Evidence obtained by the Guardian exposes
a coordinated and unlawful EU assault on the rights of desperate people trying to cross the Mediterranean
by Daniel Howden, Apostolis Fotiadis and Zach Campbell
Thu 12 Mar 2020
As night fell on 26 March 2019, two small boats made their way north across the Mediterranean. The rubber crafts were flimsy; it would be nearly impossible for those onboard to make it to Europe without help. From the north, a twin-propeller aeroplane from the European Union naval force approached. From the south, the coastguard from the country they had just fled, Libya, was coming.
The aircraft arrived first but there would be no rescue from Europe. Instead the flight, callsign Seagull 75, radioed the Libyans telling them where to find the boats. But Libya’s would-be interceptors would need more than just the coordinates. “OK sir, my radar is not good, is not good, if you stay [over the boat] I will follow you,” said the coastguard, according to recordings of VHF marine radio picked up by a nearby ship.
Seagull 75 circled overhead. The flight crew was part of Operation Sophia, an EU naval mission that has patrolled the south-central Mediterranean since 2015. After participating in thousands of rescues in its first four years, Sophia withdrew its sea vessels from March 2019, leaving only aircraft in the rescue zone. It came to be known as the naval mission without any ships.
“We have approximately five minutes left on station,” the crew on Seagull 75 told the Libyans. “We will go overhead the vessel, the rubber boat, and we will light our landing lights.” The Sophia flight and the Libyan coastguard ship were searching for each other in the dark. “We don’t have your visual, keep an eye out for a light,” said the flight crew. The Libyans asked for more information. “Stand by, I’m just updating your position. Stand by,” the flight crew replied.