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, signalling a renewed push to support a force struggling to patrol its own coasts.
Despite growing 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 revolution that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is split between rival governments while ports and beaches are largely in the hands of armed groups.
Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino, chief of the EU naval mission in the Mediterranean, said Operation Sophia hopes to train 300 to 500 personnel by the end of the year.
Since 2016 the operation has trained 188 Libyans, which Credendino said contributed to a sharp drop in the number of attempted crossings in the second half of last year.
“The Libyan coastguard has been active, particularly in the second semester of 2017,” Credendino said, adding this was thanks to training by the mission and patrol boats supplied by Italy.
Operation Sophia began monitoring Libyan trainees in late 2017, providing Go-Pro cameras to Libyan coastguard boats to record their work.
“We monitor the Libyan coastguard, observing them at sea. We have airplanes, we have ships observing them. And we have periodic meetings” with the Libyan coastguard, he said.
Libya remains the main departure point for mainly sub-Saharan African migrants trying to reach Europe by sea, though the level of migrant smuggling by Libyan armed groups has dropped under European pressure.
Credendino said it was difficult to confirm links UN experts allege exist between smugglers and Libyan coastguard, adding Operation Sophia was trying to build a picture of smuggling networks.
“At sea, there is not only the military coastguard, but there are also militias wearing the same uniform, using the same type of boats.”
More than 130 alleged smugglers were arrested at sea and handed to Italian authorities, but major migrant smugglers in Libya largely act with impunity, out of reach of international authorities.
“We are working with many international actors, Interpol, Europol, Frontex … We are building a picture but it’s too early to make an actual assessment,” Credendino said.
On Wednesday, the head of investigations for Libya’s attorney general said arrest warrants were issued for 205 people accused of involvement in migrant smuggling or trafficking. Eleven representatives of foreign embassies were detained, Sadiq al-Sour said without elaborating.
Operation Sophia destroyed more than 500 intercepted smuggler boats, in addition to those destroyed by the Italian navy, but Credendino said it was currently impossible to block the import of rubber dinghies used by smugglers.