Climate migration will worsen the brutality in the Mediterranean

In July 2018, an Italian-flagged oil supply ship called the Asso Ventotto that was crossing the Mediterranean Sea encountered a stalled rubber raft carrying 101 desperate migrants. Trying to make the dangerous journey from Libya to Europe, they had reached international waters when the supply ship rescued them and its captain opted to take them not to a port of safety in Europe, as required by law, but back to a gulag of migrant detention facilities in Libya where the United Nations and others have documented systematic torture, rape, extortion, forced labour and death.

In October this year, the captain of that supply ship, Giuseppe Sotgiu, paid a heavy price for his decision: an Italian judge sentenced him to a year in prison for violating humanitarian law. The painful irony of this conviction is that Sotgiu is headed to jail for what EU officials have been doing on a far grander scale for several years: pushing migrants back to a place of extreme human rights abuses.

Since at least 2017, the European Union, led by Italy, has trained and equipped the Libyan Coast Guard to serve as a proxy maritime force, whose central purpose is to stop migrants from reaching European shores. It is highly effective in this mission thanks to aerial intelligence provided by the EU border agency, Frontex.

Flying drones and aeroplanes over the Mediterranean, Frontex locates migrant rafts, then alerts the Italians, who, in turn, inform the Libyan authorities. Once captured by the Libyan Coast Guard, these migrants are then delivered into a dozen or so detention centres run by militias.

For the EU and for the ship captains working the Mediterranean, the challenge of how best to handle desperate migrants fleeing hardships in their native countries is only going to grow more pronounced. Climate change is expected to displace 216 million people across the globe by 2050. Rising seas, desertification, famine, etc will drive the desperate to places like Europe and the United States, testing the moral character and political imagination of countries better prepared to survive an overheated planet.

And the big players in that global drama, the men and women working commercial ships in the Mediterranean, will find themselves ever more frequently in an impossible bind. Those captains who, unlike Sotgiu, abide by humanitarian law and decide to bring the migrants to Europe also can face dire consequences.

In August 2020, for instance, the crew of a Danish-flagged oil tanker called the Maersk Etienne rescued 27 migrants, including a pregnant woman and a child, at the request of Maltese authorities. Malta then denied the Maersk ship entry to its port to offload the migrants, leading to a long and costly standoff that ended only after the migrants were handed over to a humanitarian NGO.

Italian prosecutors later alleged that Maersk had paid the NGO more than $100,000 to take the migrants in a possible violation of immigration laws. Maersk called the payment a donation meant to help the NGO cover the costs of assisting the migrants.

But many migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean never make it onto merchant ships because they are instead caught by the Libyan Coast Guard. Despite its deadly track record of dealing with migrants and its extensive links with militias, the Libyan Coast Guard, continues to draw strong EU support. For example, in 2020, the EU supplied its fleet with four new speed boats so that it could more effectively capture migrants and send them to the same detention centres that the UN has described as being involved in state-sponsored crimes against humanity.

During a reporting trip to Libya, earlier this year, I caught a glimpse of the horrors that migrants go through in these facilities. Even though the EU routinely denies financing the abuse of migrants in Libya, an investigation by The Outlaw Ocean Project, my non-profit news organisation in Washington, DC, found evidence to the contrary. In fact, funds from the EU and member states, sometimes routed through aid organisations, pay for most of what happens to migrants sent through the brutal detention system in this failed state.

This money bought the shipping containers that double as port offices for the Libyan Coast Guard staff, and the touchscreen tablets used by aid workers who count the migrants as they disembark in Tripoli. It pays for many of the buses used to transport the migrants from the port to the detention centres, and the blankets, winter clothes, and slippers they often receive upon arrival.


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