Italy’s new policy on migration from Libya: will it last?

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The Mediterranean between Libya and Italy

In recent months, Italy has promoted a significant policy shift on migration through Libya and, for the moment, this has resulted in a dramatic decrease in flows. Now migrants from Africa are stopped in Libya whereas until the first half of July they were rescued by European ships in the Mediterranean and brought mostly to Italy. This drop is very recent and it will likely take several months to verify if the current system will hold long enough to produce a durable trend. It will also take time to understand how this policy shift on migration has spilled over into Italian policy in the Mediterranean and the broader European conversation about migration.

The new Italian policy on migration through Libya has been implemented mostly by its Interior Minister Marco Minniti from the Democratic Party. It does not eliminate the existing pillars of EU policy towards migration from Africa, most of which were developed in 2015: massive capacity-building and development funds for countries of origin and transit (the so-called “migration compact” championed by then Prime Minister Matteo Renzi) and in Libya the training program for the coast guard, the EU naval operation Sophia in the Mediterranean (officially EUNAVFOR MED, headquartered in Rome) and the EU Border Assistance Mission in Libya.

But since the beginning of 2017, and with more intensity over the last three months, Minniti added four decisive elements which can be defined as the “Minniti compact”. The first is an agreement (whether implicit or explicit, direct or indirect is still open to question) with the armed groups that control the major hubs of people smuggling on the north-western coast of Libya. These groups are affiliated with the UN-recognized government of Faiez Serraj, but numerous investigations - including an independent panel of UN experts - indicated their collusion or proximity with people smugglers. Since mid-July they have decided to stop the boats from leaving the coasts of Libya.

Secondly, thanks to Italian cooperation (also with the dispatch of some Italian ships into Libyan waters), Libya has established its own Search and Rescue Area (SAR). This means that even if boats do leave the coast, they are “rescued” by the Libyan coast guard and the migrants are locked up in detention centers in Libya, rather than reaching the EU.

A third policy innovation concerns, the de facto humanitarian channel into Europe that a series of European NGOs have effectively established through their extensive search and rescue operations: the combined effect of Italian regulations and the establishment of the Libyan SAR is that NGOs have now mostly stopped operating in the Mediterranean .

Lastly, since the spring Italy has engaged in deep negotiations with Libya’s southern tribes to stop the flows at the Southern borders with Niger and Chad while deepening cooperation with these two countries to counter the flows.

Minniti promoted this policy shift as a result of different factors. First, because of increased border controls by France and Austria along Italy’s Northern borders, most migrants ended up staying in Italy, which turned from a country of transit to the rest of Europe to a country of destination. Asylum applications in 2016 doubled compared to 2014. Secondly, flows seemed out of control with several thousand migrants being rescued and brought to Italy on a daily basis in May. In the same month, Italian municipalities refused to host migrants while those mayors who did accept them, eventually lost local elections. Feeling abandoned by Europe, and particularly by French President Emmanuel Macron from whom Italian policy-makers expected more willingness to share the burden, the Italian government started to fear the impact of uncontrolled migration flows on the 2018 legislative elections.

But will the four elements of the Minniti compact hold until then and in particular will the armed groups of Western Libya continue to stop the boats? Regardless of international media reports of Italian payments to these groups, what really matters for them is the ability to focus on other sectors of smuggling (mostly petrol, but also speculation on the Libyan dinar and possibly drugs and weapons) without incurring in any consequences. If they are allowed to focus on “goods” that are less decisive in the fortunes of European politicians, they might decide to stick to the deal. Locked in detention centers with no hope of getting to Europe, migrants will fall even more easily as victims of slavery for criminal activities or be forced to pay ransoms to get back home. Controlling the taps of migration to Europe, these militias will have relevant leverage both with Europe and with the Serraj government in Tripoli which relies heavily on external support.

In fact, this new migration policy has consequences on the broader Italian policy in the Mediterranean. Because of his cooperation with the Italians on migration, Serraj had been heavily criticized by his rival, general Khalifa Haftar who is in charge of Eastern Libya and had even threatened to attack Italian vessels arriving in Tripoli. But since Italy resumed full relations with Egypt in mid-August, Haftar lowered the tones of his criticism and  even met with Minniti recently.

More generally, these events have increased distrust between Italy and its European partners, in particular Macron who has been very active on Libya while not offering any help on managing the flows of migrants who arrived in Italy. Within Europe, the new conversation is no longer about how to stop the flows (or at what cost, for that matter) but how to deal with the stock of migrants now trapped in Libya without a chance of moving northwards. Angela Merkel and other leaders are now suggesting that reception centers should be established in Libya and managed according to international standards. But while this, along with Libya’s ratification of the Geneva Convention, is a goal to be pursued, this is unlikely to be achieved in the short term given that existing detention centers for migrants are a source of revenue for the militias, which are very important for the continuation of the deal. Migrants held there are either freed upon payment of ransom or used as slaves in criminal networks. Ultimately, any attempt to make current policies look prettier will bump against the reality in Libya and the growing hostility towards migrants among large sectors of European public opinion.

But the “Minniti compact” was not the only possible option. A more sustainable system, that would bind Europe and Italy less closely to unpredictable actors like Libyan warlords, is based on three pillars. First, is a UNHCR-managed resettlement mechanism for African refugees similar to the ones used by Australia, Canada or the USA under former President Barack Obama. UNHCR offered 20,000 refugees to Europe but no reply has been made public by Europe. Second, an alternative arangement would include  agreements to streamline forced returns of irregular migrants and failed asylum-seekers to their countries of origin. Third, and to incentivize these agreements, a plan should be devised to include among the different “carrots” some work visas for the citizens of those countries thereby showing that the closure of irregular routes goes hand in hand with the existence of safer and legal routes.

The Minniti compact should not be seen as a lost opportunity for this “three pillars” policy. On the contrary, on the back of the recent drop in flows it will be easier to discuss this alternative model in some European capitals without the fear of an “invasion” of African migrants – which was never the case in the first place.