The Times of Malta reported Sunday about a secret deal reached between Malta and the Tripoli based GNA government regarding refugee and migrant cooperation. According to the deal, as detailed in the paper, Maltese authorities will notify the Libyan coast guard as migrant boats head from Libyan territory to nearby Malta, with the aim of intercepting them before they enter Maltese waters.
The deal, however, appears to take things further, at times encouraging Libya to go beyond its maritime border into a grey "search and rescue" zone" which is under Maltese control. One such incident took place on October 18, which the UN is investigating.
Maltese officials rejected responding to this particular agreement, but noted that such areas are not part of the sovereign territory of a country, and that foreign ships "have every right to investigate any illegal activity departing from their coast."
Since Libya and Italy signed their cooperation agreement, the number of ships leaving Libya for Italy has dropped significantly, with an increase in the number of migrants ending up in nearby Malta. It seems the much smaller island nation is keen to put a stop to the flow of people to its shores. Some see the recent Libyan GNA seizure of counterfeit currency, produced by Russia and intended for Haftar, as a sign of this very cooperation.
Nearly 200 Egyptians illegally in Libya were deported back to Egypt. Immigration officials in Benghazi, which is controlled by the eastern Tobruk government, announced Saturday it was deporting the illegal immigrants, who had no official documents and infections diseases, back to Egypt, according to Chinese media reports. There are reported to be over 600,000 illegal migrants in Libya, with around 6000 of them being held inf official and unofficial detention centres.
Italy is set to renew its current cooperation with the Tripoli UN recognised government under which the Libyan coast guard intercepts migrant ships and returns them to Libyan detention and relocation centres. The deal was first reached in February 2017 in an attempt to slow the flow of illegal migrants and asylum seekers to Italy, one of the closest points for Africans trying to reach Europe.
The deal was set to expire November 2, 2019 and will be renewed automatically, unless one of the parties decides to end their cooperation. Italian foreign minister Luigi Di Maio told parliament that it would be "unwise for Italy to break off its agreement." and that "it is undeniable that it has reduced the number of arrivals and deaths at sea."
Some in Italy sought to amend the agreement to improve the humanitarian situation for those migrants returned to Libya, especially the resettlement programs.
A German humanitarian NGO, Sea-Eye, working to help refugees crossing the Mediterranean, reported that during a rescue operation Saturday (10-27), it was approached by a Libyan naval vessel which fired warning shots in the air and pointed its mounted machine guns at the rescuers and 90 migrants being rescued before retreating. A spokesman for Sea-Eye noted this was an unprecedented incident, and that “we are in shock, we have never been threatened in this way.” One of the rescued passengers was a pregnant woman, the NGO claims suffered a miscarriage during the incident.
The Libyan Navy denied any involvement in the incident and said its ships did not intercept or threaten any NGO vessels. It stressed, however, that it maintains the right to enact sovereignty in its territorial waters and called on all operating in the area to respect the rights of all cooperating parties.
The UN refugee agency representative to the Mediterranean, Vincent Cochetel, told reporters there was evidence that Malta outsourced the interception of a rescue boat carrying 50 refugees, including women and children, on October 18. As the boat was closer to Maltese territorial waters, this would constitute a violation of international maritime law, which calls on member states take those rescued at sea to the nearest port.
According to the investigation, the ship called the Maltese coast guard for help, only to find hours later it was being rescued by the Libyan coast guard and returned to Libya, although it was clear that was not the intended port.
Since Libya and the European Union enacted a stronger cooperation mechanism last year regarding refugees, the number of those reaching Italy dropped from over 21,000 between January and October of 2018 to just under 8,000 during the same time this year. However, Libya’s increased involvement in intercepting migrant ships has led to an increase of those landing in nearby Malta. The UN and other human rights organisations estimate there are 650,000 migrants currently in Libya. Refugees and migrants in war torn Libya are in constant danger of becoming victims of human trafficking, extortion and sexual abuse.
Rwanda will take in refugees and asylum-seekers trapped in Libya under an agreement signed with the United Nations and African Union.
The agreement comes after repeated allegations of horrific conditions for migrants in Libya’s detention centres, including routine abuse, lack of medical care, and insufficient food, coupled with dangers from the ongoing conflict.
The United Nations has said its own centre for migrants and refugees in Tripoli is becoming dangerously overcrowded as is its centre for evacuees in Niger. Evacuation flights to Rwanda are expected to begin in coming weeks. Under the memorandum of understanding, Rwanda would accept an initial group of 500 people who agree to leave from Libya, most of whom originate from the Horn of Africa.
The U.N. estimates around 4,700 people are being held in Libyan detention centres.
The Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking, which is operated jointly by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders, spent a rainy Sunday searching open waters for a fragile rubber boat overloaded with migrants before finally plucking 50 people to safety not far off Libya’s coast.
The Ocean Viking, which was already in the Libyan search and rescue zone of the central Mediterranean, received an email by Alarm Phone, a hotline for migrants. It was an urgent call seeking help for the rubber boat carrying 50 people without a working engine. Throughout the morning, the ship tried to contact Libyan officials without success.
At 2:30 p.m., the Libyan Coastguard finally answered the phone and the Ocean Viking reported that its crew was in the process of rescuing the migrants. As required by maritime law, the ship asked Libyan authorities responsible for rescue coordination in that part of the Mediterranean to provide a place of safety to disembark the rescued migrants, but it also made the same request to Italian and Maltese officials. There was no immediate response.
International migration and human rights bodies say Libya is not a place of safety, and Doctors Without Borders does not consider any North African country safe for disembarkation of the migrants.
Libya's coast guard says it has intercepted 108 Europe-bound migrants off the country's Mediterranean coast.
Spokesman Ayoub Gassim says the rubber boat with the African and Middle Eastern migrants, including 13 women and seven children, was stopped on Monday off the western city of Sabratha.
Sabratha is one of the biggest launching points for the mainly African migrants making the dangerous voyage across the Mediterranean Sea.
Gassim says the migrants were given humanitarian and medical assistance before being taken to a detention center in western town of Zawiya.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) confirmed in a statement that it had repatriated 148 Nigerien migrants from several accommodating centres in Libya to their country.
The statement clarified that four of the repatriated migrants were hosts of Tajuora shelter, which was bombed by the air-force of Khalifa Haftar, late last June.
The organisation confirmed that its teams on the ground have mobilised quickly to provide assistance to the migrants upon their arrival at Niamey Airport, in preparation for their transfer to their original home towns.
A boat carrying dozens of migrants capsized in the Mediterranean Sea off Libya on Tuesday. At least 40 people are missing and are presumed drowned.
Search efforts for the missing migrants have reportedly been halted after at least 65 migrants, most of them Sudanese, Tunisian or Egyptian nationals, were rescued from the waters off the Libyan coast, a spokesman for Libya's coast guard, told the Associated Press (AP).
Five people were meanwhile confirmed dead, including a woman and a child from Morocco, whose bodies have been recovered near the western Libyan town of Khoms, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) east of Tripoli. The other dead were reported to be men from Sudan and Somalia.
While about 40 people were reported as still missing by eyewitness survivors and therefore presumed dead, Libya's coast guard gave a lower estimate for those feared drowned of 15 to 20 people.