TRIPOLI: When Libyan coast guard officer Ashraf al-Badri needs a boat to stop illegal migrants heading for Europe, his options are limited – ask the Oil Ministry for a tug, use an aging fishing boat or board an inflatable.
European governments are counting on officials like Badri to stop an influx of hopeful migrants from setting off from Libya’s shores to reach Italy and Malta.
But more than two years after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi, the country’s coast guard is just not up to the task.
The force does not have radar or a single helicopter, or even adequate gear for the officers who go out to sea in small inflatables – the kind of boat sometimes used for fun rafting trips in other parts of the world.
“Smugglers have guns, equipment and they often open fire,” said Badri, who heads the coast guard in the capital Tripoli.
“We just lack any equipment. We don’t even have bulletproof vests or night goggles, which are not available in the local market.”
Navy ships from the Gadhafi era rust away at a quay next to his office at the central Tripoli naval base. Some were damaged by NATO bombs when the alliance was helping the rebels fight Gadhafi, and others have fallen into disuse through neglect.
The coast guard says it stopped 2,200 migrants on the sea in September and October alone. But officers admit they are unable to control Libya’s 2,000-km shore.
The force has only one large inflatable boat available in Tripoli, officers said. A base in Khoms, 100 km to the east, relies on two fishing boats and another slightly larger inflatable.
“We have to use fishing boats ... or we sometimes borrow tugs from the Oil Ministry,” said Badri’s colleague Masud Abdul-Samed, head of the operations room at Tripoli’s port.
The European Union has started training airport officials and guards for the sea and land borders, and Italian defense firm Selex, part of Finmeccanica group, this month began setting up a satellite system to allow officers to patrol borders remotely.
But Western officials are under no illusion that it will be easy to get the force up to speed anytime soon.
Libyan officials say one challenge is that political infighting has hampered funding for many government functions. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, a liberal, has accused Islamists in parliament of deliberately blocking approval of budget payments in a bid to bring down his government.
Senior defense officials are also reluctant to take the initiative to decide who to train and what equipment to order – a legacy of the Gadhafi era when all decisions were made at the top.
Diplomats say another problem is that the Defense Ministry, to which the coast guard belongs, is dominated by multiple militias from the 2011 uprising whose rivalries are making it difficult to agree on the new structure of the force.
Tunisia is closer than Libya to Malta and Lampedusa, an Italian island south of Sicily, the two main points of entry by sea to Europe for human traffickers, but the smugglers have moved routes to the OPEC producer to exploit its turmoil and anarchy.
Zeidan struggles to assert authority in a country awash with arms. In many areas of the country, including parts of the coast, militias call the shots.
“Tunisia is much more difficult. You have a state there; you have police. It is not as easy to carry out your smuggling operations there,” said Emmanuel Gignac, head of the U.N. refugee agency mission in Libya.
Gignac said there has been a rise of refugees escaping civil war in Syria or Sudan’s western Darfur region, scene of a decadelong insurgency. Many use Libya as a transit point.
The UNHCR says more than 23,000 people, mostly Africans, have tried leaving Libya by boat this year, triple the number in 2012. Hundreds have died on their way to Lampedusa in the past few months.
Western diplomats worry that it is not just hopeful emigrants who are heading for Libya but also Islamist militants. With its poorly monitored land borders, the North African country has already become a transit route for weapons for Al-Qaeda operating in sub-Saharan countries.
The coast guard tends to run geographical sectors with little coordination with other units. There is even competition with the navy and a separate coast guard police which mainly patrols the ports – another legacy of Gadhafi, who used to play units off each other.
Most of the more than 2,000 staff are former rebels whom the government has co-opted to get armed youths off the streets. They are enthusiastic about the coast guard mission but lack experience and even the most basic skills. Many of them had never been to the sea before signing up.
The young men certainly do not lack boldness when going out in their inflatables up to 120 km off the coast, often in rough sea.
That is the reason why the EU is focusing on basic survival training such as ensuring everyone carries a life vest when going out. The coast guard officials have vests at their bases but used to rarely use them, they say.
“I admire these young men. They are very bold to go out in such boats so far,” said David Aquilina, a trainer from Malta working for the EU Border Assistance Mission.
“They want to work, but need training and equipment,” he said as he watched coast guard officers practice how rescuing a comrade who had gone overboard. “First they need to learn how to stay safe before they can rescue emigrants.”
The EU has so far trained 130 border patrol officials, including 30 coast guard officers. Italy is also training some officers and repairing four patrol boats from the Gadhafi era.
Libya has commissioned 10 new boats from Spain and more from South Korea, but it will be years before they are built and paid for, officers say.
“God willing, we will have before 2016 boats with lengths of 60 meters or more which can stay out in the sea a long time,” Abdul-Samed said.