Migrants on an overcrowded wooden boat wait to be rescued in the Mediterranean Sea, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. The Ocean Viking, jointly operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders, rescued 36 people from the small wooden boat after being requested to do so by Maltese authorities. (AP Photo/Renata Brito)

Migrant shooting highlights concern about Libyan coast guard

September 20, 2019 - 7:05 am
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BRUSSELS (AP) — The death of a Sudanese man from a gunshot wound after a group of migrants fled from guards taking them to a detention center in Libya is raising fresh, troubling questions about the plight of people caught in the conflict-torn country and the role of the European Union-trained Libyan coast guard.

The 28-year-old man was one of several migrants picked up by the Libyan coast guard in waters that are part of a vast search area the country registered last year under an EU-backed plan to hand off control of Mediterranean Sea rescues to Libya and to stop people setting out for Europe.

His death comes two months after 53 migrants were killed in an airstrike on the Tajoura detention center in Libya. The center is still operating despite deep concern about the arbitrary detention in appalling conditions of migrants trying to reach Europe to escape conflict, persecution and poverty.

Some 5,000 men, women and children are being detained in Libya, more than 3,000 in active conflict zones, according to the IOM.

The latest incident happened Thursday after the coast guard returned a group of migrants to shore at Tripoli's Abusitta disembarkation area. The man was shot in the stomach after armed men fired into the air when several of a group of 103 migrants under guard tried to escape, according to the International Organization for Migration. An IOM doctor treated the man at the scene but he died two hours later in a local clinic.

"This was a tragedy waiting to happen," IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle said of the latest death. "The use of live bullets against unarmed vulnerable civilians, men, women and children alike, is unacceptable under any circumstances and raises alarms over the safety of migrants and humanitarian staff."

European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said "we are deeply saddened and strongly condemn the death" and that the EU wants an investigation launched. "The system of detention centers simply needs to stop," she added.

The arrival in 2015 of well over 1 million people — most of them Syrians and Iraqis fleeing war — sparked a major crisis in Europe as countries bickered over how best to manage the migrants. While they worked with Turkey on a deal to stop people entering from the east, the Europeans, led by Italy, also began channeling millions of euros into Libya.

The effort was ramped up in 2017 even though the EU itself acknowledges that 4,000 to 7,000 people were detained in 24 centers run by Libya's Department for Combatting Illegal Migration and that even more were being kept off the grid.

"Armed groups hold migrants in an unknown number of unofficial detention centers across the country. Migrants and refugees do not undergo any kind of formal registration and don't have access to legal process before and while being in detention," notes an EU action plan drawn up to help manage migrant flows through Libya.

"Conditions in detention are generally inhumane: severely overcrowded, without adequate access to toilets or washing facilities, food, or clean water. In several detention centers, migrants are held in large numbers in a single room without sufficient space to lie down."

At least 46 million euros ($51 million) were earmarked for the Libyan coast guard. Through its flagship anti-smuggling naval effort Operation Sophia — currently more flag than ship, since Italy's anti-migrant government withdrew permission for naval vessels to take part — the EU has trained coast guard personnel.

In a move not widely announced, in June last year Libya, with European encouragement, registered a massive search-and-rescue area in the Mediterranean with the International Maritime Organization. The zone reaches out around 160 kilometers (100 miles) — deep into international waters and about halfway to the Italian island of Lampedusa, where many migrants head when they leave the Libyan coast for Europe.

Aid groups say almost all rescue emergencies happen in international waters about 50 kilometers (30 miles) off the Libyan coast. That means they are obliged to contact the coast guard there first.

"They simply unilaterally declared they would be coordinating activities," Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui, humanitarian affairs adviser at Doctors Without Borders (MSF) told The Associated Press. "Considering the capacity of the coastguard, it's a huge portion of the Mediterranean Sea that they're supposed to take responsibility for.

"We had experiences where, when we called the Libyan authorities they would not pick up the phone, they would not answer even if there is an obligation to be available 24 hours a day and in English," she said. "We would call Italy and then the Libyans would pick up the phone."

Another aid group told AP that they best way they found to reach the Libyan coast guard in an emergency was to send an email.

Hadj-Sahraoui said the Libyans tell them to take people to Tripoli, but bound by international law MSF cannot return migrants to strife-torn Libya. But Malta and Italy say the rescues are not their responsibility either, and Rome has warned that the crew of any rescue ship entering its waters could face fines and jail.

The Libyans have 29 "naval assets," according to a classified Operation Sophia report obtained by AP. Six are operated by the navy. In the summer of 2018, they were at sea about 10 times per week.

The report says they "need to be sustained not only with the presence of a maritime security provider in the area ... but also with training, equipment and maintenance." It remains to be seen whether Italy's new government will allow warships to return to sea with the operation, even though European surveillance planes and drones continue to help the Libyan coast guard find migrants from the air.

Migration agency officials are concerned that the coast guard is no longer getting its orders from the weak, U.N.-backed government and that militias and rogue commanders are operating some ships, possibly even refitting them for battle. Meanwhile, the conflict involving militias around Tripoli in the west and the self-styled Libyan National Army led by Gen. Khalifa Hifter in the east drags on.

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Jamey Keaten in Geneva and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

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