AQUARIUS, Mediterranean Sea - The Libyan Navy has ordered foreign ships to stay out of search and rescue zones off the country’s coast, just days after footage emerged of a coast guard vessel firing warning shots at an NGO vessel.
During a press conference in Tripoli on Thursday officials said only those with authorisation from Libyan authorities would be allowed to enter.
General Ayoub Qassem, said: “We want to send out a clear message to all those who infringe Libyan sovereignty and lack respect for the coast guard and navy.”
He added the measure was aimed at “NGOs which pretend to want to rescue illegal migrants and carry out humanitarian actions”.
The announcement comes as the situation in the Mediterranean becomes increasingly fraught as charities such as Save the Children and SOS Méditerranée clash with authorities over migrant rescues.
The European Commission (EC), Frontex and the Libyan and Italian Governments are all working to curb people-smuggling and trafficking along the so-called Central Mediterranean route.
This includes training of Libyan personnel who crew boats supplied by the Italian Government, millions of Euros given to EC development programmes in the area and an Italian naval mission to assist the Libyan coast guard.
The situation escalated earlier this week when a Libyan patrol vessel fired warning shots from automatic rifles at a ship operated by Proactiva Open Arms.
Médecins Sans Frontières, one of the NGOs operating in the area, told HuffPost UK in a statement: “MSF strongly denounces the threats on NGOs operating in the Search and Rescue zone.
″[These threats are] an additional attack on NGOs conducting lifesaving sear and rescue operations and could subsequently cause additional deaths and suffering in the Mediterranean Sea.”
Over 90,000 migrants have been brought to Italy this year on top of the half a million brought over the three previous years.
Around 2,230 people, most of them fleeing poverty, violence and forced military conscription, died in the first seven months of 2017 trying to make the sea crossing.
The actual number of dead is likely to be far higher as many boats leaving the Libyan shore simply disappear and are not seen again.
Ships operated by aid charities have noted a marked reduction in the number of rescues required in recent weeks which coincides with the newly-launched Italian naval mission.
The numbers making the journey had been slowing over recent months but dropped sharply during the first weekend of the operation as 1,124 people were intercepted, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
But aid groups suggest the apparent stemming of one problem is exacerbating another far bigger issue.
Marcella Kraay, MSF-OCA Project Coordinator currently aboard the Aquarius, told HuffPost UK: “This may sound like a solution of the problem [of people-trafficking] but actually it’s more a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
“What this actually means is people are being returned to Libya which is not a safe place.”
The crackdown on people-smugglers has also been mirrored by an increasing hardline on NGO boats by the Italian government with the two sides recently battling each other over a new code of conduct for rescue operations in international waters.
Initially five of the eight groups operating in the Med refused to sign the new rules but two of these have since done so.
The fast-moving developments follow a report from Oxfam on the shocking conditions migrants face in lawless Libya
Most African migrants suffer abuse, torture and rape as they cross the country in pursuit of a new life in Europe, the charity said on Wednesday as it urged Europe to offer safer routes.
The voyage from Libya across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy - often 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, and 180,000 in 2016.
Before they even embark on the perilous sea leg of their voyage, many migrants end up detained in Libya, and face abuse, extortion, and forced labor at the hands of armed groups, criminal gangs and smugglers, aid agencies say.
Migrants who made it to Italy told Oxfam how they were kept in cells full of dead bodies, forced to call their families to demand ransom money, and beaten and starved for months on end, reports Reuters.
Three-quarters of the 160-odd arrivals interviewed by the charity saw a fellow migrant tortured or killed, while at least eight in 10 said they suffered ‘inhuman or degrading treatment’.
“These are people who are escaping war, persecution and poverty – and yet in Libya they encounter another hell,” Roberto Barbieri, head of Oxfam Italy, said in a statement.
Several African migrants who were once detained in Libya have told the Thomson Reuters Foundation of the ‘hell’ they endured - beaten, raped and watching others die.
All but one of the 31 women migrants who spoke to Oxfam said they had faced sexual violence in Libya. Esther, a 28-year-old from Nigeria, told the charity she had suffered a miscarriage after regular beatings during her five months in detention.
“I lost my poor little child who was in my womb due to the beatings... and my sister died from the beatings and abuse. I lost a lot of blood without receiving any help,” she told Oxfam.
Many women migrants take birth control such as contraceptive injections before leaving home as they fear rape and falling pregnant along the journey, activists say.
Oxfam urged European nations to stop pursuing migration policies that prevent people leaving Libya by sea, which the charity said puts migrants at risk of abuse and exploitation.
“People must come first,” said Barbieri of Oxfam. “The EU should provide safe routes for people to come to Europe and have access to a fair and transparent processes for claiming asylum.”