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NGOs halt refugee rescue operation off Libya coast

August 13, 2017

German aid group Sea-Eye has announced it will suspend migrant rescue operations in the Mediterranean. The announcement comes a day after Doctors Without Borders (MSF) took a similar decision citing security concerns.

Italien Flüchtlinge werden von Hilfsorganisation Sea-Eye gerettet
Image: picture alliance/dpa/NurPhoto/C. Marquardt

Germany-based Sea-Eye said it was with "a heavy heart" that it had decided to halt its rescue operations in Libyan waters after the country barred foreign vessels from entering a stretch of water off its coast. The organization referred to the Libyan government's actions as an "explicit threat against the private NGOs."

"Under these circumstances, a continuation of our rescue work is not currently possible. It would be irresponsible towards our crews," Sea-Eye founder Michael Buschheuer said. Sea-Eye says it has helped save some 12,000 lives since April 2016.

"We leave behind a deadly gap in the Mediterranean," Buschheuer warned.

Later on Sunday, humanitarian group Save the Children also announced that it was suspening operations as they felt increasingly threatened by Libya's coastguard.

Tripoli asserts search zone

A naval force spokesman of Libya's UN-backed, but internally-rivalled government, on Sunday asserted Tripoli's prerogative in creating its own search zone.

Italien Außenminister Angelino Alfano
'Balance' is being restored in Mediterranean, says Italy's Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Pizzoli

Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said the Italian-backed initiative "sends a signal that the balance is being restored in the Mediterranean."

'Hostile environment'

Doctors Without Borders (MSF in French) had on Saturday said it was suspending the use of its largest boat in the area because of an "increasingly hostile environment for life-saving rescue operations."

MSF and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) navigate humanitarian ships in the Mediterranean Sea to rescue migrants at risk of drowning in crammed boats prone to sinking.

"The recent developments represent another worrying element of an increasingly hostile environment for life-saving rescue operations," said Brice de le Vingne, MSF's Director of Operations on Saturday.

Other NGOs may follow suit in calling off their operations in Libyan waters following the Libyan announcement.

Overcrowded refugee boat
Thousands of refugees have drowned in Mediterranean waters after embarking on perilous journeys in unseaworthy vesselsImage: picture alliance/dpa/NurPhoto/C. Marquardt

Libya bans NGO boats off its coast

Libya is regarded as the main gateway for refugees heading to Europe since the closure of the so-called Balkans route in early 2016. Hundreds of thousands have made the dangerous journey across Africa and the Mediterranean headed towards Italy, fleeing war, persecution and poverty.

Present within Libya are between 700,000 and 1 million migrants, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a UN-affiliated agency. They mainly come from Egypt, Niger, Sudan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Syria, and Mali, reports the IOM.

Earlier this week, Libya announced it was establishing a "search and rescue" zone off its coast, ordering vessels belonging to non-governmental organizations to stay out. Libyan authorities accuse charities of inadvertently aiding human trafficking with their rescue at sea missions, hampering efforts to crack down on the illegal migration route.

On Sunday, naval forces spokesman Ayoub Qasim insisted: "This is within the work of the Libyan navy."

"All countries have their own search zones," he said. "We have notified the United Nations."

Rescue organizations in Italy under pressure

Italy takes charge of illegal immigration

The Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre reacted by warning NGOs that their employees working in the international waters off Libya were at risk. Italy, which has had to bear the brunt of Europe's migrant crisis this year, has also introduced a new code of conduct, to which NGOs engaged in such rescue operations have to adhere.

Italy last month approved its own naval mission in Libyan waters, with designs to deploy a large vessel and several smaller ships to stop migrant boats from reaching the mainland. The refugees it manages to intercept will be taken back to Libya.

However, human rights organizations allege that migrants sent back to Libya often face torture, slave labor and sexual violence.

"European states and Libyan authorities are jointly implementing a blockade on the ability of people to seek safety. This is an unacceptable assault on people's lives and dignity," Brice de le Vingne added.

ipj,ss/jlw (AFP, dpa)