Col. Rida Ben Issa has the thankless job of overseeing a small patch of the longest African coastline on the Mediterranean, which is a steppingstone for Africans and Arabs willing to risk their lives to seek asylum in Europe.
Not everyone completes the sea journey, as was illustrated by a series of horrific shipwrecks this month that pushed the European Union into crisis mode and shone a spotlight on Libya, a lawless nation divided into warring factions. On April 19, a vessel carrying 850 migrants – a tally based on the testimony of 28 survivors – capsized off the Libyan coast en route to the Italian island of Lampedusa in the deadliest known shipwreck of migrants trying to reach Europe.
Mr. Ben Issa heads 1,039 coast guard personnel charged with monitoring the mid-section of Libya, a coastal stretch running from Khums to Bin Jawad, dipping down along the Gulf of Sirte. Together these men are responsible for 21 monitoring points, but share fewer than 10 boats among them. Meanwhile, Europe's migration crisis is set to intensify with the onset of summer.
“We have two small boats, five rubber boats, one fishing vessel, and a tanker for a 300-mile-sector area,” he lists with a hoarse voice, pausing to field a frantic phone call reporting a fresh intercept. “We need substantial support and equipment. We have not been able to provide uniforms in the past four years. If we get proper support, I assure you we can stop trafficking from Zuwara to Misrata.”
Ben Issa spoke at his Spartan office in Misrata, a port city east of the capital, Tripoli. Former revolutionaries from this city gave muscle to a political faction that seized control of Tripoli last year and is now locked into a bitter dispute with a rival government in Libya's east that has international backing. And with the country at war, curbing the flow of migrants to Europe isn't a priority and is given scant resources.
Massoud Mouftah, who holds the position of defense minister for the internationally recognized government based in the eastern city of Bayda, is resigned to that grim reality.
“Protecting the Libyan coastline requires an effective naval force, and we lack such a force. We cannot claim that we control the Libyan coastline,” he tells the Christian Science Monitor. Land borders are likewise “open and out of control,” he adds.
Misunderstandings with Italian navy
Back in Misrata, Ben Issa insists his men can get the job done but that politics are a stumbling block. He complains of frequent misunderstandings with the Italian navy, which impounded four patrol boats that were sent from Libya for repairs. Internal Libyan instability or the absence of a clear official counterpart, he says, is no excuse for the EU’s failure to help Libya.
“If the international community continues to treat this matter as one linked to two rival governments, rather than a coastal crisis – if that’s their reasoning for not providing assistance, then Europe will soon be flooded with immigrants,” he warns. “This is a matter of human lives out at sea, who fall prey to traffickers, who risk their lives by stepping into rotten boats.”
Still angry from a murky naval spat with Italy off the coast of Misrata this month – it involved a Libyan tugboat and a Sicilian fishing boat – he accuses Europe of applying a double standard: Treating his team as legitimate coast guard officers when it comes to cracking down on illegal migration, but taking the opposite tack when fishing rows or other disputes arise.
“When it comes to migrants, they see us as coast guards, but lately they accuse us of being militias, this is slowing us down,” he complains.
Ben Issa also blames the series of governments that succeeded Muammar Qaddafi for failing to build up Libya's coast guard, signing slow-paced and shady contracts for desperately needed equipment that never materialized. In the absence of state support, Misrata’s local civil and military council, with the help of businessmen, bankroll the coast guard.
Today the most prized possessions of the coast guard are nostalgic memorabilia: a battered vessel that was used to smuggle weapons to the besieged city during the 2011 conflict that killed Mr. Qaddafi, as well as two tankers that were intercepted smuggling oil, an important source of revenue for Libya's feuding armed factions.
No Italian motor boats waiting
The main departure points for migrants setting sail from Libya to Europe are the western ports of Misrata, Tripoli, and Zuwara, according to International Organization for Migration. Many migrants are refugees from war-torn nations such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria. Others are economic migrants from West Africa who reach Libya via Niger.
Italy, which received 25,703 sea migrants from Libya and Egypt in the first four months of 2015, is usually the first port of call.
“We assume that there are Italian motor boats that wait across the Libyan waters to pick up these immigrants and ship them off to Italy,” says Ben Issa. “The rubber rafts that are used by traffickers are not strong enough to carry people all the way across the Mediterranean. Their fuel capacity can only take them across a 60-mile-distance. That’s the very spot where the Italian boats wait to take these immigrants.”
If the number and location of recent deaths in the Mediterranean are any indication, that assumption is flawed. The IOM documented 1,780 migrant deaths off the waters of Greece, Libya, and Tunisia in the first quarter of 2015. By comparison, 97 people lost their lives in this way in the same period last year.
“This month we have witnessed an unprecedented number of fatalities at sea,” said Federico Soda, IOM’s Regional Director for the Mediterranean. “Among the arrivals there are a growing number of sub-Saharan migrants. Some of them always had the goal of reaching Europe. Others decided to risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean after having lived for months or even years in Libya, a country that has become too dangerous, particularly for labor migrants from West Africa.”
'Send us back home'
Libya’s lack of a central authority, ambiguous judicial system, reliance on foreign labor, and porous borders have further blurred the lines of legal and illegal migration. Thousands of migrants caught by militias languish in poorly run detention centers across Libya; international organizations have scaled back their presence because of increasing lawlessness. Countless people, like Senegalese mechanic Mussa Sila, are stuck in limbo.
“They found me in the ocean,” says Mr. Sila, who lost three relatives at sea and is held along with 900 other would-be migrants in the Karareem reception center on the outskirts of Misrata. “If we stay here, waiting, we are going to fall sick. There are too many people. Since we cannot go to Europe, they should send us back.”
In the cramped women’s quarters, a group of Somali teenage girls who made the journey from Mogadishu beg to use a cell phone, distraught that their relatives may fear them dead after two months of no news. An old woman who took a desert road from Algeria pleads: “Send us back home in a convoy of cars, the same way we were brought in. One convoy of fifty cars and this problem would be solved.”