BERLIN: The German aid group Sea Eye on Sunday said it was suspending its migrant rescue operations in the Mediterranean, citing security concerns after Libya barred foreign vessels from a stretch of water off its coast.
The announcement comes a day after Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it was halting the use of its largest boat in the area because of an “increasingly hostile environment for lifesaving rescue operations.”
In a statement, Sea Eye said it was with “a heavy heart” that it had decided to follow suit after the Libyan government’s “explicit threat against the private NGOs.”
Tensions have risen since the Libyan navy on Thursday ordered foreign vessels to stay out of a coastal search-and-rescue zone, a measure it said was specifically aimed at NGOs.
Libyan authorities have accused charities of aiding human smugglers with their rescues at sea, hampering efforts to crack down on the illegal migration route.
“Under these circumstances, a continuation of our rescue work is not currently possible. It would be irresponsible toward our crews,” Sea Eye founder Michael Buschheuer said.
But he cautioned that the retreat of the aid groups was putting lives at risk.
“We leave behind a deadly gap in the Mediterranean,” he warned.
Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano, however, welcomed Libya’s stepped-up efforts to curb the migrant flow.
The Libyan government “is ready to put in place a search-and-rescue zone in its waters, work with Europe and invest in its coast guards,” Alfano told La Stampa daily on Sunday. “This sends a signal that the balance is being restored in the Mediterranean.”
Italy, which has borne the brunt of Europe’s migrant crisis this year, has itself moved to rein in NGOs helping the multinational rescue operations by making them sign up to a new code of conduct.
Six years since a revolution that toppled former ruler Muammar Qaddafi, Libya has become a key departure point for migrants risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
Tens of thousands of migrants have resorted to paying people traffickers for the journey, often on overcrowded and unseaworthy boats.
Migrant aid ships have played a key role in assisting the rescue operations.
Sea Eye says it has helped save some 12,000 lives since April 2016.