NGOs say the 'secretive' change, backed by the European Union, puts lives at risk.
Libya — with the backing of the European Union — has officially taken ownership of a large area of the sea migrant route into Europe for search and rescue operations, in a move that critics say will block asylum seekers from reaching safety.
Euronews has learned that the Libyan government quietly submitted details of its new maritime search and rescue region to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the UN agency responsible for regulating shipping, last week.
Prior to the change, there was no official search and rescue zone in the area, with the coordination of responses to migrant crises there typically falling to Italy. This means that rescue ships operating in the area around Libya, where many of the rescues take place, can now be ordered to return shipwrecked migrants back to the country they just fled.
EU under pressure
The EU has been under intense pressure — particularly from Italy and Hungary — to clamp down on the number of migrants seeking refuge and travelling through member states.
Last week a high-stakes migrant summit was held in Brussels, where EU leaders managed to strike a last-minute deal after lengthy discussions. It was during this week, but separately, that Libya formally submitted the new zones to the IMO.
NGOs working to rescue migrants at sea said to Euronews that there was a lack of transparency over Libya’s new powers, and stressed that the threat it posed to the safety of migrants could not be overstated.
‘No route to safety’
The Italian Coast Guard was asked by the European Commission in 2016 to support Libyan authorities in identifying and declaring a Search and Rescue Region.
Within the newly declared region, which is not connected to maritime borders, Libya is now responsible for responding to distress signals and coordinating rescue efforts, including ensuring that migrants are able to reach a place of safety.
However, migrant rescue groups fear that this will no longer be possible.
SOS Méditerranée said it no longer feels confident it can do its work in a “safe and legal way”. Their vessel, the Aquarius, has been central to growing debates in Europe after it was left at sea with hundreds of migrants on board for more than a week with no countries willing to let it dock.
“Libya has no ports of safety,” said SOS Méditerranée press officer Laura Garel.
She said the new zone would lead to commands at odds with international laws.
“If rescue ships are being instructed by the Libyan Coordination Centre to come back to Libya this will be completely contrary to the maritime conventions...There is the law on one side and the policies in place which are in contradiction,” she explained.
“These people will be brought back to suffering and violence...as soon as they get detected, they will be detained.”
German charity Sea Watch agreed.
“There’s high concerns about the so-called Libyan search and rescue zone,” spokesperson Ruben Neugebauer told Euronews.
“If you look at the assets the Libyan coast guard is using, it’s very clear that the priority is not saving lives. I have not seen a single life jacket,” he said.
“It’s not about saving human lives. It’s only about bringing people back to Libya — a war-torn country where refugees face unlawful detention, torture and even death.”
Attempts by phone and email to contact the Libyan authorities this week went unanswered.
The two leading migrant rescue charities said they discovered the changes to the search and rescue zone by chance.
“We were not informed about this by any of the actors,” said Neugebauer.
Garel said that while there was no obligation for Libya or those backing the zone to make a public announcement, it was “surprising” they hadn’t.
“It’s not a small decision...It’s important for saving lives at sea,” she said.
The NGOs believe the new zone will serve to stop migrants from reaching Europe altogether amid growing debate in the region over the issue.
“This whole Libyan coast guard is paid off by the European Union to do their dirty work for them because the European Union knows it would end up in court if a European authority gave such orders,” said Neugebauer.
But while NGOs expressed concern, the European Commission defended its role in the new zone, which it said was aimed at helping migrants.
“Saving lives and fighting the criminal smuggling networks are the main priorities of our work and that of EU operations deployed in the Central Mediterranean,” the Commission told Euronews.
“The development of the capacity of the Libyan authorities to conduct search and rescue operations and manage their declared SAR (search and rescue) zone effectively and in line with internationally recognised standards is a key strand of the EU's support to Libya in the field of migration,” it said.
The Commission argued that while NGOs had played a “commendable” role in rescuing migrants, “no actors in the Mediterranean should be seeking to perpetuate a business model used by traffickers and smugglers to exploit human misery.”
'Not in line with international law'
SOS Méditerranée and Sea Watch claimed that rising numbers of migrant deaths are evidence of what is to come from the new Libyan zone.
“Since this search and rescue zone was notified, we have had a huge surge in the death toll,” said Neugebauer.
“The Libyan coast guard is not carrying out rescue operations in line with international law because they are pulling people back to Libya.”
Sea Watch vessels are currently stuck on dry land in Malta, after its search and rescue plane was denied permission to operate there and its ship banned from leaving a Maltese port.
Meanwhile, the Aquarius is docked in the French city of Marseille as SOS Méditerranée “reflects” on what is happening with Libya.
“We surely want to continue our work to save lives. As soon as possible we will get back to sea,” Garel said.