September 21, 2009

VIII. Maltese and Libyan Interdiction Prior to May 2009

Although the first open acts of interdiction and summary return as an Italian government policy and practice began in May 2009, migrants told Human Rights of other episodes of interdiction and summary return involving Maltese and Libyan navies and coast guards that pre-date the 2009 returns.

Daniel, a 26-year-old Eritrean, told Human Rights Watch how the Maltese coast guard towed his disabled boat to a Libyan fishing boat that took them back to Libya in July 2005. His account speaks not only about how interdictions were carried out prior to May 2009, but also about the brutality of the smugglers, the dangers of the journey, and the ill treatment at the hands of the Libyan authorities upon being returned.  He starts by saying that the smugglers used force to put them on the boat:

The smugglers beat us with a stick to get us to board the boat. They crammed 264 of us onto the boat. There were pregnant women, babies, children. The captain of the boat said there were too many, but the smugglers wouldn’t listen. After ten hours, the motor broke. We had no food or water. We drifted for five days. The battery ran out on our Thuraya [satellite phone]. We were waiting to die.
On the fifth day, a coast guard boat from Malta came. It gave us some water. An old woman said, “I will see my son in Malta.” The boat nearly capsized because people stood up to get the water. Another Maltese boat came, a command ship, and took photos of us. The Maltese boat brought a rope. They tied it to our boat and towed us. After two hours as the sun was going down the Maltese boat changed direction and took us to Libya. We saw we were going in the wrong direction. Everyone said, “Please, no.” We pleaded with the Maltese. The Maltese just waved their hands to say no.
We saw a green banner of Libya on a fishing boat. The Maltese gave them the rope. Everyone was crying. Water was coming inside the boat. There were high waves. Our boat was tipping. For 20 minutes it looked like it really was capsizing. Then the Maltese cut the rope and they were gone. The fishing boat took us to Libya.
We were really tired and dehydrated when we arrived in Libya. I thought, “If they beat me, I won’t feel a thing.” When we arrived, there were no doctors, nothing to help, just military police. They started punching us. They said, “You think you want to go to Italy.” They were mocking us. We were thirsty and they were hitting us with sticks and kicking us. For about one hour they beat everyone who was on the boat. Then they put us in a closed truck with only two little windows, not enough air to breathe. There was no food or water on the truck. It was 40 degrees Centigrade outside but it felt like 80 degrees inside the truck. I thought we would all die inside the truck, but somehow we all survived. They first took us to Al Fellah Prison, but it was full, so they took us to Misrata Prison.[91]

A Maltese boat forcibly returned Ezekiel, a 24-year-old Eritrean, to Tunisia in April 2006, and the Tunisian authorities, in turn, dumped him across the border into Libya:

Big waves came and capsized our boat. Twenty people died. I was one of five survivors who held onto the boat that was floating upside down. We had no food or water. We had life vests, but the water was cold.
A big ship came. I think it was Maltese. They took the five of us on their boat. The rest were dead. We were hardly conscious. They told us we were not in Maltese waters. The ship took us to Tunisia. The Tunisian police took us to the Libyan border and gave each of us five dinars for the taxi.[92]

After the Tunisians dumped him across the border, the Libyan police caught Ezekiel, beat him severely, stole his money, and held him in a border police station for two months.[93]

Evidence and testimonies suggest that Libyan coast guard forces have also been involved in interdicting and returning boats. Videos appear to have captured Libyan police and security forces interdicting clandestine boats at sea,[94] as well as stopping boats and arresting the migrants as they attempt to leave the Libyan shore.[95] The latter video includes particularly disturbing footage of what appear to be Libyan police brandishing and firing Kalashnikov AKMS assault rifles as they arrest the migrants.

As is normally the case when migrants encounter Libyan police and military authorities in the country’s interior and in the border region, migrants interdicted at sea were usually not able to identify for Human Rights Watch which Libyan authority was responsible for interdicting them. Pastor Paul, a 32-year-old Nigerian, related an incident that occurred on October 20, 2008:

We were in a wooden boat and Libyans in a [motorized inflatable] Zodiac started shooting at us. They told us to return to shore. They kept shooting until they hit our engine. One person was shot and killed. I don’t know the men who did the shooting, but they were civilians, not in uniforms. Then a Libyan navy boat came and got us and started beating us. They collected our money and cell phones. I think the zodiac boat was working with the Libyan navy.
The Libyan navy took us back in their big ship and they sent us to Bin Gashir deportation camp. When we arrived there they immediately started beating me and the others. They beat some of the boys until they could not walk.[96]


[91]Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, B/H54), Palermo, Sicily, May 13, 2009. Daniel’s account of Misrata continues in the section on Misrata.  A transcript of his full testimony is available on the Human Rights Watch Website at:  (Hereafter: Daniel Testimony).

[92] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, B/H12), Malta, May 2, 2009.

[93]For a continuation of Ezekiel’s story, see Abuses in Libya’s Western Border Region.

[94] (accessed August 27, 2009).

[95]A video of a failed clandestine boat departure shows what appear to be Libyan security forces brandishing weapons and also appears to show them firing shots: (accessed July 6, 2009).

[96] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, B41), Caltanissetta, Sicily, May 8, 2009.