Mediterranean: As the fiction of a Libyan search and rescue zone begins to crumble, EU states use the coronavirus pandemic to declare themselves unsafe

Yasha Maccanico, Mai 2020


The search and rescue zone assigned to Libya in the central Mediterranean has been obvious since its inception as a fiction that was useful to assert EU efforts to reduce the number of arrivals by sea. Shortly after a submission to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) was filed in late March 2020, calling for it to be scrapped for not fulfilling the relevant requirements, attempted sea crossings from Libya resumed. EU states responded by opportunistically declaring themselves unsafe due to the Covid-19 emergency. Frontex aircraft were monitoring events from the sky, and over the Easter weekend (11-12 April) one vessel which seemed to have disappeared was returned to Libya, with five dead people on board and seven reported as having drowned at sea. At least one Maltese official has confirmed a personal role in coordinating refoulements such as these, on the orders of the prime minister’s office, for the last three years.In a separate operation, the NGO rescue vessel Alan Kurdi rescued people who were in danger at sea before being denied permission to disembark for over ten days, with over 150 people on board. The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, responded by declaring that:

Despite the unprecedented challenges European countries face due to COVID-19, saving lives at sea and disembarking survivors in a safe port must continue”. […]


Events in the last fortnight provide further confirmation of the dishonesty and opportunism with which EU immigration policy is being advanced at both the national and EU levels, raising the need to pay close attention to state efforts to use a public health emergency to assert pre-existing strategies to subordinate human rights and the rule of law to strategic policy goals. In practice, the authorities consistently disregard international law and refuse to recognise any limits to what state authorities may do to achieve objectives set in absolute terms. Normative frameworks are being wrecked through attacks against cornerstones such as the duty to rescue, the right to life and the non-refoulement principle, regardless of what UN experts, international bodies (UNHCR, IOM) or the courts of law may say. Initiatives such as the above submission to the IMO to cancel the Libyan SAR zone, the case brought against the EU and some member states before the ICC by lawyers Omer Schatz and Juan Branco and the more recent submission to the European Court of Auditors by GLAN and several civil society Mediterranean: EU states use the coronavirus pandemic to declare themselves unsafew. However, the EU and member states can be expected to respond forcefully to assert their own interpretation of events and legality.Postscript: Maltese official admits coordinating rescue and return to LibyaFollowing the events on Easter weekend amid criticism of Malta’s role, members of the government and officials had to answer questions from the Maltese media and judiciary. In a statement given behind closed doors to a magistrate investigating a criminal case brought by the civil rights NGO Repubblikainto this push-back, Neville Gafà (see above) admitted coordinating the return to Libya, acting on instructions from the Maltese prime minister’s office.The Times of Maltareported the claims that he repeated in public after the hearing, in what appears an attempt by EU member state governments to admit what they are doing in the hope that unlawful practices will be legalised on the basis of competing claims, not least the effectiveness of the fight against so-called irregular migration. Thus, Gafà is quoted stating that

“I confirm that on Easter night and the days that followed I was involved in a mission in which a boat with 51 irregular migrants including 8 women and 3 minors were taken to port in Tripoli. On the same boat were five corpses.”

Gafà claimed that he was instructed to coordinate the operation directly with the Libyan home affairs ministry and coast guard and confirmed his role in coordinating operations during the last three years, not to enact pushbacks, but rather, to prevent boats entering Maltese territorial waters and the island state’s SAR zone, He argued that, during the period in question (July 2018 to January 2020), if boats entered the Maltese SAR zone they were taken to Malta, whereas if they were heading for Maltese waters, the Libyan Coast Guard would be used to “re-direct” them. Alongside recent events, these revelations strengthen the case of people who are trying to hold the EU and several member states accountable for the deaths, abuses and unlawful outcomes produced by their immigration policies and practices.

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Statewatch | Mai 2020

Mittelmeer: Libysche SAR-Zone und Corona Pandemie