Another 43 refugees drowned off the coast of Tunisia as a result of the EU’s fortress Europe policy

According to the Tunisian Red Crescent, 43 refugees drowned off the Tunisian coast near the town of Zarzis on 2 July, when their completely overcrowded boat capsized. Of the 127 on board, only 84 could be rescued. The refugees, who came from Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Chad, and Bangladesh, set out last week, near the Libyan town of Zuwarah.

The cemetery for migrants who have died trying to reach Europe, in the village of Zarzis, Tunisia, Saturday June 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Mehdi El Arem)

Four other boat incidents off the Tunisian coast have claimed the lives of almost 50 more refugees in the last ten days alone.

The situation for refugees in North Africa has worsened in recent weeks. The European Union is stubbornly refusing to take in refugees from the horrific, completely overcrowded detention camps in Libya and is not even sending an independent rescue mission to the central Mediterranean. Instead, the EU is cooperating closely with the criminal gangs known as the Libyan Coast Guard, notorious for interning, torturing and enslaving refugees.

The criminal character of the European Union is revealed nowhere more clearly than in its brutal treatment of people seeking refuge.

The 127 refugees had been wandering in the south-central Mediterranean for three days until their boat finally capsized off Tunisia. Those rescued included many minors and even a three-year-old. Quite a few had previously escaped the hellish torments of the Libyan internment camps. A woman from Cameroon who was rescued by the Tunisian Red Crescent reported that they were “treated like rubbish and raped” there.

A spokesman for the Tunisian Red Crescent, Munji Salim, said Tunisian reception centres were already overcrowded because many more refugees had met with an accident off the Tunisian coast this year while trying to reach Europe. The Italian immigration authorities have already registered nearly 21,000 refugees landing this year, more than three times as many as in the same period last year.

Added to this are almost 15,000 refugees who were picked up by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard in the first half of 2021 and brought back to Libya. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), at least 720 refugees have drowned in the central Mediterranean this year, almost twice as many as at the same time last year, although the number of unreported cases is far higher.

Worrying incidents have been mounting in recent weeks. The Ocean Viking, belonging to the private aid organisation SOS Méditerranée, has rescued 572 people from distress at sea in six missions in Maltese and Libyan waters in the past five days and is now desperately seeking a safe harbour to bring them ashore. Of these, 369 refugees came from a wooden boat rescued in distress in Libyan waters that was in danger of capsizing. In two previous rescue operations in Maltese waters, more than 130 refugees were taken from boats rescued in distress.

Among others, 183 minors are now on board the Ocean Viking. Many of those rescued are suffering from fuel burns, sunburn, dehydration and extreme exhaustion after spending extended time at sea. Despite this, the ports on the European coast are refusing to allow the Ocean Viking to enter to bring the refugees to safety and provide them with medical care.

The Ocean Viking rescue mission exemplifies the European Union’s murderous policy towards refugees. The EU is deliberately driving hundreds of people to their deaths as it seals off its external borders.

The Ocean Viking is currently the only boat belonging to a private rescue organisation operating in the central Mediterranean. Other rescue ships are being detained by the Italian authorities on flimsy grounds and prevented from leaving. This currently affects, among others, the Geo Barents of Médecins Sans Frontières, the Sea-Eye 4 and the Sea-Watch 4. The Sea-Watch 3 has been allowed to sail to its homeport in Spain for repairs.

Since the EU and NATO have also completely stopped their rescue missions, the Ocean Viking is, in fact, the only remaining rescue ship in the central Mediterranean. The fact that the number of refugee crossings has nevertheless risen sharply refutes the EU’s claim that the presence of rescue ships constitutes a “pull factor” and encourages refugees to venture across the sea to Europe. It is the threatening situation in Sudan, Eritrea, Chad, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Bangladesh that forces these desperate people to make the life-threatening journey to Europe despite the risks.

Instead of rescuing refugees, the EU is working ever more closely with the so-called Libyan Coast Guard and is handing the refugees back over to the henchmen from whom they had escaped shortly before. The brutal means used by the Libyan Coast Guard against refugees are shown in a film by aid organisation Sea-Watch, which was recorded by the reconnaissance plane Seabird on 30 June.

The Seabird intercepted a distress call from a boat with 50 people on board in Maltese waters. On its way to the refugee boat, the Seabird encountered the Libyan Coast Guard vessel Ras Jadir. The Seabird then informed the Maltese Coast Guard of the threat of the refugees’ illegal repatriation from international waters to Libya, but the Maltese authorities simply hung up the phone.

When the Seabird spotted the wooden boat with 50 refugees on board, it witnessed a brutal attack by the Libyan Coast Guard. The Coast Guard fired at the refugee boat and only stopped firing after the Seabird had warned them several times. Then it sailed at high speed towards the small wooden boat and threatened to ram it. The refugees’ lives were in danger, and they were lucky to escape. According to current information, they reached the Italian island of Lampedusa safely.

In the meantime, the public prosecutor’s office in Agrigento, Italy has started an investigation based on the footage from Seawatch. Chief prosecutor Luigi Patronaggio, however, said the Italian Ministry of Justice would have to agree to the investigation as their target was a foreign authority. The Ras Jadir was provided to the Libyan militias by the Italian government, along with three identical ships.

The responsibility for the violent attacks on refugees by the “Libyan Coast Guard” lies with the governments in Rome, Berlin and Paris, who want to keep refugees out of the EU at all costs. Deliberately looking the other way and waiting for their Libyan stooges to do the dirty work has now become standard practice.

An incident that occurred on June 13 is significant. A wooden boat overcrowded with 170 refugees in distress at sea sent out a distress call. However, the Maltese and Italian authorities, as well as the European border protection agency Frontex, refrained from taking any rescue action for more than ten hours, although the situation on board was becoming worse.

Finally, the merchant ship Vos Triton, which flies the Gibraltar flag and belongs to a Dutch shipping company, took the refugees on board in international waters. Immediately afterwards, it handed the refugees over to a Libyan Coast Guard vessel, which brought them back to Libya against their will, where they were interned.

It was obviously a set-up. A merchant ship was brought in and secretly ordered to hand over the refugees to the Libyan henchmen. In the process, international maritime law was blatantly violated, and an illegal pushback operation carried out through middlemen. That the European Union simultaneously claims to uphold human rights is cynical and mendacious.

The cooperation with the Libyan militias goes so far that the EU is even indirectly involved in the internment camps for refugees in Libya.

Conditions in these camps are so atrocious that Médecins Sans Frontières recently withdrew from the last three camps where it had been providing medical care. The aid agency’s head of mission in Libya, Beatrice Lau, justified this step by saying that “the persistent pattern of violent incidents and serious injuries to refugees and migrants, as well as the danger to our staff, has reached a level that we can no longer accept.”

In mid-June, allegations emerged that minors had been sexually abused by guards at a camp run by the EU-funded Libyan Centre for Combating Illegal Immigration. The United Nations has long warned of the inhumane conditions in Libyan detention camps, which are particularly worrying in the Mabani, Abu Salim and Triq al-Sika camps.

The sharp increase in the number of victims and refugees illegally returned to Libya is a direct consequence of the European Union’s inhumane refugee policy. It wants to repel refugees from its own borders at all costs and does not shy away from cooperating with the most criminal elements to this end.

The EU’s claim to be acting against human traffickers in the central Mediterranean is also just a pretext. In April, the Libyan government released Abdulrahman Milad, one of the most wanted international human traffickers, “due to lack of evidence.” Now, he earns his living as a commander of the Libyan Coast Guard and serves the EU as a stooge in its restrictive fortress Europe policy.