When a Libyan coast guard officer raised his hands and pointed, as if holding a rifle, Thomas Schaible wasn’t too worried. It wasn’t his first violent encounter with the Libyan coast guard, but this time, with a helicopter from the Italian navy overhead and Italian and French warships nearby, Schaible knew it was an empty threat.

Schaible and his four-person crew from the German nonprofit Sea-Watch were working to pull people out of the water after a rubber boat full of migrants partially deflated. Sea-Watch got to the shipwreck first, but when the Libyan coast guard arrived, they threatened the rescuers and motioned for them to leave the scene. That’s when the officer threatened to shoot — with dozens of people still in the water without life jackets. Schaible says he and other Sea-Watch crew saw the Libyan coast guard beat the recently rescued people with long cables. Then, they took off for the coast with a few dozen people aboard, many others still in the water, and one person still hanging onto a ladder on the side of the Libyan ship. Schaible estimates that over 40 people drowned that day. All the while, European authorities were nearby.

This was not an isolated incident: In the last six months, with new support from European governments, the Libyan coast guard has substantially ramped up operations to intercept migrant boats in the international waters off their coast, where most shipwrecks take place. Confrontations with the European NGOs that work there have increased as well, with multiple organizations reporting warning shots and direct threats of violence from Libyan boats. The violence has led some organizations to stop their Mediterranean rescue operations.

The Libyan coast guard is a decentralized force often accused of working with local militias and smugglers and violating the rights of migrants. At the same time, it is a key player in Europe’s response to the refugee crisis.

Sea borders present a problem for European governments keen to limit the arrival of people fleeing wars, persecution, hunger, or poverty in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. On a sea border, there is no physical barrier. If a coast guard or NGO ship finds or rescues people in international waters, they have a legal obligation to take them to the nearest safe port. For Europeans, that often means taking the rescued back to Europe.

The Libyan authorities take them in the other direction — and so, European governments are financing, funding, training, and to some degree, coordinating, a coast guard that both the United Nations and the European Commissioner for Human Rights have found to be “directly involved in human rights violations” and exposing migrants “to a real risk of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Last week, the U.N. human rights chief said that “the EU and its member states have done nothing so far to reduce the level of abuses suffered by migrants.”

“The EU and its member states have done nothing so far to reduce the level of abuses suffered by migrants.”

The reliance on Libya is the latest chapter in Europe’s longtime strategy for shutting down its sea borders: using the coast guards of bordering countries to do what European coast guards can’t, that is, physically prevent people from getting to Europe. In the past, this approach has drastically stemmed the flow of people. But it comes with a tremendous human cost.


TOPSHOT - Illegal migrants from Africa arrive on shore after being rescued by Libyan coast guards rescued at sea, off the coastal town of Tajoura, 15 kilometres east of the capital Tripoli on May 23, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD TURKIA        (Photo credit should read MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images)

Migrants from Africa arrive on shore after being rescued by Libyan coast guards at sea off the coastal town of Tajura, 15 kilometers east of the capital Tripoli on May 23, 2017.

Photo: Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images


I asked a mid-level EU border official how he would shut down Europe’s sea borders completely, if given the funding and the mandate. He answered me quickly and assuredly: “How would I fix it? I’d do Hera, everywhere.”

Hera is the oldest joint operation run by Frontex, the EU’s border agency. It started in 2006 when tens of thousands of people aboard wooden fishing boats began arriving in the Canary Islands, a province of Spain off the northwest coast of Africa. Through Hera, Spain and the EU funded, trained, and equipped non-European coast guards to keep people from leaving, rather than stopping them in European waters.

“If we teach local coast guards to control their own borders, our border is more secure,” said Agustín Barroso, a Spanish border officer who works in the Hera coordination center in the Canary Islands. Barroso explains that, as part of Hera, Frontex and the Spanish government began to support Senegalese and Mauritanian coast guards, and now Spanish police patrol alongside these local forces. He is quick to argue that, legally, these operations should not be considered European, because, despite being funded, trained, and equipped by Spain and crewed by Spaniards, they always have one local police officer aboard. Either way, if the patrols find a boat full of people trying to make it to Europe, even in international waters, they bring them back to Africa.

For European governments, Hera has worked. Over 30,000 people arrived in the Canary Islands in 2006. By 2010, that number had dropped below 200 people. For all intents and purposes, the border was sealed.

But the plan was criticized for violating migrants’ human rights. People intercepted by European or European-financed ships weren’t given the opportunity to apply for asylum in Europe, their right under the Geneva Convention. Human rights groups were also critical of Hera because of the possibility  of “pullbacks,” meaning people are brought back from international waters to Senegal or Mauritania against their will, and non-refoulement, where migrants are returned to a place where they could face persecution or mistreatment, or be deported to the country they first fled.

The EU border official (who requested anonymity because he is unauthorized to speak to the press) noted that Europe’s 2015 deal with Turkey involved a similar strategy to Hera. In Turkey, the EU paid the government billions of euros in exchange for stopping more migration, upping coast guard activity to keep people from leaving Turkish shores and bringing them back when they did. Europe thought it could do the same in Libya.

“We can support [the Libyan coast guard] by air and by giving them information as to where the immigrants are,” the official said. “If [they] are collected by others, then give them to the Libyan authorities to do their management.”

And if that violates peoples’ human rights or goes against EU and international law? “If it is in the hands of Libyans, it’s their problem, the non-refoulement,” the official argues. “So from a legal point of view, you escape from this issue.”

“If it is in the hands of Libyans, it’s their problem.”

Europe’s strategy for closing its sea borders since Hera has involved this kind of legal balancing act: giving enough support to local authorities to stop the flow of people, but not so much that the Europeans are seen to be directing operations, and therefore could be held responsible for rights violations. Yet many international human rights lawyers and immigration advocates call this thin cover.

¨[European governments] are trying to escape obligations through a technicality,” says Cesare Pitea, who teaches international law at the University of Parma in Italy. “It’s like they are saying, ‘We don’t touch them. We don’t interact with them. We just pay someone to do the dirty job for us.’”


A migrant tries to board a boat of the German NGO Sea-Watch in the Mediterranean Sea on November 6, 2017.During a shipwreck, five people died, including a newborn child. According to the German NGO Sea-Watch, which has saved 58 migrants, the violent behavior of the Libyan coast guard caused the death of five persons. / AFP PHOTO / Alessio Paduano (Photo credit should read ALESSIO PADUANO/AFP/Getty Images)

A migrant tries to board a boat of the German NGO, Sea-Watch, in the Mediterranean Sea on Nov. 6, 2017.

Photo: Alessio Paduano/AFP/Getty Images


Riccardo Gatti, of the rescue organization Proactiva Open Arms, says he first noticed the spike in aggressive activity by the Libyan coast guard this past summer. In June, a Libyan coast guard patrol boat fired into the air as one of Proactiva’s rescue dinghies approached a wooden boat full of people. Two months later, the Spanish rescue organization recorded the coast guard threatening to shoot their rescuers and accusing them of working with smugglers.

“In the past, [the coast guard] would greet us, check to see everything was OK, but there were never any problems,” said Gatti, who has worked in the search-and-rescue area off Libya since 2016. He notes that the aggressive activity began soon after Italy implemented agreements to finance, train, and supply the Libyan coast guard.

A recording from the bridge of the rescue ship Golfo Azzurro, the Libyan coast guard accuses rescuers of working with smugglers and threatens to open fire on Aug. 7, 2017. The ship was patrolling in international waters off the coast of Libya. Audio: Proactiva Open Arms

“As soon as Italy started to make deals,” Gatti says, “that’s when things changed drastically.”

Last February, the Italian government created a fund worth $230 million aimed at curbing migration to Europe. The program — called “the Africa Fund” — finances development projects and border security operations in multiple locations in Africa.

The Africa Fund is also being used for direct support of the Libyan coast guard, according to documents obtained by Giulia Crescini, an Italian human rights lawyer. Crescini was able to get copies of the various Africa Fund agreements through Italy’s freedom of information law and shared them with The Intercept, which is publishing the agreements in full. They show a mix of projects including $3 million to equip and train the Libyan coast guard and $12 million for other border control projects in Libya.

Crescini is suing the Italian government, arguing that when the Italian parliament established the fund, its mandate was deliberately written in vague terms, and that the government is wrong to divert the fund’s money to foreign coast guards. In Libya, Crescini says, Italy is “delegating” its migration control to a force that works with local militias and smugglers, makes pullbacks (forcing people from international waters back into Libyan territory), and commits other crimes against migrants.

Crescini and Pitea both argue that there is little difference between Italy supporting a Libyan coast guard to deport migrants, and Italy deporting them itself. What is significant, Pitea says, is who has “effective control” of an operation, and in the case of Libya, that clearly belongs to Europe.

On top of the Africa Fund, Frontex and the EU naval force also run training programs and share intelligence with the Libyans. Status reports of European operations along the Libyan sea border from 2015 and 2016, leaked earlier this year by WikiLeaks and Statewatch, a British human rights organization, show that European operations near the Libyan border have “persistent” and “real-time” surveillance of the Libyan coast and migrant departures. Another document obtained by The Intercept, a May 2017 status report from the European External Action Service, Europe’s pseudo-foreign ministry, describes an information-sharing agreement between European and Libyan coast guards. Multiple nonprofit rescue workers describe Italian ships being present during Libyan operations.

“What we’ve got now are Italian boats off the Libyan coast identifying boats that are leaving, then information being related to Libyan coast guards, so they can do the interception and return people to Libya,” said Jeff Crisp, a researcher for the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University. “It’s a convenient pretense that this is a Libyan strategy, rather than an Italian and a European strategy.”

“It’s a convenient pretense that this is a Libyan strategy, rather than an Italian and a European strategy.”

A spokesperson for Frontex said that the agency does not maintain direct communication with or support the Libyan coast guard beyond its training program, but did not dispute that Frontex surveillance does indirectly reach the Libyans via other means. Information about migrant departures, the spokesperson said, is relayed directly to the Italian rescue coordination center in Rome. Ayoub Qassem, a spokesperson for the Libyan coast guard in Tripoli, confirmed that they regularly receive information from the center, and from Italian and European coast guard surveillance. Qassem also confirmed that the Libyans use that information to intercept people and return them to Libya, even if they are apprehended in international waters.

Frontex maintained that the agency has never received a complaint related to human rights or other abuses by the non-European coast guards or police involved in joint operations. Qassem categorically denied abuse by the Libyan coast guard, as well as any involvement in smuggling operations or with local militias.

The Italian Foreign Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

AT SEA, AT SEA - FEBRUARY 19:  A migrant from Togo is seen on deck of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms rescue vessel Golfo Azzurro sailing towards the Italian port of Pozzallo after being rescued off Libyan coast north of Sabratha, Libya on February 19, 2017 at Sea. 466 migrants were rescued in high seas last Friday by the Italian Coast Guard and the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms rescue vessel Golfo Azzurro. Proactiva Open Arms are a Spanish charity based out of Malta who provide search and rescue assistance to refugees and migrants in distress at sea. They patrol the SAR and Rescue Zone off the coast of Libya running rescue missions for the hundreds of migrants who continue to make perilous journey across the Mediterranean in hope of reaching the European mainland.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

A migrant from Togo is seen on deck of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms rescue vessel Golfo Azzurro sailing toward the Italian port of Pozzallo after being rescued off Libyan coast north of Sabratha, on Feb. 19, 2017.

Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images


Another problem for European governments eager to work with Libya is that there is no singular Libyan coast guard. Rather, the force reflects the disorder of the country that also puts migrants who are returned there at risk.

“In Libya, the problem is that there is an internal conflict,” explains Barroso, the Spanish coast guard officer who works on Hera. Barroso says that, without more stability and cash, it will be difficult for Libya to control its border. He and other Spanish border police are currently training Libyan coast guards, both in Spain and in Libya. Barroso’s trainings center around human rights.

Hassan Morajea, a Libyan journalist who has covered border issues in his country since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, explains that each city on the Libyan coast runs its own coast guard, and there is little to no coordination among them.

“There are huge gaps in communication between all of the groups,” Morajea said. “You can’t work through one centralized group and hope to train all of the Libyan coast guard.”

Every European attempt to seal the border in one city, Morajea said, has caused the migration route to shift to another. He rattles off the names of Libya’s coastal cities as he traces how the route has changed, shifting from Zuwara to Sabratha to Zawiya and back again. “That’s what will continue to happen while the coast guard is not under once central authority,” he says. “Cities are very fragmented.”

According to journalists, aid workers, and researchers working in and around Libyan border issues, as well as a Frontex report published by The Intercept earlier this year, Libyan coast guards and police are also involved in people smuggling.

The May 2017 status report from the European External Action Service, which has not been previously made public, gives a bleak evaluation of the situation. It describes ongoing conflict between regional militias and border security and migration management that is “in complete disarray.” The report describes police forces and courts that don’t function, multiple governments vying for power, widespread corruption, and “unlawful killings, by most major groupings of armed actors in Libya,” including of activists, journalists, judges, and prosecutors. The report also estimates that over 9,000 people are currently in migration detention facilities that the International Organization for Migration has described as “inhumane,” while others are in prisons run by armed groups and smugglers. The IOM and others have also documented multiple cases of migrants from West Africa being sold in auctions in Libya as slaves.

Europe’s strategy in Libya assumes that it is a transit country, one that people fleeing war and persecution or hunger and poverty use only use as a stepping stone on their way to Europe. The strategy ignores the fact that many people are now fleeing Libya too, as much as their home countries.

“Libya is really in a transition period, when you’re trying to develop all the laws and human rights that were never there before the revolution,” says Abdulrahman Alfituri, a Libyan aid worker who works with migrants returned to Libya by the coast guard. “We don’t have a police, we don’t have an army, we don’t have anything.”

All the while, he adds, “the current situation, the current lack of safety in Libya, the issue is getting bigger.” Alfituri has seen this firsthand, in his personal life as much as in his work with refugees.

“Of course people are fleeing Libya,” he said. “Seventy-two hours ago, four close friends of mine crossed to Europe, and they are Libyans. They are looking for a better way.”

Barroso said that he and his colleagues on Operation Hera are concerned that departures from Senegal and Mauritania will rise again, now that Europe’s other sea borders are becoming tougher to cross.

“If the way through Libya closes, they’ll probably change the route,” Barroso said, noting that, just last month, a wooden boat full of people arrived in Spain from Senegal. It was the first one to make it across in nine years.

Top photo: A Libyan coast guard stands on a boat during the rescue of 147 immigrants attempting to reach Europe off the coastal town of Zawiya, 45 kilometers west of the capital Tripoli, on June 27, 2017.