A few weeks ago, a sailor in Libya’s coastguard scooped up Luchiya Mhreteab and her two small children after the boat taking them to Italy sank off Libya’s northern tip.
Mhreteab, 30, had fled Eritrea and is pregnant. She and her five-year-old daughter Dina and three-year-old son Yosan now live on a mat in the courtyard of a Libyan detention centre. They eat rice and vegetables three times a day, Mhreteab explained, her ripped black abaya stretched across her growing stomach. “I don’t know what to do next.”
All the passengers in Mhreteab’s boat were saved that day. But often Libya’s 12-metre inflatable patrol boats are too slow or too small to rescue everyone. The boats have no satellite phones. The radio of the coastguard’s central command in Tripoli is often shut off. Some days, coastguards help bury the dead in piles of sand on the beach.
Split between two rival factions which both claim to run the country, Libya can sometimes seem as powerless as the tens of thousands of impoverished migrants who use it as a launch-pad for a better life in Europe.
European nations want to stop the human smugglers, and have asked Libya to secure its borders and coastline. But interviews with coastguard officials, prosecutors, police, and border authorities, in addition to migrants waiting to depart, show that the war-torn country has neither the means nor the will to stop the flow of migrants.
Nowhere is that powerlessness – and Europe’s failure – more obvious than in the country’s coastguard.
Libya’s navy was destroyed in the 2011 uprising that toppled Muammar Gadaffi. That has left its 1,800 km (1,100 miles) of coastline vulnerable. In 2013, the European Union set up an aid programme with an annual budget of 26 million euros ($28 million) to train Libya’s coastguard, and airport and land border officers.
But that programme has been abandoned, and Libya’s coastguard remains ineffective. It has just six boats, including two small inflatables not designed for use on the open sea. The force was rebuilt after 2011 by recruiting former rebel fighters, who had very little experience on the water. Officials have even recruited local fishermen to help. The captain of the main Tripoli coastguard boat is a fisherman whose family runs a restaurant.
Because the country is split, the coastguard’s command centre in Tripoli, home of one self-declared government, has no contact with officials in the eastern part of the country.
The people-smugglers are richer and better equipped than Libyan border control, police or coastguard officials.
Sadiq al-Sour, head of the investigations department at Libya’s state prosecutor in Tripoli, said he knew the identities and whereabouts of several smugglers, but simply did not have the forces to conduct searches or carry out arrests. “Libya needs a strong coastguard, helicopters and secure borders in order to combat illegal immigration,” he said. “If not, we can’t stop it.”
After the 2011 uprising, Italy agreed to spend millions on training Libya’s border guards. But it suspended its cooperation two years ago when Libya became too unstable.
“There was an agreement for training to help create a state security force and police. Then the situation degenerated and we cut off all ties. Until there’s a recognised single authority, that’s likely to be how things will remain,” said a spokesman at Italy’s defence ministry.
The European Union was also helping to build up a coastguard. Trainers focused on delivering basic sea skills such as wearing life vests and rescue drills. But it too pulled out last summer when fighting over Tripoli broke out.
Ayoub Qassem, spokesman for the Libyan navy, said the training had been of limited help. Without modern boats and equipment such as radar, even well-trained sailors were limited in what they could do.
Even European diplomats said the training had changed little. Up to half the budget was spent on protection and accommodation for trainers and officials, who lived in a high-security compound and luxury hotel.
Colonel Rida Essa, commander of the coastguard in Misrata, said the coastguard still struggles with corruption. Some officials will turn a blind eye to boats packed with migrants, he said.
When the coastguard picked up Mhreteab’s boat, the migrants on board resisted, disappointed that they would not make it to Europe.
Many of the migrants who are rescued off the coast of Tripoli end up 10 km (6 miles) inland in a detention centre in Qarabouli. Last month, 400 people from across Africa were being held there, guarded by police.
The centre is run by the Tripoli government. Libya used to send most people back to their own countries, but fighting between tribes in the south has cut off the main exit route by land to Niger. As well, most countries have closed their embassies in Tripoli since they do not recognise the government there, leaving migrants unable to get travel documents.
In the Qarabouli centre, the migrants spend their days lying side by side, dozing on mats. Three times a day the doors are opened for guards to bring rice and vegetables, and occasionally meat. There is no budget for a doctor; a charity sends a health worker once a week.
Simon Najwa, a 27-year-old Eritrean medical graduate, had been living in the Qarabouli centre for three weeks, after the coastguard stopped his boat off the coast of Tripoli. Naiwa said he had left Eritrea because he had been drafted into the army shortly after graduating from medical college.
He had crossed into Khartoum and then his family had paid smugglers $1,600 for him to be transported to a farm near Tripoli. “I don’t want to go back to Eritrea,” said Naiwa, adding that he needs to go to Europe so he can repay his family for financing his trip.
Mhreteab’s journey also took months. She too travelled to Khartoum, where she agreed to pay $2,000 to travel on a crowded truck for 10 days into Libya. After two months in a detention centre – where she discovered she was pregnant — she and 50 other people were transported to a farm in Libya where they waited another two weeks. Then one night, she was told to get up with her children and walk to the shore.
Barely had they set sail when the Libyan coastguard rescued them, and brought them to Qarabouli.
“This place is very bad where we stay. But I don’t want to go back to Eritrea. I would be arrested. I want to go to Europe,” she said.