06. September 2016 · Kommentare deaktiviert für Libyan naval attack on charity ship adds new danger to migrant rescue · Kategorien: Italien, Libyen, Mittelmeerroute

Quelle: The Guardian

Crews fear armed violence as a Libyan naval vessel opens fire in Mediterranean and EU sends in protective seapower

Chaotic and deadly scenes are unfolding off the Libyan coast as record numbers of migrants attempt the dangerous crossing to Europe.

More than 13,000 migrants were rescued last week from the seas off the lawless country, most by a flotilla of charity vessels which themselves are under threat after details emerged of an attack on one of them by the Libyan navy.

Europe’s migrant crisis of last summer is repeating itself in the waters of the Mediterranean as tens of thousands struggle to cross from Libya, following the closure of the migration route through the Balkans from Turkey. And those seas may be about to witness armed confrontation, with the arrival of the Royal Navy frigate HMS Diamond to lead Operation Sophia, a European Union force tasked with intercepting people smugglers.

The centre of the migration chaos is a stretch of water hugging Libya’s western coast, where smugglers are putting migrants into flimsy boats without enough fuel to reach Europe, knowing that they will either be plucked from the water or drown, the fate of 3,000 people so far this year.

However, the seas are becoming as dangerous for the rescuers as the rescued, with the Libyan navy admitting last week that it staged an attack that saw the rescue boat Bourbon Argos, of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) raked with gunfire. When gunmen opened fire on the ship, on the morning of 17 August, the crew hid in a safe room, thinking the attackers would seize them or sink the boat from under them.

“The people on the Bourbon Argos were really scared. They thought they would be kidnapped,” says Eugenio Cusumano, of Leiden University in the Netherlands, who is doing research on migrant rescues. “They did shoot at the decks; they could have killed people.”

The Libyan navy said that it intercepted the boat when checking for illegal petrol smuggling, and insists that any bullet strikes (MSF say 13 hit the bridge and wheelhouse) were accidental. The charity condemned the attack, saying: “This was a serious and worrying attack, with shooting towards our boat which could have put our staff in acute physical danger.”

It is not the first time Libya’s navy has threatened rescue boats. In April, warning shots were fired prior to the boarding of a vessel from the German charity Sea Watch. “They fired shots in the air and entered our ship. They claimed to be looking for illegal fishing,” says Sea Watch’s Ruben Neugebauer.

Rescue ships from nine aid groups operating off Libya are already at full stretch. A deal cut in the spring between the EU and Turkey has blocked the route to Europe used by 900,000 migrants last year. As a result, smuggling gangs have switched gear, channelling Middle Eastern migrants through Libya to join the growing number of Africans making the same journey. “The Turkey deal was done in March, it takes some time to change routes, but this is changing right now,” says Neugebauer.

There is apprehension among the rescue crews about the coming armed intervention by combined EU navies, authorised last week by Brussels. Some fear they will be caught in the crossfire. “We don’t want to pick people out of the water while a naval vessel is there with all guns blazing,” says Peter Sweetnam, chief executive of Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station.

Speaking from the deck of his rescue ship, Phoenix, Sweetnam says charity boats are already working flat out, with smugglers sending people to sea in wooden hulks, inflatable rafts and anything that floats. “We’ve got 414 survivors on board at the moment, and we helped rescue more than 1,000 in the past two days. After the MSF attack, we improved our communications; it’s a reminder of the element we are working in,” he says.

The growth of the flotilla of rescue ships from charities across Europe has seen tens of thousands saved from drowning, but the August attack has put a question mark over how long unprotected vessels can continue operating. “If the security situation deteriorates further, I don’t think the small NGOs can continue,” says Cusumano. “As for the bigger boats, these boats are chartered. They belong to a ship owner; I can imagine the ship owners pulling out.”

For the crews of the rescue ships, the fear of kidnap sits alongside anxiety that Italy, recipient of 100,000 migrants so far this year, may refuse to take the people they rescue, since few other EU states are willing to take their share of new arrivals. North African states are equally unwilling to help, leaving the rescuers wondering if they will one day run out of ports willing to take saved migrants.

There is unease among charities about asking for protection from the growing number of foreign warships. NGOs fear their independence would be compromised by seeking naval protection, and that protection would require them to operate farther from the coast, leaving many migrant boats to founder.

Yet there is no sign of an end to the human exodus. Libya’s UN-backed government, unelected and lacking popular support, has no security force of its own or the means to police the militias, for whom migrant smuggling is big business. Operation Sophia estimates the income to the militias from this migration at more than £200m a year, strengthening their hand.

There are bright spots, with foreign crews highlighting the help from Libya’s coastguard, a separate service from the navy, in joint rescues, and Brussels has announced it will begin training its units. The bigger problem highlighted by charity crews, many having worked off Libya for two years, is the lack of a political solution to the crisis, with European states unwilling to open their doors to legal mass migration.

“This could all be solved if the EU could give migrants procedures,” says Neugebauer. “This is a political problem, it’s absolutely man-made. There has to be a political solution.”

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