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Heightened Tensions in the Mediterranean
By admin August 21, 2017

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The Mediterranean has long been a major conduit for migrants fleeing insurrection and instability in the hope of a better life in Europe. However, in recent times, the opalescent sea has turned into the world’s deadliest migration route while being a hotbed for human traffickers. The untenable situation in Libya, a country beset by chaos and political instability, has been pivotal in causing this crisis where its people are suffering and their only way out is via the sea.

Over the last few weeks, tensions have been mounting between Libyan authorities and NGO’s operating in the Mediterranean. In the past year, 100,000 Libyan migrants have reached Italian shores, a third of which have been rescued by NGO’s. So far, the International Organisation for Migration reports 2,406 people have drowned while voyaging through the “central route” – the dangerous course for migrants from Libya to Italy. Now, after public pressure spurred Libyan forces to confront NGO’s, who it accuses of violating its sovereignty, a string of incidents have indicated Libya has started to assert its right to operate well beyond its 12 nautical mile territorial zone.

On Tuesday, in a clear sign of its newly assertive policy, the Libyan coastguard intercepted and threatened to open fire on a rescue ship from Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms who had been conducting a training exercise in international waters. The incident occurred 27 miles away form the Libyan coastline.

In response to the increasingly hostile stance of Libyan authorities and a strict code of conduct for NGO’s at sea drawn up by Italian authorities, three major NGO’s – Save the Children, Medecins Sans Frontiers and Sea Eye have all halted their search-and-rescue operations, warning that thousands of migrants will drown as a result. A spokesperson for German NGO Sea Eye said they felt their crews could no longer work in what they called a “changed security situation in the western Mediterranean.”

This grave warning is augmented by the growing concern among NGO’s about the conditions faced by migrants if Libyan authorities turn their boats around. It is reported by migrants and refugees who have spent time in Libyan detention camps that those captured while attempting to flee face beatings, death threats, forced labour and torture.

The situation is further complicated in Italy where public opinion has been increasingly turning against migrants while the Italian navy is providing technical and operational assistance to the Libyan coastguard to increase capacity to intercept migrant boats. Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano responded with a “very clear yes” to a question from Bild whether Italy had been abandoned by Europe in coping with the migration crisis, citing the failure of the EU government to implement a burden-sharing mechanism proposed by the European Commission last year.

Although immigration levels in Italy have dropped by 56% over the past month, during what is typically the high season for sea migration voyages, the situation remains critical. Thus, the need for collaborative action to manage migration flows on the historic sea endures.

Further Reading

Three NGOs halt Mediterranean migrant rescues after Libyan hostility

Italy’s ‘Lord of the Spies’ Takes On a Migration Crisis

Italy backs Libya as NGOs chased out of Mediterranean

How the humanitarian NGOs operate at sea

Merkel identifies Libya as key to Migration crisis


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