A few weeks ago, precisely on March 27, 2019, the world was jolted by the report of the “hijacking” of a Turkish ship, El Hiblu1, a cargo ship, in European waters. El Hiblu 1 had seemingly demonstrated fellow-feeling for suffering humanity by picking 108 migrants stranded at sea. The migrants heaved a sigh of relief after what they thought was a rescue. But instead of taking them where they wanted to go, the ship started heading back to Libya, the devil’s enclave, the migrants were trying to escape from.
When it became clear that the ship was taking them back to Libya, four of the migrants became violent, and took control of the ship, directing it where to go –an act the maritime world regards as hijacking.
“The captain repeatedly stated that he was not in control of the vessel and that he and his crew were being forced and threatened by a number of migrants to proceed to Malta,” the Armed Forces of Malta had said in a statement.
The story of the hijacking circulated across the world, spreading apprehension and tension. But a swift intervention by a special operations team of Malta’s armed forces brought the dramatic episode to an end. The special operations team backed by fast interceptors craft and a helicopter deftly took control of the ship at nightfall and re-directed it to Valletta, the Maltese capital. With bathed breath, the world waited the arrival of the ship at Valletta port.
On Thursday, March 28, the ship berthed at the Maltese Port. The world was again stunned as tired and famished migrants comprising mainly women and children disembarked from the ship led by a toddler and a young girl in torn jeans, instead of some fierce-looking, blood-shot eyed criminals. However, four men in handcuffs believed to have been the voices that shouted orders to the ship captain were escorted away by the police.
The El Hiblu1 “hijack” incident has introduced another dimension to the crime of piracy and hijacking of vessels at sea. Italian Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini called the migrants “pirates”. But the world does not really see them as such. Haidi Sadik of Sea Watch, a non-profit organization that carries out civil search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean, said referring to these migrants as pirates “is a very damaging narrative, as it portrays people who are very vulnerable in a negative light when, in fact, all they’re doing is escaping the human right violations they’d face in Libya”.
To underscore the desperation and the preference of death to life in Libya by the migrants, Sadik added, “We’ve seen people jump into the sea not to go back there.”
The world press that covered the incident also saw the migrant’s action in the same light. Bloomberg reporter, Caroline Alexander wrote that the migrants, women and children, who disembarked from the ship were “simply desperate”. “The incident — the first of its kind recently — shines a painful light on the continued despair of migrants three years after a surge of refugees threatened to flood into the European Union. Though the numbers of those reaching Europe’s shores has fallen dramatically over the past five years because of tougher EU policies, many are still trying, often dying at sea,” she wrote.
Indeed, life in Libya at the moment is difficult to imagine. Some Nigerian migrants and deportees from Libya have described life in Libya as living in hellfire. The country is bedeviled by a proliferation of human traffickers, slavery rings and armed gangs. Some of these armed gangs have been spreading even down to West Africa.
The so-called hijack of El hiblu1 truly marks a turning point in the refugee crises and the dangerous crossings on the Mediterranean to Europe. The crisis has become a harmful legacy that has shaken the political establishment in Europe. It has led to a division in the European Union, as countries continue to disagree on how to contain the influx of refugees and relocate them within their borders. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who adopted an open-door policy to the refugee crisis, has found herself all alone. The anti-immigration crisis also played a role in the Brexit imbroglio.
In the wake of the El Hiblu1 incident, EU governments met and decided to suspend the use of vessels under the bloc’s operation to fight people smuggling in the Mediterranean Sea pending an accord on where migrants should disembark. They also decided on a six-month extension of the bloc’s Mediterranean mission, dubbed ‘Operation Sophia’, which also involved the use of planes and the training of the Libyan navy and coast guard. But the deadlock over a 2016 proposal to relocate refugees across the bloc instead of leaving gateway countries such as Italy to take all the heat still remains.
Italian deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, who dubbed the migrants ‘pirates’ had been a hardliner in the refugee crisis. Italy under him had shut its ports to people saved in the sea by the EU ships patrolling the Mediterranean for migrants embarking on the perilous voyage, insisting that other EU states should host the new arrivals. Thus political tensions sparked by migration continue to run high in the EU, especially ahead of European Parliament election in May.
Meanwhile, Malta has charged the three arrested migrants who are teenagers to court. Under Maltese law, “hijacking” is considered a terrorist activity. But the world waits to see how the country will treat a case of teenagers that acted under desperation. Piracy and hijacking like other heinous crimes must be premeditated and planned. One wonders if the same can be said about the El Hiblu 1 incident.
One of the teenagers named Abdalla Bari is 19 and from Guinea. Two others, 15 and 16, are from Guinea and Ivory Coast and, as minors, could not be identified.
All three denied the charges. Reports say they face up to 30 years in jail if found guilty. Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has said all international rules will be followed as police investigate the incident.
The last has not been heard of the “hijacking” of El Hiblu1. Just as the world waited with anxiety the resolution of the incident at sea, so it is equally waiting to know the fate of the teenage migrants whose act of desperation to leave Libya has clothed them in the garb of hijackers and terrorists.
One thing that is clear about the incident is that all the migrants were in one accord to be taken to Malta instead of Libya. This includes the minors and the women in the ship. The fate of the three teenagers should equally be the fate of all. Maltese authorities should not make a scapegoat of the three teenagers who, to the migrants, are nothing but their heroes.