Italy's response to migration in Libya full of problems

  • Dominika Jandová
  • 5.2.2018 21:34

The number of migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea in 2017 dropped by 34 % compared to 2016. Strengthening of the Libyan coastguard together with restriction of non-government organisations’ activities are believed to play a key role, while Italy’s Interior Minister Marco Minniti says cooperation with Libya was the most important part. However, the Italian solution rather brought more problems.

Almost 119,400 people crossed the Mediterranean last year, which is a much lower number than in the previous three years. Another 2,846 people died at sea on the dangerous central migration route from Libya. Nigeria, Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Bangladesh, Mali, Eritrea, Sudan, Tunisia and Morocco are among the main countries of origin on this route. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the share of people coming from eastern Africa decreased in recent years while the number of people from western Africa increased. Also, 91 % of migrants sail from Libya. Conclusively, there is a mixed flow of migrants arriving in Libya, including people from different countries with different motivations and experiences – refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants, victims of human trafficking, unaccompanied minors, people migrating out of environmental motivations, and others. In addition to its strategic geopolitical position, Libya is a fertile ground for smuggling and criminal networks due to its continuing internal conflict and instability.

Changes in military operations on Niger’s borders, restricting the activity of nongovernmental organisations in the Mediterranean, the weather or strengthened Libyan coast guard are all being cited most frequently as the reasons for the significant decrease of incoming migrants. The UN-supported Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) was also accused of paying local militias, armed groups and people smugglers to reduce the number of people coming to Europe. Such support and the cooperation between Italy and Libya not only caused a drop in migration into Italy but it also worsened security.


 Delegating responsibility to Libya

In February 2017, the Italian government signed an agreement with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, in which Italy promised to provide Libya aid, equipment and training worth more than €220 million in exchange for its support in the fight against people smuggling and human trafficking. The agreement was backed by the European Union, the GNA’s main donor. Human rights and humanitarian organisations operating in the Mediterranean criticised this policy for resulting in the detention of thousands of people in Libya and experiencing inhuman conditions, brutal treatment, including sexual violence, torture and slavery. The policy, which is essentially based on the EU helping Libyan institutions detain migrants at sea and returning them to Libya, was also labelled inhuman by the UN.

Up to 80 % of Libyan border guards derive from militia units.


Last July, the EU’s monitoring mechanism was established to prevent human rights violations by the Libyan coast guard, but it quickly became a subject of criticism since it is run by the Libyans themselves. The composition of the coast guard also remains questionable, as up to 80 % of Libyan border guards derive from local militias units and, therefore, their integration and professionalization is a challenge.

Moreover, after negotiations in Tripoli in November 2017, Italy and the GNA agreed on a joint operation against smugglers and human traffickers. It is supposed to result in the establishment of a joint operations centre comprised of representatives of both Italian and Libyan coast guards, departments for illegal migration and intelligence services. However, people smugglers have mainly been active in western Libya, where the GNA’s authority and command over the territory controlled by armed groups is very limited.


EU finances are ending up in the hands of people smugglers and militias.


Amnesty International stated in its new report that the EU is partial to blame for the torture and abuse of migrants in Libya due to the steps it took in an effort to curb migration – resulting in its finances ending up in the hands of people smugglers and militias. While the Italian government denies such allegations, according to the AP agency referencing Libyan militia members and security officers, a Vice News report and other media, Libya has provided militias with finances and equipment to prevent ships with migrants from reaching Europe, detaining them in Libya as a part of Italy’s agreement with the GNA.

Cooperation with Libya escalated conflict in the country

While the Italian government saw the drop in migrant numbers as a reason for celebration, the main brunt of the migration crisis instead shifted onto Libyan territory. The GNA does not have enough power to effectively curb migrant trafficking. After the agreement was reached, the media informed about a new armed group operating near the coastal town of Sabratha and about the GNA support to  two main militias previously active in smuggling – the 500-men strong Anas al-Dabashi Brigade and Brigade 48, both of which were allegedly trying to gain legitimacy from the GNA in exchange for preventing ships with migrants from sailing out. Towards the end of September, the armed groups in Sabratha became targets of attacks by other groups participating in human trafficking, which then resulted in weeks-long fights for power, dozens of victims, including civilians, the displacement of hundreds of families and thousands of more families having to be evacuated with UN assistance. Local sources even stated that some 10.000 migrants were detained in and near Sabratha. Another group, called the Operations Room, was allegedly connected to both the GNA and its rival Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar, its main rival in Libya’s civil war, raising concerns that the Sabratha disputes might lead to an escalation of the conflict between the two opposing sides. Moreover, rumours started circulating about the militias‘ efforts to close the borders with Niger and Chad in the southern Libyan desert for migrants moving northward and to control the territories not claimed by either of the rival governments. This policy, therefore, can not only escalate or further spread the conflict, but it also puts migrants in a dangerous position. Moreover, since the agreements cannot be relied on, it definitely does not represent a long-term migration solution and instead disrupts the creation of a trustworthy security apparatus in Libya (if such an option even exists at the moment). It can also result in further efforts to find new migration and smuggling routes.


However, Italy has also started to engage further off the African coast and on Wednesday 17 January, the Italian parliament approved the withdrawal of several hundred troops from the Middle East and deployment of up to 470 troops in Niger, a transition country, to support the fight against smugglers through a training mission.

Crisis averted?

Experts agree that the cooperation with militias and the GNA cannot be relied on and the extreme drop in incoming migrant numbers does not establish a long-term trend. After the groups restricting illegal migration out of Sabratha have been defeated, however, a gradual increase of people coming to southern Europe was witnessed once again, as well as the fact that the EU’s policy, only aimed at curbing migration, had a destabilising effect on Libyan politics.

Comparison of arrivals by sea to Italy between 2016 and 2017. 

The smuggling and criminal networks are the most serious problem on the central migration route, to which European countries are finally starting to react. Despite the successful suppression of their activities or destruction of the mains cells, this alone will not lead to a long-term sustainable decrease of migration across the Mediterranean. For example, the EU Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), financed out of the European Development Fund, is moving finances from development and creation of economic alternatives to smuggling towards short-term security solutions and border management. Alike the V4’s €35 million contribution to Libya will support the second phase of the Libyan coast guard’s training as a part of the EUTF, which totals €3.1 billion. In Sudan, migrants and refugees also experienced a negative effect of these finances on their lives, as the country openly uses militias to detain migrants at the border. There are also concerns that the money provides means to suppress the regime’s opponents.

Despite being warned that the support of Libya‘s forces comes with serious security risks, Italy and the EU take this policy very seriously, negotiating to move from the strengthening of the Libyan coast guard to Libya’s Navy and gradually delegating responsibility for border protection over up to 10 % of the Mediterranean by 2020. Stabilising Libya first and then investing in the development of forces responsible for migration prevention through an official government able to adequately manage a migration wave would obviously be a more effective and reasonable solution than supplying militias with money in a war-torn country. But that is not politically feasible. In Libya, Europe is only solving its own migration problem, instead of solving the country’s civil war problem, whose origins points us to the 2011 Libyan intervention. Furthermore, the two issues are obviously linked. Aside from investments into local economies, it is important to consider migration for environmental reasons, which is still largely overlooked and will play an increasing role in the future. By replacing development aid with security projects and border control, we are disregarding the real causes of migration. Almost three years after the migration crisis, Europe is still not able to find a long-term solution and take steps to ease the situation. The upcoming negotiations about the seven-year-long European structural funds cycle could possibly provide a new solution. Still, the question remains whether eastern European countries, the loudest fighters against migration, would nod to reductions of investments in their own countries in exchange for addressing migration in European countries, such as Greece or Italy, and in border countries like Libya.

Dominika Jandová is ESJ’s senior analyst currently residing in Catania, Sicily.

About author: Dominika Jandová


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