The European Union wants to rapidly expand training of the Libyan coastguard to stem migrant flows to Italy and reduce deaths at sea, an EU naval mission said on Thursday, signalling a renewed push to support a force struggling to patrol its own coasts.
In spite of increased help from the EU and Italy, Libya’s coastguard continues to be accused by European charities of operating recklessly during rescues and putting migrants’ lives at risk – accusations the coastguard routinely denies.
Six years after the armed uprising that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is split between rival governments in the east and west, while ports and beaches are largely in the hands of armed groups.
Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino, the chief of the EU naval mission in the Mediterranean, said his Operation Sophia hopes to train 300-500 Libyan personnel by the end of the year.
Since 2016, the operation has trained 188 Libyans, who Credendino said had contributed to a sharp fall in the number of attempted crossings in the second half of last year.
In December, Amnesty International accused European governments of being partly responsible for rights violations against migrants in Libya.
“European governments have not just been fully aware of these abuses; by actively supporting the Libyan authorities in stopping sea crossings and containing people in Libya, they are complicit in these crimes,” Amnesty’s Europe director, John Dalhuisen, said in a statement.
Libya remains the main departure point for mostly sub-Saharan African migrants trying to reach Europe by sea, though the level of migrant smuggling by Libyan armed groups has declined under European pressure.
Last year, MEE revealed that armed groups were receiving aid from Italy to stop the boats leaving Libya.
Credendino said it was difficult to confirm the links that UN experts allege exist between between smugglers and Libyan coastguard, adding that Operation Sophia was still trying to build a picture of smuggling networks.
“At sea, there is not only the military coastguard, but there are also militias who are wearing the same uniform, using the same kind of boats.”
More than 130 alleged smugglers have been arrested at sea and handed to Italian authorities, but major migrant smugglers in Libya have largely acted with impunity, out of reach of international authorities.
On Wednesday, Sadiq al-Sour, the head of investigations for Libya’s attorney general, said arrest warrants had been issued for 205 people accused of involvement in migrant smuggling or trafficking.
Eleven representatives of foreign embassies had already been detained, Sour said, without elaborating.