MS Risk Blog

Security Advisory: Migrants Hijack Merchant Vessel off Libya

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On 27 March 2019, migrants hijacked a merchant vessel which had rescued them off the coast of Libya.  In what appears to be the first such incident, officials have reported that 108 migrants were picked up by the cargo vessel El Hiblu 1, a Palau-flagged tanker that had diverted from its course from Turkey to Libya after being asked to rescue the migrants.  The migrants however later hijacked the vessel when it became clear that it was planning to take them back to Libya, managing to force the vessel’s captain to steer the ship towards Europe.  On Wednesday, a spokesman for Malta’s armed forces confirmed that the vessel had been hijacked and that Maltese authorities were monitoring its progress and that officials would not allow the vessel to dock in Malta.  On Thursday 28 March, a Maltese special operations team boarded the tanker and returned control to the captain, before escorting the vessel to a Maltese port.  The vessel eventually docked at Boiler Wharf in the city of Senglea.  A number of migrants were taken for investigation and five suspected ringleaders were led off in handcuffs.  In all, the Turkish tanker rescued 77 men, 19 women and 12 minors, including toddlers.  The vessel had been heading towards Italy’s southernmost island of Lampedusa and the island of Malta when Maltese forces intercepted it.  On 30 March, three teenage migrants from Guinea and Ivory Coast, aged 15, 16 and 19, were charged in a court in Malta with hijacking a small commercial oil tanker that had rescued them and others off the coast of Libya. The act is considered a terrorist crime under Maltese law, carrying a punishment of between seven years and life in prison.  The suspects have pleaded not guilty and they have been denied a bail request.

While Italy’s hard-line interior minister has indicated that the migrants in this incident are pirates, aid groups have rejected the label, stating that the European Union’s policy of sending migrants back to Libya was the reason for the migrants taking control of the vessel.   Humanitarian organizations maintain that migrants are being mistreated and even tortured in Libya and have protested protocols to return migrants rescued offshore to the lawless country.  Both Italy and Malta continue to refuse to open their ports to humanitarian vessels that rescue migrants at sea, which has resulted in a number of standoffs as European governments try to agree on who will take them in.

This incident highlights migrant’s desperation to avoid being returned to Libya, and may have further consequences that are likely to spread across the wider shipping community, as vessels transiting the Mediterranean Sea may now be reluctant to aid stranded migrants.  Initial reports indicated that the rescued migrants aboard the vessel had threatened crewmembers and had stated that they would jump off the ship unless it changed course.  The Times of Maltahowever reported on Saturday that police had expressed doubts about the hijacking incident, reporting that authorities believe the captain may have said he was not in control of his ship in a bid to gain permission to dock in Malta, which has in the past refused ships carrying rescued migrants.  What is certain is the difficulties that merchant vessels are now faced with:  the need to fulfil the legal requirement to rescue anyone in distress at sea coupled with an increasing threat of hijacking by migrants desperate to reach Europe. The incident also comes just hours after the EU announced that it will suspend vessel patrols that have rescued tens of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean and brought them to Italy.  The rescues were part of the EU’s Operation Sophia, which diplomats have decided to extend by six months beyond the 31 March 2019 expiry date, but without new ship deployments.  Instead, the operation will now rely on air missions and close coordination with Libya.  This inevitably will place increased pressure on merchant vessels transiting the Mediterranean Sea and may result in further similar attempts and successful hijackings by migrants attempting to reach Europe.