Fortress Europe: The rise to power of Libya's coastguard

A Libyan coast guardsman stands on a boat during the rescue of 147 illegal immigrants attempting to reach Europe off the coastal town of Zawiyah, 45 kilometres west of the capital Tripoli, on June 27, 2017.
8 min read
22 February, 2022

“Our ship is constantly being followed by the Libyan assets, and telling us to leave Libyan waters - even though we are in an international search and rescue zone,” the crew of a humanitarian vessel on mission off the coast of Libya told The New Arab

“They are threatening our crew, saying they will bring them to Libya.” 

Over the last five years, violations by the Libyan Coast Guard have been repeatedly filmed and recounted by victims and eyewitnesses. In videos taken from the sea and air, they have been seen shooting at heavy-laden inflatable boats, beating people during disembarkation, and throwing petrol cans onto boats as they approach. 

When returned to land, people detained by the coastguard at sea face appalling conditions in Libya’s brutal detention system - if they make it there at all.

NGOs operating in the country and eyewitnesses speak of detainees being ‘lost’ in transit between disembarkation and detention, perhaps sold or killed along the way. 

"Tens of thousands of refugees are captured by the EU funded Libyan border force each year, ending up in prisons where accounts of rape, abuse - and even murder - are commonplace"

The relationship between Libya’s most cohesive, well-equipped security force and the European Union is a matter of public record. Since 2017, member states have provided the Libyan Coast Guard with millions of Euros in training, equipment and, most importantly, high-speed vessels to catch and apprehend boats leaving Libya’s shores. 

And on their own terms, the tactics are working. The number of people reaching Italy by sea fell by 44% from 2017 to 2021, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

Tens of thousands of refugees crossing the world’s most dangerous migration route each year are captured by the EU funded Libyan border force, ending up in prisons where accounts of rape, abuse - and even murder - are commonplace. 

But how did Libya's coastguard come to be such an integral part of European frameworks to stop migrants crossing the Mediterranean? What is their reputation inside Libya? And how do they really operate at sea?

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Rise to prominence

“It’s telling that the only institution that has been systematically rehabilitated inside Libya since 2011 is the Coast Guard,” says Marwa Mohammed, head of advocacy at Lawyers for Justice in Libya (LFJL). 

“Despite much talk of security sector reform and outside training, Libya still has no functional police force that can uphold the rule of law and security across the country. The Coast Guard, however, has been supported and functions”, she told The New Arab.

While Libya has lurched from one political crisis to the next, the coastguard always seems to make it out unscathed.

According to Mohammed, in 2012, the coastguard was under-resourced and lacked manpower. At the time, there was little appeal for armed groups to join up. Once it began to receive attention, funds, and equipment from EU member states and institutions, it soon became a much more lucrative prospect. 

“In many senses, the Libyan Coast Guard is the perfect loophole to the principle of non-refoulement - and answers lots of unsavoury questions about pushbacks that were happening off Europe’s own shores,” she said, when asked about how the coast guard became a cornerstone of Europe’s anti-migration policy.

Since 2017, EU member states have provided the Libyan Coast Guard with millions of Euros in training, equipment, and high-speed vessels. [Getty]

“Outsourcing the problem was contingent on having a legitimate counterpart. The Skhirat agreement in late 2015, and the imposing of the GNA at the time, ensured that the training of the Coast Guard could go ahead and its mission fulfilled, essentially stopping the arrivals to Europe by intercepting and returning migrants and refugees to Libya,” she explained.

Asked about the coast guard’s alliances on land, Mohammed said, “There is a chain of command, there is a structure - it operates under control. They report to the Ministry of Defence. There are some rogue militias that try to get in on the act, but it’s fairly well organised.”

A key turning point for the coastguard was the creation of the Libyan Search and Rescue zone by the International Maritime Organisation, urged on by the EU and Italy. International recognition has enabled the coastguard to intercept boats crossing the sea nearly a hundred miles off Libya’s coast.

Despite failing to meet the basic international requirements to operate search and rescue missions - genuine ports of safety that can protect the vulnerable, or independent rescue coordination centres - the expansion of the Libyan Coast Guard’s sphere of activity has turned the Mediterranean into a hotly contested zone, where NGO vessels and Libyan boats are in constant direct competition to reach overcrowded, unseaworthy boats trying to cross the sea. 

"It's telling that the only institution that has been systematically rehabilitated inside Libya since 2011 is the Coast Guard"

How do Libyans view the coastguard?

“Libyans are divided by the work of the coast guard. Those that do support them tend to be complicit in some way. To a greater or lesser extent, a significant portion of the population has a stake in the systems which keep migrants detained in Libya,” says Tarek Lamloum, of the Tripoli-based Belady Foundation. 

According to Lamloum, young Libyans in need of any stable income in the fragmentation and chaos of the country’s economy often end up working for security services like the coastguard.

“The extent to which people depend on security services for their livelihood means that Libyan society doesn’t speak out against the violations they commit,” he told TNA

“Of course, some people do believe that they are lawless militias concerned only with money, or that they’ve sold themselves to implement Italy’s policies in Libya,” Lamloum explained.

Speaking about Libyan attitudes to migration in the country, Marwa Mohammed of LFJL said that “there is an unfounded fear that giving migrants any sort of status is tantamount to naturalisation, which would threaten the demographic makeup of the country”.

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“During the Gaddafi era, with his pan-African aspirations, Libyans became resentful towards Africa. Gaddafi spent massive amounts of money in investment in Africa in infrastructure and elsewhere - when nothing of that scale was being spent or developed in the country. But of course, there is also the xenophobia and racism - that is also very much true,” she said.

“Libyans don’t want migrants in the country - but they need them. It’s a rentier state, and Libyans don’t do the hard labour like construction and sanitation work. That presence is a love-hate relationship. Without migrant workers, the country would come to a standstill,” Mohammed added.

“The irony is that while most Libyans don’t want the migrants, one of the most functional parts of the Libyan state, the Libyan Coast Guard, is going out into international waters and threatening NGO ships and taking migrants back to Libya.”

The Libyan Coast Guard were contacted repeatedly for the opportunity to comment but did not respond. Their social media presence, however, projects an image of humanitarian work, performing rescues and protecting vulnerable migrants. 

Libya coastguard [Getty]
The relationship between Libya's most cohesive, well-equipped security force and the European Union is a matter of public record. [Getty]

Search and rescue?

To understand how the coast guard operates at sea, The New Arab spoke to MSF-Sea and other NGO vessels who regularly encounter Libyan vessels while performing rescues in international waters all year round. 

“The Libyan Coast Guard has become a constant external pressure on the work we do. It changes the atmosphere of the mission knowing we are in competition with them to reach people before they do,” says Caroline Wielleman, currently at sea with MSF vessel Geo-Barents. 

“We often arrive late to see the Coast Guard apprehending people who we were attempting to rescue. This is very difficult for our crew to witness, knowing that there is no ‘safety’ for those who are in the custody of the coast guard,” she told me. 

“Many people we rescue have repeated interactions with the Coast Guard, bringing with them accounts of serious abuses and violations. We once met someone who had been apprehended 11 times trying to make it to safety across the Mediterranean.”

"To a greater or lesser extent, a significant portion of the population has a stake in the systems which keep migrants detained in Libya"

According to an activist working for another NGO in the Mediterranean who preferred to remain anonymous, Libyan assets are currently tailing their vessel at the time of writing. 

“Our crews are regularly threatened with being apprehended and taken to Libya if we don’t leave ‘their’ waters. This is clearly something that they cannot do, they are in international waters, we have a right to be there - they cannot come on board and arrest our crew,” she said. 

When discussing the coastguard’s own tactics, it becomes clear that competing interests between Europe and Libya come into play. 

“They only do rescues - and when I say rescues, they are more like violent arrests - when there is visibility, when the international community knows that the boat is there. They have to be seen earning the money that the EU pay them,” she told TNA

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“With the resources that they have, if they wanted to, they could basically halt crossings from Libya. But while Europe tries to halt the flow of migration from Libya, it’s in the Coast Guard’s financial and political interests to keep letting some boats leave its waters - while detaining others in conditions that don’t respect even their basic human rights.”

What is clear from these conversations is that from both sides of the Mediterranean, shared interests in controlling and manipulating the flow of migration will keep the Libyan Coast Guard operating at sea for the foreseeable future.   

Austin Cooper is a freelance writer for The New Arab, specialising in Libyan politics and new migration trends. 

Follow him on Twitter: @AustinPatrickC