Libya′s maritime rescuers caught between duty and temptation | Africa | DW | 11.08.2017
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Libya's maritime rescuers caught between duty and temptation

Libya is a poor, politically unstable country. That poses problems for its maritime search and rescue service, whose employees are badly paid - and see how profitable people smuggling can be.

Do they belong to the official coast guard, or do they just look like they do? Are they bringing refugees back to Libya in order to save them, or are they just planning to squeeze every last penny out of them? It can be difficult in Libya to distinguish between official and self-proclaimed maritime rescuers, to understand the links between the different groups and their respective motives.

No, his people are part of the official Libyan coast guard, a militia leader from the city of Az-Zawiyah, some 50 kilometers (31 miles) outside the capital, tells a reporter from the US newspaper Washington Post. Six years ago he had fought against then-dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Afterward, he and his men took over as the coast guard - though whether they're state-sanctioned or operating on their own goes unanswered by the Post reporter. In any case, the boat operated by the militia chief and his tribesmen is inscribed with the words "Libyan Coast Guard."

The refugees they pick up are handed over to other tribesmen, who take them to a specially built detention center. The militia leader says his men are not involved in what goes on at the detention center. And yes, there are patrols that charge refugee boats a fine in order to be allowed to pass. But those men do not belong to the coast guard - they are smugglers who wear similar clothing. That is why the international aid agencies think the coast guard is trafficking in humans, he tells the Post reporter.

A Libyan soldier stands guard over refugees rescued off the coast (picture-alliance/dpa)

Refugees picked up by Libyan boats are often taken to specially built detention centers

Desperate times

So who belongs to the country's coast guard? The situation on the Libyan coast is difficult, according to Günter Meyer, head of the Center for Research on the Arab World at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz.

The Libyan coast guard has around 1,000 civil servants, all of whom are relatively badly paid. Converted, their wages come out to around 500 euros ($590) a month, though often they go months without getting paid. On the other hand, smugglers earn a considerable amount of money. Larger boats can earn up to 1 million euros per trip. "Parts of the coast guard are also involved in this situation," Meyer told DW.

The problem is exacerbated by the Western-backed unity government's lack of real power - it is reliant on the support of different militias. "That is why the people on the ships belonging to the Libyan coast guard are also associated with the most important militias," Meyer explained.

No standards for rule of law

The detention centers where refugees are housed are also lacking standards for rule of law. Journalists and human rights organizations have reported on serious human rights abuses taking place in the camps. The conditions are often poor, and people frequently go malnourished. Refugees are beaten and extorted, and women are sometimes raped and sold as sex slaves.

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"It is therefore a highly criminal business that goes on there," Meyer said. "Estimates range from one to one-and-a-half billion euros per year." Meanwhile, human trafficking remains one of the most important industries in Libya, especially in the south of the country, he added. Up to 90 percent of the total income generated in that region has been from smuggling.

Reducing the number of refugees

Despite these circumstances, the EU is planning to close the Mediterranean route in order to reduce the number of refugees. According to a press release published in July, the EU wants to support and expand the coast guard. To this end, Brussels has already allocated some 90 million euros. Now, another 46 million euros are to be invested. "It is important to ensure that human rights are respected," the statement said.

According to Günter Meyer, it's doubtful whether this will help improve human rights standards. "In general around 500 members of the coast guard are to be trained, but if they know that they're entering the migrant-smuggling business and planning to pursue their own interests, this training could prove to be problematic," he said.

EU or smugglers?

The Libyan government is weak, and the majority of the country's population lives in poverty. As long as these two factors don't change, the coast guard is likely to be a desirable place to work, Meyer said. The same applies to the southern part of the country, where people from sub-Saharan Africa enter cross the border. There, too, migration can hardly be prevented because of the generous income it produces.

Many of the migrants seeking a new life on the other side of the Mediterranean are coming from this part of the country. As long as they continue to travel toward the coast, many Libyans will face a difficult choice: work with the EU, or join the smugglers who are reaping the profits.

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