This project for The Atlantic focuses on the crisis of hundreds of thousands of migrants trying to get to Europe by fleeing across the Mediterranean in rickety boats from the Middle East and North Africa, which has not halted despite having mostly disappeared from major news outlets. The number of these migrants reaching Greek and Italian shores has fallen sharply, however, partly because of the work of the Libyan Coast Guard, often called the LCG. In most places in the world, coast guards face outward and they are meant to protect a nation’s shoreline from external threats. The LCG on the other hand is paid by the EU to face inward, toward the Libyan coast, and its primary job is to keep migrants from getting to Europe.
This proxy force sees itself as a humanitarian fleet whose mission is to avoid mass drownings and to block international human traffickers. And it is certainly true that the LCG has saved hundreds if not thousands of lives by intervening before these perilous boats capsize. It's also certainly the case that European countries have the right to protect their borders and to find a way to stem the flow of new arrivals.
The concern for human rights advocates is what happens to these migrants when they are returned to detention centers on land in Libya, where aid workers say that rape, slavery and forced labor are not uncommon. Advocates question whether the LCG is halting one set of abusers only to facilitate another. What's more, the LCG is aggressively blocking the work of other search-and-rescue organizations like Doctors Without Borders (MSF) from helping these migrants. This obstructionism is occurring in waters where these groups should be allowed to patrol since they are on the high seas and beyond national jurisdiction.
Despite criticism from human rights lawyers, the EU continues to fund the patrol force. Last month, France donated several new ships to the armada. This triggered protests from several groups including Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders, which argue that Europe should not be in the business of arming a repressive government and facilitating violations of international and humanitarian law. Meanwhile, the Italian and Greek governments have discreetly pressured countries to revoke their flag from the Doctors Without Borders patrol ship so the group can no longer legally operate and rescue the migrants that slip by the LCG. Greece and Italy know that these foreign rescue organizations will not repatriate migrants to Libya due to horrific conditions there. They will take the migrants instead to European ports where detention settings have more oversight.