FRONTEX to launch new mission in Central Mediterranean – increased efforts to identify terrorists on migrant boats; Operation Themis to replace Triton

FRONTEX announced on 31 January that it is launching Joint Operation Themis effective 1 February.  Themis replaces Joint Operation Triton in effect since 2014.  The FRONTEX press statement does not provide many details as to what will change under JO Themis, though the FRONTEX statement says that “[t]he security component of Operation Themis will include collection of intelligence and other steps aimed at detecting foreign fighters and other terrorist threats at the external borders.”

Media reports also state that there will be an enhanced focus by FRONTEX on efforts to identify terrorists posing as boat refugees or migrants.  If this is a major new focus, one has to wonder whether this may be a solution in search of a problem.

The FRONTEX statement quotes FRONTEX director Leggeri as saying that “[w]e need to be better equipped to prevent criminal groups that try to enter the EU undetected. This is crucial for the internal security of the European Union.”  The Telegraph reported that “[t]he new naval operation in the Mediterranean was announced as it was claimed that up to 50 Islamic State fighters crossed the Mediterranean by boat from Tunisia and landed in Italy last year with the intention of carrying out terrorist attacks in Europe. The Guardian reported that Interpol drew up a list of suspected ISIL extremists who are believed to have arrived on the coast of Sicily between July and October last year. The list was reportedly sent by Interpol to the Italian interior ministry in November. Italian authorities and security experts were skeptical about the report, however. … Some Italian security analysts were doubtful about the story. ‘Terrorists never arrive in migrant boats – no serious terrorist organisation would take the risk of putting their trained people on board an unsafe boat which risks capsizing when hit by the first big wave,’ Andrea Margelletti, president of the Centre for International Studies, told the Italian news agency Adnkronos….”

FRONTEX Press Statement:

Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, is launching a new operation in the Central Mediterranean to assist Italy in border control activities.

The new Joint Operation Themis will begin on 1 February and will replace operation Triton, which was launched in 2014. Operation Themis will continue to include search and rescue as a crucial component. At the same time, the new operation will have an enhanced law enforcement focus. Its operational area will span the Central Mediterranean Sea from waters covering flows from Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Turkey and Albania.

Operation Themis will better reflect the changing patterns of migration, as well as cross border crime. Frontex will also assist Italy in tracking down criminal activities, such as drug smuggling across the Adriatic,” said Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri.

The security component of Operation Themis will include collection of intelligence and other steps aimed at detecting foreign fighters and other terrorist threats at the external borders.

“We need to be better equipped to prevent criminal groups that try to enter the EU undetected. This is crucial for the internal security of the European Union,” Leggeri said.

As part of Operation Themis, Frontex will continue its presence in the hotspots in Italy, where officers deployed by the agency will assist the national authorities in registering migrants, including taking their fingerprints and confirming their nationalities.

Frontex vessels will continue search and rescue operations under the coordination of the responsible Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres. Last year, Frontex assisted in the rescue of 38 000 people at sea in operations in Italy, Greece and Spain.

MSF operational update: Central Mediterranean & Libyan Operations: “It is not possible to provide meaningful medical care in a system of arbitrary detention that causes harm and suffering.”

MSF’s 29 January 2018 operational update.

Some key points:

  • The number of detainees [in Libyan detention centres] went down in December [2017] when thousands of people were mass repatriated to their countries of origin by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
  • The majority of physical and mental health problems requiring medical assistance still directly relate to the substandard conditions of detention.
  • It is not possible to provide meaningful medical care in a system of arbitrary detention that causes harm and suffering.
  • Italian ships have been deployed in Libyan territorial waters as part of a broader European strategy to seal off the coast of Libya and “contain” refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in a country where they are exposed to extreme and widespread violence and exploitation.
  • The MSF team onboard Aquarius witnessed refugees and migrants aboard unseaworthy vessels being intercepted by the Libyan Coastguard in international waters as EU military assets at the scene looked on.
  • Although these interceptions are presented as “rescue operations” and are celebrated by the Libyan Coastguard and their EU partners, the reality is that migrants and refugees are not being returned to a port of safety.
  • [T]here are several entities operating along Libya’s vast coastline that claim to be the Libyan Coastguard. Contact points on land and at sea were unclear, as was the chain of command.

Excerpts from MSF operational update:

Libya: dismal conditions in detention centres hinders medical treatment

In Tripoli, a huge increase in the number of people detained in October and November [2017] resulted in extreme overcrowding and a dramatic deterioration of conditions inside the capital’s detention centres. In some locations, up to 2,000 men were crammed together in one cell without enough floor space to lie down. … From September to December 2017 the MSF team treated over 76 people for violence-related injuries including broken limbs, electrical burns and gunshot wounds.

Under these circumstances, the impact of MSF’s medical work was minimal. The team was able to help only a small percentage of all those in need of urgent treatment and it was not possible to follow up medical cases. … Most medical complaints were related to the conditions of detention, with overcrowding and inadequate latrine and drinking water provision resulting in acute upper respiratory tract infections, musculoskeletal pain and acute watery diarrhoea. …

The number of detainees went down in December [2017] when thousands of people were mass repatriated to their countries of origin by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Conditions inside detention centres in Tripoli improved and there was less mistreatment and violence against patients. In the detention centres that MSF visits, teams are now able to access cells to provide medical care to refugees and migrants that remain in arbitrary detention. The majority of physical and mental health problems requiring medical assistance still directly relate to the substandard conditions of detention.

Few international organisations are able to work in Libya due to widespread violence and insecurity. Those who do – including MSF – do not have full and unhindered access to all detention centres where refugees and migrants are being held. It is not possible to provide meaningful medical care in a system of arbitrary detention that causes harm and suffering. An overwhelming number of detainees have already endured alarming levels of violence and exploitation in Libya, and during harrowing journeys from their home countries. As such, MSF reiterates its call for an end to the arbitrary detention of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in Libya.

Aquarius continues sea rescues as numbers attempting Mediterranean crossing fall

In the central Mediterranean, the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants rescued at sea and brought to safety in Italy has fallen since last year. Aquarius, a dedicated search and rescue vessel run by MSF in cooperation with SOS MEDITERRANEE, rescued 3,645 people in the period September – December 2017. This is fewer people compared to the same period in 2016 when 5,608 people were brought to a port of safety in Italy.

The fall in numbers appears to be due to fewer boats leaving Libya. Reasons for this are unclear, though likely factors include the weather and political developments on the ground in Libya. There have been media reports that local militias are being paid off by Italy to prevent departures. Italian ships have been deployed in Libyan territorial waters as part of a broader European strategy to seal off the coast of Libya and “contain” refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in a country where they are exposed to extreme and widespread violence and exploitation….

Unclear future for refugees amid challenging rescue environment for Aquarius

Carrying out search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean is becoming even more challenging and complex. People who manage to escape Libya are increasingly being turned back at sea with the EU-supported Libyan Coastguard active in international waters. The MSF team onboard Aquarius witnessed refugees and migrants aboard unseaworthy vessels being intercepted by the Libyan Coastguard in international waters as EU military assets at the scene looked on. On 31 October, 24 November and 8 December, Aquarius was instructed to standby and was forced to watch as hundreds of people were pushed back to Libya by the Libyan Coastguard.

Although these interceptions are presented as “rescue operations” and are celebrated by the Libyan Coastguard and their EU partners, the reality is that migrants and refugees are not being returned to a port of safety. The crimes committed against refugees and migrants in Libya are widely known and have generated international outrage. Under no circumstances should migrants and refugees aboard vessels in distress in international waters be returned to Libya, they must be brought to a port of safety.

In September, Aquarius was instructed to conduct three rescues in international waters under the coordination of the Libyan Coastguard. These unprecedented and highly unusual instructions from the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome presented MSF with an impossible choice. Fortunately for each rescue, Aquarius was able to render the necessary assistance and took all rescued men, women and children to a port of safety in Italy. In that situation, it was not possible to verify who exactly was coordinating rescue operations as there are several entities operating along Libya’s vast coastline that claim to be the Libyan Coastguard. Contact points on land and at sea were unclear, as was the chain of command. As there have also been numerous violent incidents in recent months between the Libyan Coastguard and the few other remaining humanitarian organisations running dedicated search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean, the security of our team was paramount during these interactions.

It’s unclear what the future holds for refugees and migrants who find themselves along the Central Mediterranean route, but with Libya remaining riven by widespread violence and insecurity, with no unified government, a plethora of armed groups, and active fighting ongoing in several parts of the country, it does not look like an end to their suffering is in sight.

MSF operational update: Central Mediterranean here.

Libyan Coast Guard Migrant Interceptions (“Pull-Backs”) Steadily Increasing

Per UNHCR, the number of migrants being intercepted and subject to forcible return to Libya by the Libyan Coast Guard is steadily increasing:

UNHCR Flash Update, 26 Jan. 2018 – So far in 2018, over 1,430 refugees and migrants were disembarked in Libya by the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG). In January 2018, UNHCR has observed an increase in numbers of rescue/interception operations conducted by the LCG when compared to the same month in 2017 (1,025 individuals) and previous months such as November (1,214 individuals) and December 2017 (1,157 individuals). During January, departures were predominantly recorded in the area east of Tripoli, near Garabulli, and to a lesser extent in areas around Sabratha and Zwara. UNHCR partner International Medical Corps provided medical assistance and distributed core relief items at disembarkation points and detention centres.

UNHCR Flash Update here.

ECtHR chamber judgment in J.R. and Others v. Greece finding no violations of ECHR in regard to detention of Afghan nationals in Vial migrant centre in Greece

Court press release here.  Chamber judgment here (only available in French). (See also Court’s Fact Sheet “Migrants in Detention” here.)

Excerpt from Court’s press release:

25 January 2018 – In today’s Chamber judgment in the case of J.R. and Others v. Greece (application no. 22696/16) the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been:

no violation of Article 5 § 1 (right to liberty and security) of the European Convention on Human Rights, a violation of Article 5 § 2 (right to be informed promptly of the reasons for arrest); no violation of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment); and no violation of Article 34 (right of individual application).

The case concerned the conditions in which three Afghan nationals were held in the Vial reception centre, on the Greek island of Chios, and the circumstances of their detention.

The Court found in particular that the applicants had been deprived of their liberty for their first month in the centre, until 21 April 2016 when it became a semi-open centre. The Court was nevertheless of the view that the one-month period of detention, whose aim had been to guarantee the possibility of removing the applicants under the EU-Turkey Declaration, was not arbitrary and could not be regarded as “unlawful” within the meaning of Article 5 § 1 (f). However, the applicants had not been appropriately informed about the reasons for their arrest or the remedies available in order to challenge that detention.

As to the conditions of detention in the centre, the Court noted the emergency situation facing the Greek authorities after significant numbers of migrants had arrived and the ensuing material difficulties. It observed that several NGOs had visited the centre and had partly confirmed the applicants’ allegations, but found that the conditions were not severe enough for their detention to be characterised as inhuman or degrading treatment had not been reached.  [***]

Court press release here.  Chamber judgment here (only available in French). (See also Court’s Fact Sheet “Migrants in Detention” here.)

IMIn Working Paper: Counting migrants’ deaths at the border: From civil society counter-statistics to (inter)governmental recuperation, C Heller, A Pécoud

International Migration Institute Network working paper by Charles Heller, Research Fellow at the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths, University of London and Antoine Pécoud, Professor of Sociology, University of Paris 13.  Article here.

Abstract: Migrant deaths in border-zones have become a major social and political issue, especially in the euro-Mediterranean region and in the context of the refugee/migrant crisis. While media, activists and policymakers often mention precise figures regarding the number of deaths, little is known about the production of statistical data on this topic. This paper explores the politics of counting migrant deaths in Europe. This statistical activity was initiated in the nineties by civil society organizations; the purpose was to shed light on the deadly consequences of ‘Fortress Europe’ and to challenge states’ control-oriented policies. In 2013, the International Organization for Migration also started to count migrants’ deaths, yet with a different political objective: humanitarian and life-saving activities become integrated in border management and the control of borders is expected to both monitor human mobility and save migrants’ lives. IOM thus depoliticises these statistics, while at the same time imitating an activity first associated with political contestation by civil society actors. Finally, the paper explores ways in which statistics on border deaths can be re-politicised to challenge states’ immigration policies in Europe.

Non‐technical summary: The deaths of migrants in the euro‐Mediterranean region constitute a major issue in the context of the migration crisis. Media regularly report of shipwrecks or of dead bodies found on Southern European shores, while European governments and the EU are under pressure, by civil society groups in particular, to find ways of ending a tragedy that is at odds with the continent’s commitment to peace and human rights. This paper explores the ways in which statistics on migrants’ deaths are collected. The first data on this topic came from NGOs in the nineties; their objective was to denounce the deadly consequences of European policies and to challenge control‐oriented policies. Today, however, statistics on border deaths are collected by an intergovernmental actor, the International Organization for Migration: rather than criticizing states, this organization aims at conciliating the control of human mobility with the prevention of deaths – thus moving towards a ‘humanitarian border’.

Article here.

Research shows lack of overarching coordination in criminal operations transporting people from the Horn of Africa into Northern Europe via Libya. Instead, transnational smuggling routes found to be highly segmented: each stage a competitive marketplace of “independent and autonomous” smugglers

Univ. of Cambridge press release here.  Dr Paolo Campana’s article in the European Journal of Criminology here.

University of Cambridge press release, 22 Jan. 2018:

Latest research shows a lack of overarching coordination or the involvement of any “kingpin”-style monopolies in the criminal operations illegally transporting people from the Horn of Africa into Northern Europe via Libya. Instead, transnational smuggling routes were found to be highly segmented: each stage a competitive marketplace of “independent and autonomous” smugglers – as well as militias and kidnappers – that must be negotiated by migrants fighting for a life beyond the Mediterranean Sea. […]

Dr Paolo Campana from Cambridge University’s Institute of Criminology conducted the research using evidence from the 18-month investigation by Italian prosecutors that followed the Lampedusa shipwreck, in which 366 people lost their lives. The work included data from wiretapped telephone conversations between smugglers at all stages, testimonies collected from migrants, interviews with police task force members, and background information on offenders.

“The smuggling ring moving migrants from the Horn of Africa to Northern Europe via Libya does not appear to have the thread of any single organisation running through it,” said Campana, whose findings are published today in the European Journal of Criminology. “This is a far cry from how Mafia-like organisations operate, and a major departure from media reports claiming that shadowy kingpins monopolise certain routes.” […]

“Authorities may wish to deliberately tarnish the reputation of smugglers in order to shut down their business,” said Campana.  “Criminal justice responses require the adoption of coordinated tactics involving all countries along the route to target these localised clusters of offenders simultaneously. “This is a market driven by exponential demand, and it is that demand which should be targeted. Land-based policies such as refugee resettlement schemes are politically difficult, but might ultimately prove more fruitful in stemming the smuggling tide than naval operations.”

COE HR Commissioner Seeks Information Regarding Italian Interception and Rescue Actions in Libyan Territorial Waters

Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muižnieks has requested information from the Italian government regarding the nature of Italy’s maritime interception operations being conducted within Libyan territorial waters, the type of support being provided to Libya for these operations, and the nature of any safeguards that Italy may have in place to prevent intercepted migrants from being exposed to a risk of torture or inhuman treatment if returned to Libya.

Muižnieks’ letter notes that while the 2012 Hirsi Jamaa judgment dealt with interceptions in international waters, the Court’s findings clearly appear applicable to Italian operations in Libyan territorial waters.

Excerpts from the HR Commissioner’s 28 September 2018 letter:

“…It is my understanding that the Italian government, at the invitation of the Libyan Government of National Accord, has deployed ships in Libyan territorial waters, with the stated aim to support the Libyan authorities in curbing migrant flows…

Although the Hirsi Jamaa judgment [Hirsi Jamaa and others v. Italy [GC] (App. no. 27765/090) 23 Feb. 2012] deals with interceptions in international waters, the Court’s findings continue, in my view, to be relevant also in the context of the situation which might arise from operations in Libyan territorial waters…

[H]anding over individuals to Libyan authorities or other groups in Libya would [in my view] expose them to a real risk of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.  The fact that such actions would be carried out in Libyan territorial waters does not absolve Italy from its obligations under the Convention.

Indeed on several occasions, the Court has found that obligations arising from the Convention may, under certain circumstances, also apply when a state party is acting wholly on the territory of a third country.  This may be the case when a state party to the Convention exercises effective control or authority over an individual on the territory or in the territorial waters of another state.  Such a situation may, in my view, arise, when Italian vessels intercept or rescue migrants in Libyan territorial waters.

…I would be grateful if you would clarify what kind of support operations your government expects to provide to the Libyan authorities in Libyan territorial waters and what safeguards Italy has put in place to ensure that persons, should they be intercepted or rescued by Italian vessels in Libyan territorial , are not subsequently exposed to a situation in which they would face a real risk of treatment or punishment contrary to Article 3…

In addition, in the light of the recently adopted Code of Conduct for non-governmental organisations involved in migrants’ rescue operations at sea, I would appreciate any information you may provide about measures to ensure that search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, including those conducted by non-governmental actors, can continue to be carried out effectively and in safety….”

Full text of letter here.

Reuters: New Armed Group May Be Responsible for Sudden Drop in Migrant Departures from Libya

Reuters’ article by Aidan Lewis and Steve Scherer: “An armed group is stopping migrant boats from setting off across the Mediterranean from a city west of Tripoli that has been a springboard for people smugglers, causing a sudden drop in departures over the past month, sources in the area said. … Sources in Sabratha, 70 km (45 miles) west of the capital, said the sudden drop had been caused by a new force in the seaside city, which is preventing migrants from leaving, often by locking them up. … The two Sabratha sources said the group was running a detention center for migrants who are turned back or taken from smugglers. One sent a picture of hundreds of migrants sitting in the sand in front of a high wall. … Frontex last week said ‘clashes in Sabratha’ contributed to July’s decline, also citing changeable weather and increased Libyan coastguard presence. The Sabratha sources were not aware of any clashes…..In the past, with no central authority to constrain them, smugglers have adapted and routes have shifted, as already is happening. Last week smugglers moved departures to east of Tripoli, near Al Khoms, Chris Catrambone, co-founder of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) charity, told Reuters. Three large rubber boats set out from the east, he said, while only a small boat with 26 people was found west of Tripoli. ‘The sea was like a lake last week and yet there were few boats,’ Catrambone said. Everyone on the Phoenix, a rescue vessel operated by MOAS, was taken aback because it was so unusual, he said….”  Full text here.

Statements from MSF, Save the Children, and Sea-Eye Regarding Suspension of SAR Activities in International Waters Off Libyan Coast in Response to Threats Issued by Libyan Coast Guard

Statements from Save the Children (here) and Sea-Eye (here).

MSF statement (here) – Full text: On 11 August 2017, the Libyan authorities publicly announced the establishment of a search and rescue (SAR) zone and restricted the access to humanitarian vessels into the international waters off the Libyan coasts. Immediately afterwards, the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome warned MSF about security risks associated with the threats publicly issued by the Libyan Coast Guard against humanitarian search and rescue (SAR) vessels operating in international waters.

Following these additional restrictions on independent humanitarian assistance and increasing blockade of migrants within Libya, MSF has decided to temporarily suspend the search and rescue activity of its ship, Prudence. The MSF medical support team will still assist the rescue capacity of the SOS Méditerranée-run boat Aquarius, which is currently patrolling in international waters.

“If these declarations are confirmed and the orders are implemented we see two grave consequences – there will be more deaths at sea and more people trapped in Libya,” declared Annemarie Loof, MSF’s operational manager. “If humanitarian ships are pushed out of the Mediterranean, there will be fewer ships in the area to rescue people from drowning. Those who will not drown will be intercepted and brought back to Libya, which we know is a place of lawlessness, arbitrary detention and extreme violence.” These declarations came barely a week after the announcement of the Italian Navy deployment inside Libyan waters aimed at increasing the capacity of Libyan coastguards to intercept migrant and refugees and send them back to Libya.

“The recent developments represent another worrying element of an increasingly hostile environment for lifesaving rescue operations,” said Brice de le Vingne, MSF’s Director of Operations.  “European states and Libyan authorities are jointly implementing a blockade on the ability of people to seek safety. This is an unacceptable assault on people’s lives and dignity.”

MSF requests Libyan authorities to rapidly confirm that they will adhere to and respect the internationally recognised legal obligation to rescue boats in distress, and that they will allow this to take place in international and Libyan waters.  MSF further requests that Libyan authorities clarify that all boats, operated by NGOs or anyone else, will be permitted to conduct these rescue activities unhindered and unharmed and that Libyan and Italian authorities will not interfere with the legally guaranteed right to disembark people in a place of safety.

“MSF refuses to be coopted into a system that aims at all cost to block people from seeking safety,” continues de le Vingne. “We call on the EU and Italian authorities to stop implementing deadly containment strategies that trap people in a country at war with no regard for their protection and assistance needs. Safe and legal pathways for refugees and migrants are urgently needed in order to reduce unnecessary death and suffering.”

IOM report: Up to 50 Somali, Ethiopian Migrants Deliberately Drowned by Smugglers off Yemen

IOM Press Release, 9 August: “Aden – Early this morning (09/08), a human smuggler, in charge of the boat, forced more than 120 Somali and Ethiopian migrants into the pitching sea as they approached the coast of Shabwa, a Yemeni Governorate along the Arabian Sea. The migrants had been hoping to reach countries in the Gulf via war-torn Yemen. Shortly after the tragedy, staff from IOM, the UN Migration Agency, found the shallow graves of 29 migrants on a beach in Shabwa, during a routine patrol. The dead had been buried rapidly by those who survived the smuggler’s deadly actions. IOM is working closely with the International Committee of the Red Cross to ensure appropriate care for the deceased migrants’ remains. … ‘The survivors told our colleagues on the beach that the smuggler pushed them to the sea, when he saw some ‘authority types’ near the coast,’ explained Laurent de Boeck, the IOM Yemen Chief of Mission. ‘They also told us that the smuggler has already returned to Somalia to continue his business and pick up more migrants to bring to Yemen on the same route. This is shocking and inhumane. The suffering of migrants on this migration route is enormous. Too many young people pay smugglers with the false hope of a better future,’ continued de Boeck. Since January 2017 to date, IOM estimates that around 55,000 migrants left the Horn of Africa to come to Yemen…”

Italian Navy Ship, Comandante Borsini, Visits Tripoli Naval Base

Libyan media reported that the Italian naval ship, Comandante Borsini, (in background of photo) just concluded a five day working visit to Libya at the Tripoli Naval Base which “saw Italian experts and technicians conducting a closeup assessment of the needs of Libya’s naval vessels….. [a Libyan naval spokesman] indicated that the maintenance that is to take place is part of activating the 2008 agreement in the part related to Naval and Coast Guard personnel.” “An Italian service vessel will arrive Tuesday in Tripoli Naval Base to kick off the service work. … [The spokesman] explained that there are no concealed agreements and no articles in the current deal that would violate Libya’s sovereignty, saying the Libyan part of the deal did not ask for any intervention or operations inside the territorial waters….”

2017-08-06_Comandante Borsini at Tripoli Harbour(2)

Comandante Borsini in background. Libyan Coastguard Patrol Boat (Pennant 654) in foreground.

2018-08-06_Comandanti Borsini at Tripoli