EU's Frontex, Malta helping Libya militia catch, return refugee boats: report

EU's Frontex, Malta helping Libya militia catch, return refugee boats: report
The EU border agency and Malta's government have reportedly been providing a Libyan militia with invaluable help to drag refugees aboard boats back to Libya.
3 min read
11 December, 2023
The TBZ militia has reportedly been using Frontex alerts to locate and pull back boats carrying refugees [Jesus Merida/SOPA/LightRocket via Getty-file photo]

The European Union's Frontex border agency and Malta's government have provided a brutal Libyan militia with coordinates to carry out "pullbacks" of boats carrying refugees trying to reach Europe, according to a new investigative report.

A vessel operated by the Tareq Bin Zeyad (TBZ) militia - run by Saddam Haftar, the son of notorious Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar - has been able to catch and return some 1,000 people crossing the Mediterranean Sea on refugee vessels since May of this year, Lighthouse Reports said.

The TBZ boat was only able to find the boats and conduct the pullbacks thanks to coordinates received from Maltese and Frontex surveillance planes, the report said.

Coordinates were received in three ways - direct communication through a Frontex mayday alert to all vessels within range;  coordinates given by Frontex to Tripoli, who then gave the information to TBZ; and direct communication from Malta's air force.

Frontex said it had issued a mayday alert because a vessel was far away from the shore, overcrowded, and apparently without life-saving equipment. Further analysis showed that safer options were available, according to Lighthouse.

"Merchant ships were sailing nearby – much closer than the TBZ ship – and NGO vessels or the Maltese or Italian coast guards could have assisted," Lighthouse said.

Malta's air force did not deny it had sent coordinates to TBZ.

Live Story

Lighthouse spoke to several refugees who had been on board the boats and were dragged back to Libya; all of the refugees spoken to said that they had experienced abuse at the hands of TBZ after the pullback.

The EU has long been condemned for assisting Libyan authorities well known for their abuse and brutal detention of refugees and migrants, many of them from elsewhere in Africa, to stop the flow of refugees and migrants into Europe.

More than 2,500 migrants died or went missing while trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe in the first nine months of 2023, the UN said.

The TBZ militia is a key part of the self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), which is led by Khalifa Haftar and rules over much of eastern and southern Libya.

Haftar was a former general in the Libyan army until he was captured by the Chad military in 1986 and later defected to the US.

Since Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011, his militia force has tried to carve out territory in Libya and launched a failed offensive to take Tripoli in 2019, resulting in further destabilisation in the country.

TBZ has forcibly removed "thousands of refugees and migrants" from southern Libya and has been involved in the forced displacement of "thousands of Libyan families" during Haftar's various military campaigns since 2019, according to Amnesty International.

There have also been reports of torture and ill-treatment of refugees in detention camps run by militias linked to both Haftar militia and the internationally-recognised government in Tripoli.