More than 13,000 migrants were rescued last week from the seas off the lawless country, most by a flotilla of charity vessels which themselves are under threat after details emerged of an attack on one of them by the Libyan navy.
Europe’s migrant crisis of last summer is repeating itself in the waters of the Mediterranean as tens of thousands struggle to cross from Libya, following the closure of the migration route through the Balkans from Turkey. And those seas may be about to witness armed confrontation, with the arrival of the Royal Navy frigate HMS Diamond to lead Operation Sophia, a European Union force tasked with intercepting people smugglers.
The centre of the migration chaos is a stretch of water hugging Libya’s western coast, where smugglers are putting migrants into flimsy boats without enough fuel to reach Europe, knowing that they will either be plucked from the water or drown, the fate of 3,000 people so far this year.
However, the seas are becoming as dangerous for the rescuers as the rescued, with the Libyan navy admitting last week that it staged an attack that saw the rescue boat Bourbon Argos, of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) raked with gunfire. When gunmen opened fire on the ship, on the morning of 17 August, the crew hid in a safe room, thinking the attackers would seize them or sink the boat from under them.
“The people on the Bourbon Argos were really scared. They thought they would be kidnapped,” says Eugenio Cusumano, of Leiden University in the Netherlands, who is doing research on migrant rescues. “They did shoot at the decks; they could have killed people.”
The Libyan navy said that it intercepted the boat when checking for illegal petrol smuggling, and insists that any bullet strikes (MSF say 13 hit the bridge and wheelhouse) were accidental. The charity condemned the attack, saying: “This was a serious and worrying attack, with shooting towards our boat which could have put our staff in acute physical danger.”
It is not the first time Libya’s navy has threatened rescue boats. In April, warning shots were fired prior to the boarding of a vessel from the German charity Sea Watch. “They fired shots in the air and entered our ship. They claimed to be looking for illegal fishing,” says Sea Watch’s Ruben Neugebauer.
There is apprehension among the rescue crews about the coming armed intervention by combined EU navies, authorised last week by Brussels. Some fear they will be caught in the crossfire. “We don’t want to pick people out of the water while a naval vessel is there with all guns blazing,” says Peter Sweetnam, chief executive of Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station.
Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd