North Africa Maritime Threat

The maritime threat environment in North Africa remains volatile. Much of the current threat in the region is centred on Libya, where instability onshore has spilled over into the surrounding waters. Mass migration across the Mediterranean Sea, which largely emanates from Libya, is a significant concern for vessels operating off North Africa and in the region more broadly. Both the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) require vessels to respond to emergency calls and to assist migrant boats in distress. This legal requirement creates serious considerations for vessels, as the regulations governing rescue at sea were not written with a large-scale humanitarian crisis such as the ongoing one in the Mediterranean in mind.

Merchant vessels are regularly called upon to assist in migrant rescues, which often see hundreds of people involved in shipwrecks due to overloaded and unseaworthy boats. In some cases, rescue missions have led to violent altercations between traffickers and migrants after embarking large numbers of ship wreck victims, jeopardising the safety of crew. Vessels sailing in the region are most likely to be involved in search and rescue operations from March to September when milder weather encourages more migrants to make the crossing.

Territorial control in Libya is divided among various armed groups often with competing economic and political interests. These geographic and political divisions increase the complexity of maritime operations in the country. Despite Western support, Libya’s fledgling coast guard lacks the capacity to secure the country’s waters, enabling high levels of smuggling and trafficking. Other armed groups with a presence in Libyan waters operate with varying levels of professionalism, increasing the threat to vessels calling at Libyan ports or operating in the country’s waters. The lack of clear authority can create a confusing and unpredictable situation for vessels and crew, as does the persistent threat of unplanned port closures due to civil unrest and violence.

Maritime vessels have been targeted directly amid the wider conflict between rival groups in Libya, this includes in periodic attacks by warplanes against ships calling at ports controlled by opposing forces. Armed smugglers have also clashed with security forces and humanitarian vessels have been fired on by groups claiming to represent legitimate security forces.

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