Friday, 29 June 2018

Lifeline ship resisted pressure to return refugees to Libya


This article was published by Al Jazeera International. 
Valletta, Malta - As Europe's leaders forged a new common policy on rescuing refugees at sea, one small ship came to embody the battle for the soul of the continent.



The MV Lifeline soared to notoriety this week after it refused to hand over 233 refugees and migrants it rescued to Libyan authorities.



The vessel, operated by German charity Mission Lifeline, picked the refugees up just outside Libya's 12-mile territorial waters on June 21. What followed pitted governments against freelance search-and-rescuers.




"After a while, a Libyan coast guard boat approached us and told us to hand [over] the migrants to them," Lifeline co-founder Axel Steier told Al Jazeera.



"They wanted to bring back the migrants to Libya where they would be put [in] jail. So we said … there is no way for us to hand [over] the migrants," he said.



The Lifeline was operating under the coordination of the Italian coastguard, which effectively seconded the Libyan coastguard's request.



"The Italians … provided us with case numbers, but actually they handed over these cases to the Libyans and said to us, 'the Libyans take responsibility for this rescue'," Steier said.



"We think that Italians are breaking international law, because Libya is not safe and the people are crowded in such prisons, they face malnutrition there, torture and rape for sure, so we are sure this is not a solution and should stop very soon."



Changing European mood



The Lifeline spent six days at sea, unable to find a European port that would accept its refugees, reflecting how attitudes in Europe have hardened since the anti-migration government of Giuseppe Conte took power in Italy.



Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said the Lifeline "went against international rules and ignored directions given by Italian authorities".



It was, however, allowed to dock in Malta on Friday.



France had earlier agreed to take in some of the refugees and migrants aboard the ship, but French President Emmanuel Macron accused the rescue boat of "playing into the hands of smugglers by reducing the risks of the journey".



Veronique Fayet, head of the French NGO Secours Catholique, said the leaders' words "are very violent for charities like ours who are very active with migrants and who do not see any similarity between ourselves and people smuggling".



The idea of offshoring migrant camps - and the humanitarian responsibility that goes with rescue - now seems to be at the heart of Europe's thinking.



Last year, Italy agreed to provide Libya with coast guard vessels, in return for the Libyan authorities holding back refugees who try to cross to Europe. Amnesty International estimates that Libya prevented 20,000 from crossing last year, reducing flows by 78 percent. It's not just that Italy has been keen to uphold its arrangement as a blueprint. Countries like Austria, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Denmark and Slovakia are inclined to support it.



Those same states have refused to participate in a redistribution of asylum applicants crowding the EU's external border states, Greece, Italy, France, Malta and Spain.



That redistribution was a central plank of the Central European Asylum Policy, which now appears to be unravelling.



Growing support for resettlement outside the EU



The idea is catching on with the European Commission (EC). An EC draft document leaked days before the summit said: "We will support and organise more protection and reception capacity outside the EU as well as resettlement (on a voluntary basis) while fully respecting legal guarantees in the field of asylum."



The document also said political leverage would be used to persuade countries that produce migrants, to keep them at home.



"We will broaden the negotiation framework with countries of origin, using legal migration pathways (vocational training, studies, work) and visa policy as leverage. We will apply adequate conditionality in our bilateral relations with them."



A visit to Malta's reception centre for refugees suggests why Europe has second thoughts about bringing refugees to Europe. Refugees from sub-Saharan countries milled around the centre, set beside a ship breaker's yard.



They have nothing to do but sit in a dilapidated cafe. The World Cup played on a flat-screen TV, mixing with the sound of dominos being slapped against wooden tables, as the beached hulls of merchantmen tower above them. 



Some sold cheap clothing and perfume. None wanted to talk or be photographed. The air smelled of untreated sewage.



Even this tumbledown nonchalance is a victory of sorts. Steier describes the terror felt by Lifeline's passengers at the prospect of returning to Libya.



Many had crossed the desert from Sudan at great expense, discomfort and danger.



"When the Libyan coastguard arrived, people feared a lot and one man was coming to the captain and got down on his knees and praying, 'don't hand us over, don't hand us over', and afterwards he took our captain in his arms and said, 'thank you, thank you, thank you', and was crying."



Steier also thinks the Libyan coastguard is involved in smuggling operations.



"In Libya you have to pay for a ride on these [refugee] boats, it costs about 600 dollars. If you get caught by the coast guard maybe they bring you back to an official disembarkation point, or you get sold to the smugglers, and after you are owned by your smuggler you face torture.



"They send torture videos to the family to get another time 600 dollars and then they send out again. This is the money game with the people in Libya, which also involves the Libyan coastguard."

A case has been filed against Italy at the European Court of Human Rights for sending migrants and refugees back to camps where torture and ill treatment may occur – a principle known as refoulment under the Geneva Convention. Should the court uphold the plaintiff, Italy’s policy would have to change. The Italian coast guard did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Steier says Lifeline is in possession of such a video from one of the people it rescued, and will release it in the coming fortnight.
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