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.