Under the navy ban that was announced on Thursday, foreign vessels searching for refugees and asylum seekers headed for Europe have to stay out of the “search and rescue zone” off the Libyan coast.
Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano hailed the move in an interview with Italian daily La Stampa on Sunday, saying the Libyan government “is ready to put in place a search and rescue zone in its waters, work with Europe and invest in its coastguards.”
“This sends a signal that the balance is being restored in the Mediterranean,” he added.
The Libyan navy spokesman, Ayoub Qaseed said earlier that the decision was made “according to international laws and regulations.” He said that the 148-kilometer zone stretches off the capital Tripoli in the west of Libya into the north. “All countries have their own search zones.”
Qaseed accused some NGOs (non-governmental organizations) of having links with people-smugglers, who pack refugees onto unseaworthy boats and dinghies, and smuggling them into Europe across the Mediterranean. He claimed that smugglers are tipped off by those NGOs ahead of Libyan coast guard missions.
“We do not have evidence. But it is strange that there are no migration boats when Libyan navy patrols are at sea although vessels of these organizations are there,” he added.
Libya, in North Africa, has become a key departure point for refugees and asylum seekers, who risk their lives on the boats in the hope of reaching Europe. The boats are usually intercepted by European vessels once they enter international waters.
NGOs suspend rescue work
In response to the Libyan move, several aid groups suspended search and rescue operations in the area for security concerns.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF)—an international medical humanitarian organization— announced a temporary halt to its mission on Saturday. More NGOs, including the German group Sea Eye and Save the Children, later followed the MSF.
“Continuing our rescues is not currently possible under these circumstances,” said Michael Busch Heuer, the founder of German group Sea Eye. “We can no longer justify this to our crews.”
Save the Children said it could not resume the mission without “vital safety and security assurances.”
The charities warned that more people would drown if they did not intervene.
They urged the European Union to open legal channels of migration so that people would no longer put their lives at risk on dangerous sea journeys.
Some 72,000 refugees and asylum seekers arrived in Italy from Libya between January and June this year alone. More than 2,000 also died en route, according to the International Organization for Migration.