Adam* had been at sea for nearly 12 hours, having set off from a remote Libyan coast the previous night with dozens of other Africans.
After escaping the war-ravaged Darfur region of Sudan more than a year before, this was Adam’s fourth attempt at traversing the Mediterranean towards Europe in a smuggler’s boat, through one of the deadliest migration corridors in the world.
That morning, a grey-coloured plane had circled high above them a few times before disappearing. Late afternoon merged into early evening, and as they neared Maltese waters a helicopter raced across the sky before hovering low ahead of the boat. Adam, speaking to VICE News over WhatsApp from Tripoli, remembers the aircraft in detail.
“I saw the sign of the European Union, the yellow stars. Someone said he saw the red and white of the flag of Malta. Two men inside opened the window, waved at us then crossed their arms. I understood it to mean ‘stop’.”
Shortly afterwards, a large vessel loomed behind the dinghy. Adam saw “Ras Jadir” written on the bridge of the ship, which had been donated to the Libyan Coastguard by the Italian government in 2017 for the purpose of preventing migrants from reaching European waters.
“When the Libyans appeared, everyone understood what it meant,” Adam said. “They came at the same time as the Europeans. They are working together.”
What Adam observed on the 25th of June was a sequence that now plays out on a daily basis – EU air power identifying migrant boats in the middle of the sea and sharing their location with the Libyan Coastguard, who then return the passengers to a country where they are routinely imprisoned, tortured and exploited. UN bodies, countless human rights groups and several European court rulings have deemed it against international and refugee law for migrants to be sent back to Libya, and yet, by using aerial assets, EU member states like Malta and the EU border force Frontex appear to be carrying out push-backs by proxy.
Adam says they attempted to sail towards a merchant ship in the distance, but the Libyan Coastguard cut in front of their boat, causing four men to fall into the water. As the drama unfolded, the Moonbird, a surveillance aircraft jointly operated by the NGOs SeaWatch and the Humanitarian Pilots Initiative, arrived on the scene. Head of air operations Tamino Bohm explained to VICE News how they radioed the Libyan Coastguard to alert them to the migrants overboard.
“They were not responsive, so we continued urging them to stop the interception of the rubber boat and take care of the people in immediate danger of drowning. We were running out of fuel, and when we left there were three people in the water.”
Aerial video and photos provided to VICE News by SeaWatch show faint blurs of people bobbing in the water to the left-hand side of the Libyan Coastguard, which seemingly makes two attempts to sail close to them before resuming a high-speed cat-and-mouse chase of the migrant boat. The Coastguard boat is dangerously overcrowded with migrants.
Speaking over WhatsApp from Libya, Rita* – a Nigerian woman also onboard the rubber boat – described a tense pursuit, during which the Coastguard deployed a speedboat. “When they were near, they burst the rubber boat with a knife and used paddles to hit the men,” she said. “Then they took the engine. They were beating everyone. We didn’t have any choice but to take the rope and be brought onto their ship.”
Rita sighed: “People kept saying they prefer to die than go back to Libya.”
In 2017, Italy signed a memorandum with the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. The agreement saw Rome provide training, equipment and financial resources to the Libyan Coastguard on the condition that it pick up migrants at sea and return them to Libya. Numerous reports over the years have claimed that the coastguard has been infiltrated by militia and UN-sanctioned people smugglers.
Matteo de Bellis, a migration researcher at Amnesty International, told VICE News: “Europeans cannot instruct a rescue vessel to disembark in Libya – it’s illegal – so they have created a system under which much of the coordination of push-backs is done by Europeans, with European resources, but using the Libyans as a legal smokescreen. Is it acceptable that EU states cheat international law and return people to torture without being accountable?”
The Ras Jadir arrived at Tripoli port the following morning. Safa Msehli, spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), confirmed that a total of 270 people were returned, including 23 children and 13 women, on the morning of the 26th of June.
At the port, Adam saw two of the men who went overboard apparently rescued. The other two remain unaccounted for. Messages sent to a representative of the Libyan Coastguard went unanswered.
Deanna Dadusc from Alarm Phone – a group that offers support to people crossing the Mediterranean to the EU – took a call from a migrant on the rubber boat during the ordeal. She claims that, despite their efforts, most interceptions happen without any civil oversight. “This case shows the criminal behaviour by the Libyan Coastguard and how they are not equipped and not willing to perform proper rescues,” Dadusc said. “When they intervene, people die and go missing. There is no accountability. It is not a rescue, it’s a capture.”
Frontex confirmed to VICE News that EAGLE 1, an aircraft chartered by the agency, observed a boat of around 70 passengers at the relevant time and location, and reported it to Libya’s Search and Rescue Coordination Centre. Flight tracking websites and open source investigators like Italian journalist Sergio Scandura pinpointed the AW139 helicopter of the Armed Forces of Malta near the scene of the subsequent interception. The timings, physical characteristics and flightpaths also tally with Adam and Rita’s testimonies. The Libyan Coastguard appears completely dependent on the aerial coordination.
“Without aerial support there wouldn’t have been an interception,” Tamino Bohm, from SeaWatch, maintains. “They would have either been shipwrecked or made it into Maltese jurisdiction.”
The Armed Forces of Malta did not respond to multiple emails and calls for comment.
European air assets being used to facilitate the pulling back of refugees to Libya reflects the continent’s declining sympathy over the last five years. In April, the EU disbanded Operation Sophia, an anti-smuggling naval mission launched in 2015. Though Sophia rescued tens of thousands of migrants at sea over the years, its ships had been withdrawn by early 2019, and these days NGO rescue efforts are frequently disrupted by EU member states.
Sophia was named after a child born to a Somali refugee mother on board a German navy rescue boat in August of 2015. Almost five years later, the Libyan Coastguard would pull back a dinghy with over 90 migrants, including a woman who had given birth on board.
After the Ras Jadir disembarked on the 26th of June, all migrants were taken to the Souq Al-Khamis detention centre on a convoy of buses. During the transfer, a rebellion broke out on Adam’s bus, and he and several migrants were able to escape after being beaten by Libyan guards. The IOM confirms the incident. On the 28th of July, three migrants were shot dead by Libyan authorities when they tried to escape after being brought back to shore.
Earlier this year Adam was seized by armed men and imprisoned in different houses, before being tortured until he transferred money to his captor.
“He said, ‘I bought you and I want to get the profit. If you pay, OK. If you don’t, you will be tortured until you die. There is no other way.’ And he was right. In Libya, either you pay, or you die.”
Adam paused. “I just want to get the hell out of here.”
*Name has been changed to protect the interviewee’s identity.