No, Mr Draghi, Libya is not “rescuing” people’s lives in the Mediterranean
Updated: Oct 12, 2021
di Annachiara Ruzzetta
In Tripoli, the prime minister forgets the systematic violation of human rights.The words of Mario Draghi on a business mission to Tripoli represent both a lie and an offence. On April 6, 2021, during his first overseas trip since taking office in February, the Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi held talks with Libya’s interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh in Tripoli. Draghi follows in the footsteps of other European leaders who have recently met with Libya’s new interim government. The new Libyan administration took office last month with a mandate to improve services in a nation torn apart by civil war for nearly a decade, and prepare for an election on December 24. That Libya, a former Italian colony, is Draghi’s first official trip abroad as premier is evidence of solid, historic, economic and strategic ties, especially when it comes to preventing people from undertaking sea crossings to Europe. The few words said during the meeting concerning the Libya-Italy Memorandum of Understanding on Migration (LIMUM) — extended again in February 2020 for other three years — are those that leave their mark. The PM expressed satisfaction for the Libyan Coastguard’s work done in the Mediterranean, namely “the rescues”that the Libyan Coastguard (LCG) undertook since 2017. In 2017, the former Interior Minister Marco Minniti secured a deal to reduce migration from Libya to Italy, and, therefore, Europe.
But there is a problem: the so called “rescues” mentioned by the premier are anything but rescues. They are arbitrary deportations back to Libya carried out with patrol boats supplied to date by Italy, which also finances the so-called Libyan Coastguard, a fragmented organization operating under different militias. In 2020, Italy supplied the LCG with a total of 58,292,664 euros, almost ten million more than the previous year. A sumof 10,050,160 euros was allocated specifically to the Navy to retrieve migrants fleeing in the Mediterranean.
The words of PM Draghi — ex President of European Central Bank and known for the infamous “whatever it takes” [to prevent the euro from failing] at the time of the Eurozone crisis —, sound more like a slap in the face of those who have been barbarously tortured and subjected to violence of all kinds in the Libyan detention centres. It is clear that Italy’s interests in this country have brought the Italian PM to overlook the respect of basic human rights by the Libyan authorities. Indeed, Italy relies, more so than any other European country, on Libyan hydrocarbons, and cooperation with Libyan authorities to control migration flows.
From colonizer and colonized to strategic partners Cooperation with Libya on migration and border control is not a new policy choice for Italy.
The history of the land now known as Libya, is deeply intertwined with the rise of Italian imperialism: in 1912 the Treaty of Lausanne sanctioned the cession of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania to the Italians, after a military campaign against the Ottoman Empire. The territory was thus split into two different colonies, which became the “Italian Libya” in 1934 (1). After the fall of the fascist Italian regime in 1943, Italy lost control of the region. However, when in November 1949, the UN General Assembly declared Libya as an independent and sovereign state, there were approximately 20,000 Italians in the country who assured a strategic presence in Libya’s construction sector — at least until the coup d’état staged by colonel Muammar Qadhafi in 1969. The Colonel’s pan-Arabism, combined with strong anti-Western and anti-colonialist attitudes, led to the expulsion of the Italian and Jewish communities from the country, with a total loss of 200 billion Italian liras — c.a. 20 billion euros — in infrastructures. Italy’s reaction steered towards reconciliation, and in the 1970s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Aldo Moro signed important trade agreements with Qadhafi, involving major Italian companies — such as Enrico Mattei’s Eni (2) — in the energy and weapons’ sectors. Italy started to be gradually perceived as a bridge between Libya and the nascent European communities. Cooperation with Libya was, however, since the start not only strictly related to business deals. Since the 1990s, Western Libya emerged as one of the key launching points for boat departures of migrants trying to reach Italian shores and the rest of Europe. Italian PMs Romano Prodi, Massimo D’Alema and Silvio Berlusconi’s successive governments worked to improve the relationship between Rome and Tripoli (1). In 2008, Silvio Berlusconi and Muammar Qhadafi signed the “Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation”, whereby Italy agreed to grant $5 billion as compensation for the occupation of the country under the fascist regime, in exchange for a strict commitment to stop illegal migrations from Libya to Italy. The control over migration flows crossing the Mediterranean from Libya emerged as a top priority in Italian politics.
With the fall of Qhadafi’s 42-year-long regime, the realities of migration networks appeared for what they actually were: an international web of human trafficking. Indeed, Qhadafi, had long served as Europe’s de facto border guard and “never hesitated to leverage this role in order to gain greater political and economic concessions from his counterparts across the Mediterranean” (3). In other words, the Colonnello served for years Europe’s interests in managing and eventually halting the flows of newcomers. However, when his regime collapsed in 2011, the volume of human flows, as well the number of deaths, exploded.
With the outbreak of the civil war in Libya in 2014, the situation worsened. Since 2015, approximately 1,951,280 migrants have reached Europe after crossing the Mediterranean Sea in overcrowded boats. During all these years, more than 17,000 people died while trying to cross the sea in search of protection from the conflicts in their home countries. Since Libya never officially delineated its search-and-rescue (SAR) area, Italy de facto assumed SAR responsibilities outside Libyan territorial waters. In 2013, PM Enrico Letta, launched the Mare Nostrum mission, which in just one year saved more than 140,000 people fleeing Libya. That operation is still rightly remembered with pride, but its high costs — around 9 million euros per month — put an end to it and marked the shift towards a stricter and more exclusive strategy aimed solely at containing the existing crisis and preventing a return of the uncontrolled flows of 2015. In 2017, Marco Minniti was appointed Minister of Interior in the newly formed government headed by Paolo Gentiloni. Minniti is the architect of Italy’s current Libyan policy. This aims to stemming mass migration from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East through Libya and across the Mediterranean, by supporting Libyan border police, and preventing the possible dismembering of the country, perceived as a serious threat to Italian national interests – let us not forget that Eni remains the main gas producer in Libya and the main supplier of gas to the local market with a share of about 80%.
Managing migration flows: the flawed externalization of borders control
Overall, Italy’s partnership with Libya is solidly centered on strategic interests: energy production and migration control. Both of these points are part of the “Memorandum of Understanding on Migration” (LIMUM), signed by Gentiloni and the former UN-backed GNA President Al-Sarraj in 2017. The Memorandum has two main objectives: to support the development of the region by financing health, infrastructure, and education programs, and externalize the control of migration flows by establishing military and security cooperation. With this purpose, the Italian government has been providing technical, economic, and technological support to the Libyan Border Police and Coastguard to help implementing the control system of land borders. However, this decision is a contentious move. The Libyan “Coastguard” is a deeply fragmented organization, which nominally operated under the GNA Ministry of Defence during the civil war, but in practice, it is controlled by different militias and also alleged human traffickers. Reportedly, among them is Abd al-Rahman Milad, known as Bija, a senior figure of the Libyan coastguard, arrested in 2020 with the charge of human trafficking by GNA-backed forces. A UN security report published in June 2017 described Bija as a facilitator of human trafficking and part of a criminal network operating in Zawiyah, in north-west Libya (about 28 miles west of Tripoli), a region that includes the most important departing ports for migrants wanting to reach safety in Europe. In 2019, an investigation by the Italian newspaper Avvenire, and the Italian journalist Nancy Porsia, documented the presence of Bija in Italy at a series of official meetings in Sicily and Rome in May 2017, prompting criticism of the then Minister of Interior, Marco Minniti – who, however, denied any wrongdoing. Moreover, Draghi’s recent trip was criticized by Italian journalists and legislators because it came as the same time as the news of the arbitrary use of wiretapping of reporters’ phone calls during their investigations into Libya-based human trafficking and humanitarian rescue groups. The investigations date back a few years (2017), i.e. during Minniti’s term, when former Italian government officials were investigating NGO’s rescue ships operating in the central Mediterranean.
Externalizing the control of the European borders to Libyans is indeed a disputable, if not wholly reprehensible, aspect of the Italian and European strategy of border control and securitization of migration. According to the latest report by Human Rights Watch, as of October, 9,448 people were disembarked in Libya after the Libyan Coastguard intercepted them. According to IOM thousands of people then went missing after they were taken to undisclosed locations. Migrants, asylum seekers and refugees were arbitrarily detained in inhumane conditions in facilities run by the GNA’s Interior Ministry and in “warehouses” run by smugglers and traffickers, where they were subjected to forced labour, torture and other ill-treatment, extortion, and sexual assault. According to UNHCR, at least 2,467 were held in official detention centers in Libya as of September 2020. According to most people who experienced the journey, their worst experiences happened inside Libya’s detention centers, and returning them back would mean “condemning them to hell”.
One thing is clear: the Italy-Libya agreement has called for people deeply involved in the human smuggling industry, and it still outsources responsibilities to the LCG — which lacks capacity, equipment, and training to safely perform SAR obligations. But this is all overlooked, in name of a strategic cooperation that, according to PM Mario Draghi, needs to be preserved. Draghi's words are an offence to those who have denounced for years the criminal management of migration — these are organizations such as IOM, UNHCR, HRW, but also the journalists who have documented the tortures and arbitrary imprisonments to which newcomers were subjected in Libya. Draghi’s words are also an insult to the sea rescue NGOs operating in the Mediterranean that, despite being criminalized by populist political leaders, rescue human beings from the Libyan coastal militias every day. But above all, what Draghi claimed is an offence to the countless lives lost in the Mediterranean Sea, which the European Union and Italy – overlooking their responsibility in relief and rescue - have been watching become an open-air graveyard.
(2) Labbate, S. (2019). “Italy and its oil dealings with Libya. Limits and obligations of a dependency: the difficult 1970s and 1980s”. Taylor&Francis. June 2019.
(3) P. Tinti, T. Westcott. (2016). “The Niger-Libya Corridor: Smugglers’ Perspectives”. Institute of Security Studies. November 2016.