The 27 March hijacking of the Turkish-flagged tanker, El Hiblu 1, by rescued migrants offshore Libya, highlights the growing security, as well as operational and reputational risks, associated with Search and Rescue (SAR) operations offshore Libya. Italy, Malta and other European governments have hardened their anti-migration policies over the past nine months. This has had complex, diverse and uncertain implications for vessels that engage in migrant SAR operations offshore Libya, which they are obliged to conduct by international maritime law.

 WHAT HAPPENED 

On 27 March, the Turkish-flagged tanker, El Hiblu 1, rescued 108 migrants – including at least 19 women and 12 children – off the coast of Libya. The incident was in line with previous cases where merchant, NGO and Libyan Coastguard vessels have rescued migrants from smuggler boats in the Mediterranean. In this instance, once it was clear they would be returned to Libya, a group of the rescued migrants overpowered the ship’s crew and forced the vessel to change course towards Europe. When the El Hiblu was 30 nautical miles from Malta, the Maltese authorities made contact with the Captain and confirmed he was not in control of the vessel and that he and his crew had been threatened by the migrants onboard. A Maltese patrol boat subsequently stopped the tanker from entering Maltese territorial waters. A Maltese special operations unit, supported by patrol boats and a helicopter, then stormed and secured the ship. The ship is currently berthed at Senglea port, Malta. Four men who were believed to be involved in commandeering the vessel were subsequently arrested.

 ITALY’S ANTI-MIGRATION POLICY & HEIGHTENED RISKS FOR VESSELS 

Since the conservative coalition government came to power in Italy in June 2018, its influential Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, has pursued tough anti-migration policies, and urged other European governments to follow suit. Several anti-migration measures by Italy, as well as Malta – including closing their ports to vessels carrying rescued migrants – have made it difficult for merchant vessels to disembark rescued migrants at European ports close to Libya. As a result, vessels have either been faced with lengthy periods stranded in international waters awaiting the authorities to sanction disembarkation or a long transit to more accommodating countries elsewhere in the Mediterranean, taking on the associated operational costs and delays.

These challenges, coupled with increased pressure from the Libyan Coastguard, means that merchant vessels are now increasingly returning migrants to Libya or transferring them to the Libyan Coastguard. However, as demonstrated by this latest incident, migrants are typically resistant to returning to Libya, as they experience serious mistreatment and often torture in onshore detention centres. These migrants include women and children who do not have a criminal intent to hijack vessels, but rather are desperate to avoid returning to Libya. Consequently, migrants, who historically were passive passengers, now present a heightened security risk when faced with the reality of being returned to Libya.

While there have been multiple cases of vessels successfully returning migrants to Libya, this is the third incident over the past nine months were rescued migrants have opposed their return.

In addition to these security and operational risks, there is now also a growing reputational risk for vessel owners. Vessels involved in returning migrants to Libya could face significant public criticism, as the international community does not consider Libya to be a safe place for migrants and their mistreatment, even within official detention centres, is well documented. For example, NGOs and human rights organisations were highly critical of Italian supply vessel Asso Ventotto after it rescued and then returned108 migrants to Libya in August 2018.

Should vessels decide to take migrants to Europe, they will also face hostility from both Italian and Libyan authorities. Both countries may ban these vessels from accessing their ports or treat them with greater scrutiny during future port calls.

These factors have now further complicated migrant rescues, as vessel owners are now also presented with a number of serious considerations at corporate level when involved in SAR events.