By Alessandra Bocchi

Migration deal between Italy and Libya could resemble one reached in 2008, when Italy agreed to donate more than $4 million to help Libya stop migrants leaving its shores.

Italy has become the first major country to reopen its embassy in Libya as it aims to help strengthen the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli in combating illegal migration and human trafficking.

There is a new impulse here. We are moving as pioneers,” Italian Deputy Foreign Minister Mario Giro told the Financial Times after the embassy was reopened this month. “There is a lot of work to do because Libya still does not have the capacity to manage the flows and the country is still divided.”

Italy closed its embassy in Libya in 2015 as the country was struggling to move forward four years after long-time dictator Muammar Qaddafi was killed in the 2011 uprisings. Since then, smugglers have acted with impunity, as lawlessness prevailed in the absence of a unified governmen.

The Italian ambassador is returning to Tripoli after two years of absence. A great gesture of friendship to the Libyan people. Now more controls on migrant departures,” Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano wrote on Twitter.

A migration deal between Italy and Libya could resemble one reached in 2008, when Italy agreed to donate more than $4 million to help Libya stop migrants leaving its shores. A Maltese document, discussed January 19th by EU envoys in Brussels, proposes moving the mission closer Libyan territorial waters, where Libyan forces would have “strong and lasting EU support”, reported Reuters.

In an interview with Italian newspaper La Stampa, Alfano said: “We have to accelerate the deportations and repatriations, and I’m working to conclude agreements that will diminish migrant arrivals by stopping them from leaving their home countries.”

EU officials welcomed Italy’s renewed engagement in Libya as they say migration from the Mediterranean is threatening the integrity of the union. Data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees show that nearly 500,000 people have attempted the journey by sea into Europe since 2013, with more than 10,000 reported dead or missing.

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who holds the rotating EU presidency, on January 16th said Libya had rejected an original migrant deal proposed by Italy. Muscat stressed how a Turkish-style migrant agreement last March, in which migrants were halted from moving into the European Union by providing billions of dollars in aid and visa-free travel to Europe for Turkish citizens, should be “replicated” in the Mediterranean to solve the migrant crisis, the Financial Times reported.

There is no doubt that unless the essence of the Turkey deal is replicated in the central Mediterranean, Europe will face a major migration crisis,” he told European lawmakers.

EU migration chief Dimitris Avramopoulos rejected the Turkish-style migration proposal, arguing North Africa is too unstable. “Let me tell you that we cannot duplicate the EU-Turkey statement, the situation is not similar in Libya,” he said in a meeting January 24th with MEPs on the civil liberties committee, the EUobserver reported. Avramopoulos endorsed Italy’s renewed support for the GNA and looked for other solutions in resolving cross-border migrant flows of Sub-Saharan Africans into Libya, including working with Libyan authorities.

Italy’s outreach has also faced vociferous opposition, however. Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army, described Italy’s renewed diplomatic mission as a “military occupation”, the Libya Herald reported.

Worries over Russia sending naval forces to the eastern shores of Libya in support of Haftar have also surfaced.

Libya is an incredibly fragile or failed state, and the [GNA]… is currently not a credible interlocutor to deal with the migrant crisis,” said Eugenio Cusumano, assistant professor in international relations at Leiden University, who specialises in international security and has worked in various migrant rescue operations in Sicily.

He said migrant centres in Italy were saturated and that rescue operations were insufficient to tackle large-scale migratory flows.


Alessandra Bocchi is a Tunis-based journalist.


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