Footage has emerged that appears to show the Libyan coastguard firing on a boat in distress carrying migrant families in the Mediterranean Sea.
Rescue workers from the German organisation Sea-Watch recorded the coastguard patrol vessel apparently trying to ram the small wooden boat and firing shots in an attempt to force the people onboard back to Libya.
In a statement about Wednesday’s incident, Sea-Watch said: “During our mission with our Sea-Watch reconnaissance aircraft Seabird on June 30, at 1.39pm, we overheard communication about a position of a boat carrying 50 people and many children inside the Maltese search and rescue zone.”
It went on to say that the pilot had then spotted the Libyan coastguard boat, supplied by Italy to help Tripoli control the flow of migrants in Mediterranean: “Seabird flew towards the case and spotted the so-called Libyan coastguard vessel PB 648 – Ras Jadir.”
Sea-Watch found a blue wooden boat carrying dozens of migrants, including children, and asked the rescue coordination centre in Malta, via email and phone, to intervene. According to the German NGO, the Maltese authorities said they were “investigating”.
“We witnessed the brutal attack by the so-called Libyan coastguard and recorded the situation before leaving the scene due to a shortage of fuel,” said Sea-Watch.
The video from Wednesday, obtained by the Guardian, appears to show the Libyan coastguard firing at least two shots in the direction of the boat, as they tried to ram the migrant vessel. Libyan officers threw objects at the passengers, and pulled a rope with a buoy behind it to “catch” the wooden boat.
“Europe’s partners of the so-called Libyan coastguard are approvingly accepting the death of people on the move,” said Felix Weiss of Sea-Watch’s Airborne Operations.
“Those who shoot at refugees and try to capsize their boats are not there to save them. The EU must immediately end cooperation with the so-called Libyan coastguard. European states like Malta must take back responsibility for their rescue zones and fulfil their duty to rescue.”
Flavio Di Giacomo, Italy’s spokesman for the UN migration agency, the International Organization for Migration, called the video “disturbing”.
The migrant boat was able to avoid the interception and arrived on the island of Lampedusa the next day, the same morning as another boat capsized off Sicily’s coast, leaving seven women confirmed dead and nine missing.
Almost 700 people have died so far in 2021 while trying to cross the central Mediterranean Sea, according to the IOM’s Missing Migrants Project. Meanwhile, more than 19,000 migrants have reached Italy, three times as many as during the same period last year, according to Italy’s interior ministry.
The Libyan authorities, coordinated by Maltese and Italian officials, and with the support of commercial ships and private vessels, have, according to the New York-based aid organisation the International Rescue Committee, intercepted and returned to Libya more than 13,000 people during the first six months of 2021 – more than the 11,891 intercepted throughout all of 2020.
On 14 June 2021, after being rescued by the Gibraltar-flagged supply ship Vos Triton in international waters, about 170 people were handed over to the Libyan coastguard and returned there in what a report by the migrant aid organisations Mediterranea Saving Humans, Sea-Watch, WatchTheMed and Alarm Phone called “pushback by proxy”.
“The survivors, who had decided to risk their lives to escape Libya, should have been brought to a place of safety as is prescribed by international maritime law,” the report said. “Instead, they were placed in detention upon arrival in Libya, a country which is not recognised neither as a safe country, nor as a ‘place of safety’ by the international community, and known to subject detainees to systematic forms of intentional violence, including sexual violence such as rape and torture.”
In June, a week after the incident, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) decided to suspend their services from two detention centres in Tripoli, due to the unacceptable violence detainees were subjected to.
The Libyan authorities were contacted for comment.