UK

Libyan Coastguard 'Colluding With People-Smugglers In Mediterranean'

This could be embarrassing.

16/08/2017 13:07 BST | Updated 16/08/2017 16:11 BST

AQUARIUS, Mediterranean Sea - Migrants rescued from the Mediterranean have told HuffPost UK the Libyan Coast Guard is colluding with people-smugglers - despite an official crackdown launched earlier this month.

Speaking aboard the SOS Méditerranée-operated vessel Aquarius Wednesday morning, a number of mainly Sudanese migrants gave a remarkable insight into their perilous journey from north Africa to Europe.

Ghanim, 20, told HuffPost UK: “A [Libyan] colonel called Said was in charge of camp [detention centre] and departures. He was a high rank official from the army. His men had trucks with heavy guns.

“We had to wait for the right moment [for the boat to depart].

″[The smugglers] told me his army was paying the Coast Guard to protect our boat to get out of Libyan waters.”

Due to the chaotic and disparate nature of Libya’s armed forces it is impossible to say for certain if the “Colonel” is an official title or the leader of one of the many militias.

Another Sudanese migrant, 28-year-old Said, described to HuffPost UK how he was told what would happen once he’d been pushed out into the Mediterranean. 

“I was told in six or seven hours we would arrive in international waters and then we would seek rescue by the Italian [navy],” he said.

“They did not talk about NGOs. They gave us a [satellite phone] and said to us after four hours you try and call the rescue and give a sign.”

The reports could be embarrassing for both the Libyan Coast Guard and Italian Navy which on 2 August launched a joint mission to crackdown on people-smuggling networks.

The voyage from Libya across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy - usually on flimsy boats run by people smugglers - is the main route to Europe for migrants from Africa, with more than 95,000 people having set sail this year, although the numbers have dropped sharply recently for a variety of reasons.

Officially, the Libyan Coast Guard is currently enforcing a crackdown on people-smugglers, after unilaterally announcing the extension of Libyan territorial waters from the customary 12 nautical miles from shore to 70, well into what is generally considered international waters.

Vessels have aggressively challenged NGO ships operating in the Mediterranean, even firing warning shots towards one boat last week.

Actions of this type would appear to contradict the claim of Said and Ghanim, but since the fall of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has been riven with conflicting power interests all fighting for their share of influence and money-making opportunities (there are two parliaments and three governments currently in Libya) .

Alongside the sale of arms and oil, people-smuggling is a highly lucrative business for Libyans with one report estimating coastal cities in the country make around £272 million a year.

The claims are also awkward for the ongoing Defend Europe mission who yesterday declared the Libyan Coast Guard their “new friends” and announced their intention to work alongside them.

Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, has been contacted to for comment.