The Malta Independent 17 August 2022, Wednesday

Smugglers recovering migrant boats more easily

Thursday, 22 December 2016, 13:41 Last update: about 7 years ago

A leaked European External Action Service (EEAS) report shows that migrants leaving Libya are being rescued closer to the coast, giving the possibility to smugglers to recover the boats more easily and re-use them.

The report was penned by the EUNAVFOR MED Operation Sofia Commander Enrico Credendino, and sent to the Political and Security Committee and the European Union Military Committee.


EUNAVFOR MED Operation Sophia is the first EU Naval Force to operate in the Mediterranean, an area of key strategic importance to the EU and at the centre of security challenges impacting Europe as a whole.  The report, dated 29 November 2016, read that up to as many as 26 NGO maritime assets have been registered on the high seas on the Central Mediterranean Route. 

“Migrant smugglers were increasingly observed trying to recover their vessels and engines, as EUNAVFOR MED Operation SOPHIA (ENFM) continued to dispose of such boats, whenever not possible to transport them to Italy to support investigations or prosecutions. Smugglers are relying on an increasing number of NGO rescue vessels that are operating close to, and sometimes within, Libyan territorial waters while ENFM maintained a deterrence effect on the high seas”.

It read that the migration flow is assessed to be affected by this increased presence of NGOs that are ready to rescue migrants within the limit of, and sometimes inside, Libyan territorial waters. “It could be argued that by operating so close to the Libyan territorial waters the NGO presence has allowed the smugglers to recover boats to the shore more easily for re-use and shorten the average rescues from 75nautical miles to 35 and now 20 nautical miles from the Libyan shore,” the report read.

The report explained that the central Mediterranean route has remained largely steady over the years, and the route is characterised by heavy traffic of merchant ships and other vessels that are called upon by the Maritime Coordination Rescue Centres (MRCCs) to rescue other vessels in danger in compliance with international law.

One well-known NGO would be the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) based here in Malta, and they operate along the Central Mediterranean Route.

Speaking with this newsroom, MOAS Head of Plans and Operations Ian Ruggier said that when operating, MOAS would keep 18 nautical miles off the Libyan coast, and 40 nautical miles out at night. “Yes there were instances where we were called to engage in rescues in Libyan territorial waters, by the authorities in consultation with the Libyan authorities” he said.

The report also states that, whereas initially smugglers used large numbers of powered rubber boats enabling the transport of a maximum number of migrants up to the limit of territorial waters, the new modus operandi entails a skiff towing a rubber boat without an engine, which is then left adrift. “This relies on the availability of NGOs, and sometimes merchant vessels, to carry out the rescue”.

Asked whether he believes that this results in human traffickers capitalising on NGOs being so close to Libyan territorial waters, Mr Ruggier said that MOAS never came across boats being tugged out and left adrift. “Every vessel we engage has its own motor. Now admittedly sometimes motors fail or they run out of fuel, but never without a motor. Smugglers capitalise, not on NGOs, but on international law – the obligation to render assistance to persons in distress, and that is the main factor that drives the way they operate. It is not whether there are rescue vessels out at sea or not,” he said.

Asked whether NGOs are making the lives of smugglers easier by operating so close to the border, he said: “easier in what context? It’s easier to conduct rescues and it’s more effective, thus the likelihood of people drowning or dying is mitigated to a greater extent. I can only speak on behalf of MOAS, but we are about mitigating loss of life at sea. Now we don’t go to the shoreline and pick them up so that they don’t die, but at the end of the day we are on the high seas. The report claims it is easier for the smuggling networks to reclaim rubber boats, but if they are using vessels that can negotiate around 12 miles it would probably only be able to negotiate the same distance. The idea of engaging further south is to be in a position to render assistance as early as possible thereby making rescues easier”.

The boats smugglers use are not seaworthy vessels, he explained, and they are prone to sinking. They are not designed to last 60 miles.

The leaked report read that the ENFM operation has continued to show good results and has to date disposed of 337 migrant vessels preventing them from being re-used by smugglers, while 99 suspected migrant smugglers/human traffickers have been arrested. In addition,  the operation has also completed the rescue of nearly 29,317 migrants (4,724 female and 1,701 minors), recovering them to a place of safety.

Asked whether, given that the ENFM operation has sunk so many vessels belonging to human traffickers, that the crime rings are having to resort to worse vessels, Mr Ruggier said this is not the case, as the quality is not inferior from those used in past years, but what has changed is the size of the inflatable vessels being used. Now, he said, bigger vessels are being used. “That presents bigger challenges for rescues. When you dealing with 60 people it’s one thing, but when its 150 it’s another”.

The report explains that another common technique employed by smugglers consists of two rubber boats, one towing the other, shadowed by jackals or facilitators, usually posing to be fishermen, who attempt to recover the rubber boats once the migrants have been rescued. Mr Ruggier said that MOAS operatives never came across a boat tugging another, but have seen fishermen who, given the opportunity would try to claim the motor. “Whether they keep it for themselves or not is a different matter. I have seen fishing boats use engines that would power a rubber boat. What we would do is sink the engine and puncture the vessels after migrants are rescued, as long as there weren’t any possibly dangerous vessels nearby, and if there were, we would call the authorities or close by naval vessels who would deal with it themselves. We would not risk a situation with possible hostile boats close by,” he explained.

The report also states that a majority of boats no longer depart with Thuraya phones and therefore no longer make distress calls to the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC). This is believed to be because smugglers seem to be aware where they can reliably find rescuing assets particularly from the NGO’s who broadcast their position via the Automatic Identification System”.

NGOs do not change the model used by smugglers

Mr Ruggier explained that the NGOs have an impact on the lives of the beneficiaries, “we do not change the smuggling model. They change the model depending on the context they encounter. Its basic supply and demand, there would be someone asking for a service, and they provide it, it’s as simple as that. They understand the legal obligation of mariners at sea and know there are assets at sea. We are obliged to keep the Automatic Identification System switched on, and this is a legal requirement. They know where we are and whether we are sat at 14, 18 or 40 miles out, all they do is point the boats north. This is not rocket science, and that is the situation. We have an impact of the lives of people, not on the smuggling networks. We react to what they are doing and not the other way around”.

MOAS, he said, has two ships which can operate, and are currently on an operational pause, which he said is quite normal. Currently, MOAS are regenerating their funds and are taking the opportunity to review their operations and prepare their crew for the next season which usually starts when the weather settles.

Smuggling networks ingrained into local patterns of life in Libya

In the part of the report dealing with Libya, it was said that migrant smuggling and human trafficking networks are well ingrained into local patterns of life, employing facilitators while paying off authorities and other militias.

“Migrant smuggling, originating far beyond Libyan borders, remains a major source of income among locals in Libyan coastal cities generating estimated annual revenue of up to €275 to €325 million”.

The smuggling routes, the report read, pass through the Sahel and arrive in Libya through Sabha in the southwest via hubs in Tamanrasset in Algeria and Agadez in Niger. “These well-established smuggling routes are used northwards for human trafficking and narcotics and southwards for weapons intended for fragile Central African and South American countries. Al Qaeda and AQIM, aligned with the Tuareg tribe in south-western Libya, are assessed to be financially exploiting these smuggling routes. The same north-south pattern is recognised in eastern Libya generally passing through Khartoum and Dongola in Sudan and then on to Kufra in south-eastern Libya. Along this route the Tebu tribe is the main profiteer. All smuggling routes converge in the Lampedusa triangle, with no migrant launches taking place from eastern Libya. Although there is no evidence of terrorists trying to enter through Central Mediterranean Route, terrorist organisations might be financially profiting from smuggling and trafficking”.

This part of the report read that these migrants are usually coaxed or forced to use the central Mediterranean route, “which is the most cost-effective route with most launches taking place within the Lampedusa triangle, covering the area between Zuwarah and Misrata in western Libya and Lampedusa in Italy.

“The majority of migrants still die inside or very close to Libyan territorial waters, although an increasing number of persons are rescued by Libyan Coastguard vessels. According to FRONTEX data, the Libyan Coastguard rescued around 600 persons in 2015, while 2230 persons were rescued during the reporting period”.

The report notes positive cooperation with the Libyan coast guard.


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