Heroes or Pirates? – Three Refugees accused of hijacking a ship on the Mediterranean Sea

Three boys, whose mediation skills helped to save lives of over 100 refugees on the Mediterranean Sea, were charged with hijacking a ship and terrorism. What is their story?

The Crossing to Europe

„As life is always made of hope, we must hope that tomorrow will be better. So we were in the little boat, we left Libya…”[1]

Before the dawn on 26th March 2019 a group of over 100 refugees from West Africa boarded a small rubber boat and set off on a risky journey from Libya to Italy across the Mediterranean Sea[2]. After a couple of hours, it became clear, that the boat provided by smugglers would not reach the European shore. A return to Libya was also impossible. The only thing left to do was to wait for a rescue.

A number of migration routes from different parts of Africa join together in Libya[3]. The next step of many journeys is to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Italy on mostly unseaworthy boats. Many manage to reach their destination. Others are saved by rescue ships run by NGOs and brought to safe ports in the EU. Those who are found by the Libyan Coast Guard are less lucky. They are pushed back to meet an end of their journey in one of Libya’s infamous detention camps. Many of those who try to reach Europe die in the sea. According to the International Organization for Migration, in 2019 1,885 lives were lost while crossing the Mediterranean[4].

The EU Cooperation with the Libyan Coast Guard

„If you know you are going to take us to Libya it’s better for us you don’t rescue us, it’s just better we die”[5].

After a few hours of waiting, the refugees on the boat spotted a plane in the sky. It brought them hope that the rescue is near. But it also made them worry that they would be forced to return to Libya.

Their fear was justified, as the plane was part of Operation Sophia. It is a joint military operation of the EU states on the Mediterranean which try to control and curb migration. Although initially Operation Sophia ran rescue missions off the coast of Libya, in 2019 they were replaced with surveillance flights[6]. Crews of these flights were supposed to inform the Libyan Coast Guard about refugee boats’ positions.

The EU has initiated a close cooperation with the Libyan government in the area of migration in 2014. The EU states cannot deport or turn refugees saved on the sea back to Libya, which is not considered to be a safe port. That is why the EU shifted the responsibility for rescue missions on the Libyan Coast Guard. Unfortunately, it is not prepared in terms of training and equipment to run such missions, despite extensive funding from the EU (91,3 mln euros between 2014 and 2018[7]). Moreover, its officers have reportedly abused human rights and treated refugees, found on the sea, with crude violence.

How 108 people saved their lives on El Hiblu 1

The plane crew that spotted the refugees in distress reported their position to the first mate of a commercial tanker passing by, named El Hiblu 1. They instructed him to bring the rescued to Tripoli and turn them in to the Libyan Coast Guard.

El Hiblu 1 took 108 people on board. However, some decided to stay on their boat. They said, that they preferred to drown in the sea rather than to return to Libya.

The first mate asked, if anybody of the rescued spoke English. A 15-years-old boy stepped forward. With his help the ship’s commander promised that he would not return anybody to Libya. He informed the new passengers that he was still waiting for instructions where to take them.

The ship’s engine started after the nightfall. Before the dawn the passengers saw lights on the shore. ‘It’s Libya!’ – frightened voices exclaimed. Somebody’s phone logged into the Libyan network. Somebody recognized characteristic buildings on the shore.

Refugees’ Situation in Libya

“Spent two years in Libya. Libya was like hell fire”[8].

The Libyan government urged by the EU to strengthen migration introduced many unlawful measures against refugees, like keeping them in detention[9]. Detainees do not generally have the right to appeal to the court or to receive any legal help. The detention does not have a determined duration period and usually ends with an unlawful deportation. Moreover, the conditions in Libyan detention camps are appalling. Not only diseases such as tuberculosis are spreading due to inappropriate sanitation,  the detainees are also tortured and raped.

Despite repeated calls of many humanitarian organisations to end this horrifying treatment and create safe passages for people seeking asylum in Europe, the EU prefers to continue its policy of sealing its borders. What’s more, it is done in cooperation with the Libyan government which neglects its responsibility to protect human rights. In March 2021 the EU prolonged Operation Irini (the successor of Operation Sophia), in the framework of which the cooperation with the Libyan Coast Guard is conducted[10].

The journey through Libya is also extremely dangerous for refugees who manage to avoid contact with the authorities and detention. The civil war in Libya between the government recognised by the UN, the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army and various armed militias has lasted for years now. Chaos created by the war has enabled establishing human smuggling networks. It made Libya one of the main transit countries for people who try to reach Europe. At the same time, unlawfulness and fights between armed forces effects in refugees becoming common victims of rapes, slavery, torture and murder[11].

Criminalising Protest against the EU Policies and Solidarity with Refugees

“What do they have to do to take a boat hostage? We were in it, but why the three people? They were intermediaries for the group in terms of language, you see. So, it’s because of the languages to translate that they’re accused”[12].

When the people rescued by El Hiblu 1 realised that the first mate lied to them, they started to panic. They screamed, that they preferred to jump into the water than to go back to Libya. Some started to pound on the ship with objects found on the board. The tanker’s crew locked itself on the bridge.

After a while, the first mate opened the door and asked the English-speaking boy to talk with him. However, the boy refused to translate. The reason was that the rest of the group accused him of helping the first mate to deceive them. Two older boys tried to calm everybody down. They managed to convince the young translator to go and talk with the ship’s commander. Together they entered the bridge.

The first mate asked, what he could do to calm the passengers down. ‘Don’t take them to Libya’ – answered the translator. He explained what could have happened to them if they were turned in to the Libyan Coast Guard. In the end, the first mate agreed to take them to Malta.

When the ship turned towards Malta, some hysterical reports started to appear in the media. Nobody really knew what happened on board of the tanker. Matteo Salvini, an extremely anti-migration interior minister of Italy at the time, wrote on Twitter that the refugees rescued by El Hiblu 1 were “pirates” who had hijacked the ship[13].

For several years the EU states were conducting  a policy of criminalising actions that oppose EU inhumane migration politics, such as the cooperation with the Libyan Coast Guard. According to the rhetoric of politicians such as Salvini, the refugees who oppose abusing their own rights are “terrorists” and “pirates”. He has also said that the people and organizations that solidarize with migrants “cooperate” with smugglers.

Translators and Mediators Charged with Terrorism

“They should be rewarded for saving 105 people, but we reward them with the prison… So, we have to do something, we have to be a witness, we need to make sure it’s known that they saved us”[14].

When in the morning on 28th of March, El Hiblu 1 entered the Maltese territorial waters, the ship was taken over by an anti-terrorist unit of the Maltese army. They escorted the tanker to the port of Valletta – the capital of Malta.

Three guys who translated and mediated between the tanker’s crew and the rest of the refugees were taken away handcuffed. They were charged with hijacking the ship and terrorism, and as a result they can spend years in prison.

With help of a couple of NGOs advocating for refugees’ rights three boys were released on bail in November 2019. While the Maltese police runs the investigation against them, they have to check-in at the police station in Valletta every day. They cannot leave the island as well. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on Maltese authorities to drop the charges related to terrorism. Amnesty International and an alliance of NGOs Free El Hiblu 3 demand to end the investigation immediately and drop all charges.

Violent Policies of the EU

“We have almost no rights here in Europe, and we don’t try to have rights here in Europe, only we want to be protected, only, we want to be free like everyone else. That’s all we want for our three friends too”[15].

Teenage translators and mediators from El Hiblu 1 have been trapped in the tangled nets of the EU anti-migration policies. Boys who in a peaceful way saved the lives of 105 refugees have become political prisoners of the EU.

The policy of sealing borders has led to a significant decrease in the number of people arriving in Europe since 2015. But it is also based on violence and human rights abuse. Closing borders, building walls, cooperating with undemocratic governments are not peaceful or neutral actions. They consist of the EU politics of violence that has made the Mediterranean the deadliest border in the world[16].

If you want to support the three mediators from El Hiblu, you can sign a call to drop all charges against them on Amnesty International’s website. You can also post a photo with a sign saying Justice for ElHiblu3 with a hashtag #ElHiblu3. Tell your friends about their story.

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[1] “Free El Hiblu 3”, testimonies of the refugees rescued by El Hiblu 1. https://elhiblu3.info/solidarity 

[2] Dialika Neufeld, How Are We Supposed to Be Terrorists?, “Spiegel International”. https://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/three-teenage-refugees-on-trial-in-malta-how-are-we-supposed-to-be-terrorists-a-9356645f-42bd-4342-9647-89f8dc8bbfb2

[3] Olubukola S. Adesina, Libya and African Migration to Europe, in “African Migrants and the Refugee Crisis”. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/346866930_Libya_and_African_Migration_to_Europe 

[4]  Missing Migrants, „International Office for Migration”. https://missingmigrants.iom.int/ 

[5] “Free El Hiblu 3”, testimonies of the refugees rescued by El Hiblu 1. https://elhiblu3.info/solidarity 

[6] Katharina Bamberg, Alberto Neidhardt, Ilene van Brouwershaven, Marie De Somer, European Policy Centre. Policy Update April 2019, “European Programme for Integration and Migration”. http://aei.pitt.edu/97075/1/pub_9201_epim_policy_update_april_2019.pdf 

[7] Benjamin Bathke, When helping hurts – Libya’s controversial coast guard, Europe’s go-to partner to stem migration, “InfoMigrants”. https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/18196/when-helping-hurts-libya-s-controversial-coast-guard-europe-s-go-to-partner-to-stem-migration

[8] “Free El Hiblu 3”, testimonies of the refugees rescued by El Hiblu 1. https://elhiblu3.info/solidarity 

[9]  No Escape from Hell: EU Policies Contribute to Abuse of Migrants in Libya, “Human Rights Watch”. https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/01/21/no-escape-hell/eu-policies-contribute-abuse-migrants-libya 

[10] Council extends the mandate of Operation IRINI until 2023, “European Council”. https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2021/03/26/council-extends-the-mandate-of-operation-irini-until-2023/ 

[11] Between Life and Death: Refugees and Migrants Trapped in Libya’s Cycle of Abuse, “Amnesty International”. https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/MDE1930842020ENGLISH.pdf 

[12] “Free El Hiblu 3”, testimonies of the refugees rescued by El Hiblu 1. https://elhiblu3.info/solidarity 

[13] Maurice Stierl, From Migrants to Pirates: How Identities Change During Mediterranean Passage, “The Globe Post”. https://theglobepost.com/2019/04/03/migrants-pirates-identities/ 

[14] “Free El Hiblu 3”, testimonies of the refugees rescued by El Hiblu 1. https://elhiblu3.info/solidarity  

[15] “Free El Hiblu 3”, testimonies of the refugees rescued by El Hiblu 1. https://elhiblu3.info/solidarity 

[16] Missing Migrants, „International Office for Migration”. https://missingmigrants.iom.int/ 

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