UNHCR Engages Libyan Coastguard to Help Improve Rescue

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is facilitating a forum to improve Libya’s response to boats in distress off the country’s coast.

Crew from the Zuwara coastguard ferrying migrants in an unprecedented joint rescue operation with the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) on August 15. Photo: Migrant Report/Dale Gillet

Crew from the Zuwara coastguard ferrying migrants in an unprecedented joint rescue operation with the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) on August 15. Photo: Migrant Report/Dale Gillet

The idea is to streamline information sharing and coordination with international organizations through a forum that includes Libyan officials responsible for search and rescue, border security and detention centres for rescued or intercepted boat people as well as the Libyan Red Crescent.

The forum was established at a recent workshop organised in Tunis by UNHCR and its partner, the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

“We hope the new contact group will boost Libya’s ability to save lives at sea, collect bodies at sea or along the coast and improve the humanitarian care of the rescued on disembarkation,” UNHCR spokesperson Leo Dobbs told a press briefing in Geneva on Tuesday.

Tuesday’s press conference in Geneva comes against the background of a spike in deaths over the past two weeks. On August 5 a boat carrying 600 migrants capsized leaving more than 200 people dead or unaccounted for. Less than a week later on August 12, another 50 people were feared drowned after a dinghy with double the number of people on board deflated out at sea. Three days later, 49 people were found dead, asphyxiated, in the hull of a boat.

It also comes after the Libyan coastguard joined the private mission run by the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) in a rescue off the coast of Zuwara. Such cooperation is unprecedented post-revolution.

UNHCR said the forum, which is part financed by the EU, will meet at least three times over the coming nine months and will provide training in areas such as information management, communications, body retrieval and identification of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants.

The hope is that better communication will help minimise loss of life among refugees and migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya.

Libya has been under fire for not doing enough to save lives off its coast. However, the country is currently gripped by a power struggle that has seen two political formations take over the east and west of the country after an Islamist coalition, Libya Dawn, unseated the internationally recognised government in July of last year, forcing east to the town of Tobruk.

Dobbs also pointed to the limited resources at the disposal of the Libyan coastguard. “The Libyans have been criticized for not highlighting the dangers and rescuing more people in peril. But the coastguard, operating along the western shores used by smugglers, has rescued or intercepted more than 4,500 people so far this year with meagre naval resources,” he added.

That figure compares to almost 100,000 rescued by other navies and organizations in the area.

The Unreported Death Count off Libya

Meanwhile, the collection of corpses has become more and more important, especially during the current season when more smugglers’ boats leave from the coast of Libya and the odds of an accident occurring are higher.

The corpses recovered from the coast form part of a hidden body count which so far is not included in official statistics of deaths in the Mediterranean and very often is not even reported in the press.

Over the the month of July, Migrant Report tracked the number of bodies recovered by different branches of the Libyan Red Crescent (LRC), the main organisaiton involved in the recovery operation. At least 66 cadavers were recovered in six locations along the Libyan west coast.

Recovered bodies

Meanwhile, UNHCR staff in Libya is relaying reports or sighting of bodies from the Libyan coastguard to the Libyan Red Crescent, as in the August 5 tragedy. The coastguard, equipped with aged small vessels, collect bodies where they can and transfer them to the LRC for transportation to hospitals before burial. The contact group agreed that this is an area where the Libyans can do more.

“Future training could include corpse retrieval and storage and the provision of body bags, other equipment and medical supplies as well as trying to identify the dead in the hope of alerting families,” Dobbs explained.

UNHCR sees its role as being an inter-connector between different actors, Libyan and international. The training would also include the reception and questioning of rescued people at disembarkation points before transfer to dilapidated detention centres, of which UNHCR currently has access to eight.

“This information will help us and our partners identify who is coming ashore and which of the 18 operational detention centres they are being taken to, allowing us to start the process of getting them released, especially women and children,” Dobbs concluded.