More than 1,200 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean in April when their boats capsized off Libya en route to Italy. In one 24-hour period at the end of May, more than 4,200 migrants were intercepted at sea in international rescue efforts. These ongoing tragedies have shone a harsh spotlight on European migration policy; the EU has responded by touting tighter maritime patrols and military operations against smugglers.
But there is a leak in this enforcement strategy. Smugglers are not trying to reach the Italian coast; they are trying to be rescued by European vessels in international waters. This means that Libyan coastal authorities need to lead the charge against human smuggling, and that Europe must help equip and train them to do so. This would be one piece of a comprehensive, integrated response to the mixed migration crisis – and starts with a better understanding of what is happening along the coast.
The State of the Libyan Navy and Coast Guard
While conflict has raged on land since the revolution, Libya’s maritime security forces have weathered the storm. Libya maintains an active Navy and Coast Guard, whose ranks now comprise thousands of former militiamen who had nothing to do after they toppled Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in October 2011. When I visited Tripoli Naval Base last year, my liaison officer boasted, in lilting Scottish English, “Many of these lads can’t even swim.” Unfortunately for them, these men jumped onto a sinking ship.
My visit to the base illustrated this keenly. It was the day after a North Korean-flagged oil tanker had bought 230,000 barrels of oil from separatists in eastern Libya. I watched from the main office as naval commanders scrambled to handle the situation. Meanwhile, Misratan brigades went out in fishing boats mounted with mortar and rocket launchers to intercept the vessel. There was an exchange of gunfire, but luckily no environmental catastrophe. The tanker escaped to international waters, where it was boarded by US Navy SEALs and escorted back to Libya.
Existence and enthusiasm are the Libyan Navy’s best traits. As I learned during my visit, it has approximately 8000 personnel, 2000 of whom were recently recruited. After the revolution, the Naval Academy was occupied as a camp for internally displaced persons, so there was no formal recruitment or training. Rather, officers went along the coast, spoke with former rebel soldiers, promised to pay them well, and commissioned them as sailors. At the same time, Qaddafi loyalists were purged from the corps. This meant that many skilled laborers, mainly engineers, were forced to leave the service en masse to join the private sector. While there remains a certain trust and loyalty among the ranks, tribal undercurrents are strong and compromise the corps’ unity.
The Libyan Coast Guard is smaller, comprising about 3000 men. Like their counterparts in the Navy, they come from mixed backgrounds, some with decades of experience as fishermen, others with no seafaring experience at all.
There is a good deal of crossover between the Navy and Coast Guard, as some officers have passed from one to the other since the revolution. The mandates of the two forces are also unclear and overlap. While Libya’s transitional governments have attempted to define their respective membership and security functions, the state has been too powerless to enforce these divisions. As a result, the armed forces are continuing to develop ad hoc.
Both the Navy and Coast Guard have limited assets. During the 2011 air campaign, NATO bombed eight of the Navy’s warships. France and Italy then turned around and sold them new ones. But, the Navy does not need deep water capability; what it does need is for its sailors to learn how to put on their life jackets.
In both the Navy and Coast Guard, there is a dire need to learn about safety procedures and basic seamanship before all else. After that, they need a few fast patrol boats. At the time of my visit, a brand new fleet of South Korean RHIBs (rigid-hull inflatable boats) – which turned out to be lemons – sat sourly onshore.
Building the Capacity of the Libyan Navy and Coast Guard
To deal with migrant crossings, the Libyan Navy and Coast Guard must be equipped and trained to undertake search and rescue operations in these RHIBs. This means knowing how to take a distress call or tip, making necessary checks, carrying out the rescue operation, performing maintenance on the RHIBs, and documenting the mission. European governments were facilitating some of this capacity building, until Libya’s security crisis compelled a wide scale evacuation during Ramadan last year.
In 2013, the British Royal Navy began a small training program out of Tripoli Naval Base. A team of five maritime advisors ran short courses for select officers and personnel in damage control, health and safety, warfare operations, and marine engineering, all while providing continuous mentorship to the Libyan Navy to develop a “strategic aim.”
For their part, the EU Border Assistance Mission worked with the Libyan Coast Guard, delivering training on basic RHIB operations and maintenance, introductory courses for boarding officers, and joint search and rescue missions. This involved practical exercises like man overboard drills, high-speed stop maneuvers, and retrieving casualties from sea. The Coast Guard, which is often called upon to perform humanitarian functions, received training to board capsizing vessels, distribute life jackets, and rescue women and children first.
In a small way, such capacity building programs affirmed Libya’s openness to technical cooperation with foreign armed forces, after decades of mutual suspicion. But they still failed to turn a ragtag band of rebels and fishermen into a professional military able to patrol and secure the longest coastline of the southern Mediterranean.
This is not because their trainers did a poor job; to the contrary, these engagements were well-designed and well-respected. For all these drills and rehearsals off the coast, however, the problem is rooted onshore.
Human Smuggling and the Cycle of Catch and Release
With Libya’s coastal authorities in disarray, smugglers have capitalized on the country’s weak rule of law and turned it into an organized hub along their routes to Europe for Africans fleeing poverty, war, or persecution. This mixed migration crisis demands a comprehensive civilian-military approach to crime and justice. In order to have the greatest impact, foreign governments and armed forces must coordinate their work with those who have a deeper, broader understanding of what is driving migrants and the organized criminals who smuggle them across Africa to Europe and beyond.
Among the problems, Libyan authorities operate a catch and release policy. Migrants are captured or rescued at sea, detained for twenty-four to forty-eight hours in unknown circumstances, and transferred to the Ministry of Interior (MoI). Migrants who do not have official transit papers are then detained by the MoI across a network of seventeen migrant detention centers, which include old passport offices and schools repurposed as makeshift prisons; the Tripoli Zoo has even served as a jail for sub-Saharan Africans. Though the MoI formally operates these facilities, some are effectively run by armed groups.
For two years, I served as the head of office of the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) in Libya. My team visited these centers and, together with local partners, set up socio-legal support cells for detainees in two migrant jails outside Tripoli, one for men and one for women. We received hundreds of complaints and documented dozens of cases of torture and ill treatment at these centers.
Due to overcrowding, detainees are usually released arbitrarily after two to three months. In some cases, prison managers and guards sell detainees into bonded labor to Libyan companies or farms in a system of modern-day slavery. Smugglers are plugged into this network, with Libyan companies sometimes “purchasing” migrants by buying them tickets to Europe. Invariably, migrants find themselves back at sea and – if they do not drown – the cycle repeats.
Given these circumstances, European capacity building programs for Libyan maritime security forces amount to little more than an expensive and time-consuming piece of theater. There is little point in training these actors to patrol the coastline, unless this is part of a comprehensive, integrated response to the mixed migration crisis.
This response would go well beyond border management and would involve direct engagement with non-state actors, including tribal authorities and criminal networks of human smugglers. There is also a need for legislative reforms, like an asylum law that meets international standards, and the training of seamen and prison guards in proper arrest and detention procedures. Beyond this, military-to-military exchanges could be useful to cultivate forthcoming relationships between Libyan and European commanders.
The Way Forward
In today’s Libya, people are wary –- and weary – when it comes to talk of reform or capacity building. But the need for these initiatives is stark and the work is feasible. Since widespread violence broke out last summer, most international actors have not returned to Libya and are doing what they can in exile in Tunisia. Some training with the Libyan Navy and Coast Guard is even continuing from Tunis. But all outposts have faced tremendous pressure from their headquarters and suffered debilitating staff and budget cuts. In my conversations with donor agencies, foreign ministries, and foundations, I am told – from London to Brussels to Amman – that Libya is no longer a priority.
We cannot bemoan disasters in the Mediterranean and point fingers without understanding the complex political economy driving the mixed migration crisis across Africa and Europe. Once the problem is fully grasped, I hope we will summon the political will and invest the financial resources to do something about it. But, I am not holding my breath. Sadly, in the meantime, thousands more migrants will have to hold theirs.
These views are exclusively the author’s own.