camps for practices of violence, torture and rape, and solemnly called on EU countries to ensure they give “no support” to the Libyan coastguard that “contributes to bringing rescued migrants and refugees back to Libya”.

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The French defence ministry last week confirmed that France is to supply the Libyan authorities in Tripoli with six speedboats for “the Libyan navy”, in reality the Libyan coastguard, for its operations to intercept migrants attempting clandestine crossings of the Mediterranean to Europe.

The announcement comes as nearly all humanitarian search-and-rescue vessels have been prevented from operating in the central Mediterranean area. The exception is the Sea Eye, operated by a German NGO of the same name, which reached the zone last Thursday.  

France is to supply the six semi-rigid speedboats, ordered from French manufacturer Sillinger, at an undisclosed cost. The cooperation deal is with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, recognised by the United Nations (UN) as the only legitimate authority in the country, and which exerts shaky governance over the chaotic western region of Libya.   

Contacted by Mediapart, the defence ministry said they will be delivered in batches of two during “this spring and summer”. Until now, Italy was the only country to supply such equipment to Libya, which the European Union now relies upon to halt the migrant crossings.

Migrants intercepted by the Libyan coastguard are systematically brought back to overcrowded internment camps in the country, amid inhumane conditions that have been widely documented. NGOs and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have repeatedly produced evidence of the violence of the Libyan interceptions at sea (see video below), and the horrific fate of captured migrants, who are exposed to assaults and torture inside the internment camps, while some are sold by camp staff to human traffickers.

The decision by Paris to offer the Libyans the six boats was denounced by French humanitarian organisation Médecins du monde (Doctors of the World), joined by its counterpart Médecins sans frontières (Doctors without Borders, or MSF) which described the move as “scandalous”. MSF has previously been involved in search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, along with NGO SOS Méditerranée, aboard the boat Aquarius which ended last December after the vessel lost its Panama registration as the result of pressure from European states in a move led by Italy.

Far-right Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini reacted to the announcement that the Aquarius – which cannot sail while flagless – was ending its operations with a post on Twitter which read, “"Fewer sailings, fewer landings, fewer deaths. That's good."  Last summer, Salvini announced that Italy was to supply the authorities in Tripoli with 12 patrol boats, which he told parliament was “so they can continue to protect lives in the Mediterranean".

Above: a video report published by The New York Times (this version with French subtitles by ‘Courrier international’, a weekly of foreign news reporting) which details, through images obtained by research groups Forensic Oceanography and Forensic Architecture, a disastrous interception of a migrant boat by Libyan coastguards in November 2017. Warning: contains distressing scenes. © New York Times

Italy’s populist and far-right coalition government have effectively ended nearly all the operations mounted by NGOs in the Mediterranean close to Libya after refusing to allow the ships to disembark rescued migrants, who are mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, in Italian ports.

The numbers of migrant arrivals fell by 80% in 2018, as Libyan coastguard interceptions filled the gap left by the halt of humanitarian rescue operations. Since the beginning of this year, just 227 migrants landed in Italian ports, according to the inter-governmental International Organization for Migration, which noted that the migrant crossings have moved to other zones, and from the western Mediterranean seaboard towards Spain in particular. Between 2014 and early 2018, more than 640,000 migrants landed on Italian shores.

“France supplies logistical means […] destined to turn back refugees in violation of international law,” said MSF about the supply of the French speedboats, referring to international conventions that require all boat crews who have rescued people from danger at sea to take them to the nearest “safe port”. That is a description that cannot apply to ports in Libya, where migrants face “unimaginable horrors”, according to a report published in December by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and the Human Rights Office of the UNHCR.

The report gave a damming account of conditions for migrants crossing through Libya and the conditions in 11 “immigration detention centres” that were visited by the UN teams. “Migrants and refugees suffer unimaginable horrors during their transit through and stay in Libya,” reads the introduction of the report. “From the moment they step onto Libyan soil, they become vulnerable to unlawful killings, torture and other ill-treatment, arbitrary detention and unlawful deprivation of liberty, rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence, slavery and forced labour, extortion and exploitation by both State and non-State actors.”

“UNSMIL documented that migrants and refugees held at facilities under the Ministry of Interior, in particular at the Mitiga detention facility controlled by the Special Deterrence Force armed group in Tripoli, are subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, forced labour, prolonged solitary confinement, and inhuman detention conditions.”

In its conclusions, the report calls on the EU and its member states (which includes France) to, “Ensure that any return from any area where European Union Member States exercise jurisdiction or effective control, including extraterritorially, is only carried out in accordance with international law, with due procedural guarantees, and in full respect of the prohibition of arbitrary and collective expulsion and the principle of non-refoulement; and ensure that no support to, or cooperation with, Libyan coastguard contributes to bringing rescued migrants and refugees back to Libya.”

The report identifies those trying to cross the Mediterranean in two categories; “migrants”, meaning those motivated by economic reasons, and “refugees”, meaning those men, women and children, notably from Sudan and Eritrea, who are eligible to receive refugee status in EU countries – on condition that they are able to reach the continent.  

The official confirmation of the supply by France to the Libyan coastguard of the six speedboats followed previous Libyan media rumours of the deal during a visit to Tripoli on February 17th by French defence minister Florence Parly, who met with Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj, prime minister of Libya’s Government of National Accord.

Some Libyan media have reported that Paris has approved a bilateral programme for the training and supply of other equipment to the Libyan coastguard. The French defence ministry has neither confirmed nor denied those reports.

According to French daily Le Monde, the six speedboats will be equipped with radar and GPS tools, but will not have support stands for “heavy weapons like mortars or canons”. Arms exports to Libya are prohibited by a UN embargo, although last summer Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini called for that to be lifted.

The EU has already spent several million euros to fund the training of Libyan coastguards, which Brussels has insisted includes awareness of human rights requirements and techniques to “limit” fatalities during interceptions at sea. It also provides assistance for onboard items, such as rubber dinghies, life-vests and communications equipment, and on-land buildings, such as control centres.     

The EU also supported the creation of an enlarged “search and rescue zone” under Libyan control, which in effect allows the authorities in Tripoli to take over control of an area of sea which, until its creation last summer, was previously overseen by Italy. The move has had the result of further restricting rescue operations by humanitarian organisations.

A person with wide experience of maritime humanitarian missions off Libya, and who asked for his name to be withheld, said the supply of the French speedboats “appears to be a response to the incapacity of the Libyan coastguard to board small boats in distress”, adding: “In the end they’re going to steal the techniques used by the Aquarius or Sea Watch.”

The French defence ministry underlined that France is also engaged, along with other EU member states, in Operation Sophia, a maritime mission centred on the central Mediterranean zone aimed at countering people traffickers, and Frontex, the European border and coastguard agency, whose similarly deployed fleets contribute to saving lives at sea. Unlike the migrants intercepted off the Libyan coast, those rescued in Sophia and Frontex operations are disembarked in European ports.



  • The French version of this article can be found here.


English version, with added reporting, by Graham Tearse


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