Migrants Leaving Libya Who Hijacked a Merchant Ship that Rescued Them Have Landed in Europe

Migrants from Africa, Youtube
The captain of an empty merchant ship returning to Libya was instructed by the owner of the ship, who had been directed by Libyan naval guards, to rescue migrants sailing away from Libya. There were 100 migrants, including 15 women and 47 claiming to be minors. The captain reported that the migrants were unarmed, but did outnumber his crew, and used force to turn the ship toward Italy or Malta. Malta took possession of the ship and arrested some of the migrants. The fact that the migrants made it to European soil makes it unlikely that they will be sent back to Libya.

Italy refused the migrants. Due to the anti-illegal immigration policies of Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, migrant arrivals in Italy were down dramatically last year to 23,370 from nearly 120,000 a year earlier. Deaths at sea also sank to the lowest levels in five years, 2,299, according to the International Organization for Migration.

VALLETTA, Malta (AP) — A group of migrants desperate not to go back to Libya made it safely to Europe on Thursday after commandeering the oil tanker that rescued them at sea — a drama that underlined contradictions in Europe’s migration policies and could discourage future rescues.

Both Italy and Malta initially refused entry to the Palau-flagged El Hiblu 1. But Maltese armed forces intercepted it overnight after confirming with the captain that he was navigating toward Europe against his will. Special forces boarded it and restored control to the crew.

The 100 migrants, including 15 women and 47 claiming to be minors, left the tanker in a port near the Maltese capital of Valletta; five were handcuffed after being detained on suspicion of being the ringleaders.

Italy’s hard-line interior minister called the hijacking the “the first act of piracy on the high seas with migrants.” But humanitarian groups rejected that label, saying they were victims of “Europe’s inhumane border policy,” citing reports that many migrants have been mistreated, raped and tortured in Libya.

The German humanitarian group Sea-Eye said its rescue ship, the Alan Kurdi, was in the area of the El Hiblu 1 when it heard radio communications between the tanker and a European aircraft monitoring the seas.

The aircraft asked the tanker to respond to two rubber boats, saying that the people on board were “in mortal danger” and that the Libyan coast guard was “out of service.” After the rescue, the captain reported to the aircraft that the migrants “are very upset and do not want to be brought back to Libya.” However, the captain said the Libyan capital of Tripoli was the tanker’s destination. 

Sea-Eye spokeswoman Carlotta Weibl said that they don’t have exact information of what happened aboard the El Hiblu 1, but that “we don’t see it as piracy because those people were claiming their right. It was completely illegal for a European plane to send them back to Libya.”

Migrants have long reported that commercial ships either ignore smugglers’ boats in distress, or merely stop to give them water, said Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui, humanitarian affairs adviser with Doctors Without Borders. Similar incidents could accelerate the trend.

“They are doomed whatever they do,” she said. “This is extremely disturbing for commercial ships. The shipping industry is trying to follow a tenant of international law, which is rescue. … But if you are a commercial ship on tight deadlines and you need to deliver goods, it is an impossible situation.”

The International Chamber of Shipping based in London expressed concern about the incident and said it would raise the issue with the U.N. International Maritime Organization.

“If a ship is directed to disembark rescued people in Libya, it creates a potential for conflict between the crew and desperate and frustrated people that might object to being returned,” ICS secretary-general Guy Platten said in a statement. He added that civilian merchant seafarers “can be severely affected by the traumatic situations they have to face, having complied with their legal and humanitarian obligation to come to the rescue of anyone found in distress at sea.”

The European Union has been training the Libyan coast guard in the hope that it will prevent migrants from entering international waters, where they have routinely been rescued, either by commercial ships or those run by humanitarian groups filling in the void after member countries significantly scaled down an EU operation in the Mediterranean.

But the contradiction lies in the fact that no EU member considers Libya, or any other northern African country, to be a “safe third country” where migrants can be returned without fear for their well-being. The EU also opposes the death penalty, and in extradition cases generally refuses to send people to countries where they might be killed or tortured.

Matthew Brook, the acting representative for the U.N. refugee agency in Libya, told reporters in Geneva that the conditions for many migrants in government-run detention centers in Libya were “terrible.” He relayed an anecdote from some migrants that electric shocks were administered to them in vats of water.

While Europe is reducing its own rescue mission, Italy and Malta have refused to accept aid group rescue ships in their ports. That has led to offshore standoffs with boats loaded with migrants, often weak from their journey and mistreatment in Libya, while EU nations haggle over their fate.

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