By empowering Libyan warlords and constraining rescue missions, migrant numbers to Italy have halved. But at what cost?

By Leanne Tory-Murphy

On 10 May, in the early European summer, a rescue vessel patrolling the Mediterranean Sea came across a familiar sight: a wooden boat overcrowded with migrants. It headed over to give out life vests when a Libyan warship passed them at high speed before seizing the passengers.

This was not the first time Libyan authorities had made their presence on these seas felt. Last year, armed men belonging to the Libyan Coastguard forcefully interrupted a rescue operation being conducted by Sea Watch, leading to the drowning of over 20 people. This May, the Libyan navy shot at a Doctors Without Borders rescue ship. And last week, the coastguard fired warning shots at a Spanish rescue vessel that claims to have been outside Libya’s territorial waters at the time.

Due to the security risks posed by Libyan forces, several NGOs have now decided to suspend all rescue operations.

Incidents involving aggressive authorities in the Mediterranean have become increasingly frequent recently as the Libyan Coastguard – whose commanding officer is a known warlord – has stepped up operations to stop migrant boats crossing into Europe. These authorities have freely used force, in both Libyan and international waters, and endangered the lives of countless people.

This has happened all at the behest of Europe. This February, Italy struck a memorandum of understanding with Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). Echoing previous pacts with Colonel Gaddafi, Italy promised funding and other support to the fragile North African nation in return for efforts to curb migration.

The next day, leaders at the EU Migration Summit in Malta declared their support for the arrangement. Although the deal was blocked by the Libyan Supreme Court, which declared that the GNA did not have legal authority, its provisions have been enacted.

Under the controversial deal, Italy has offered training and finical support to the Libyan Coastguard and even sent a navy ship to assist its operations. The strategy seems to have been highly effective. This July, there were around 11,500 arrivals in Italy, less than half the 23,500 figure of July last year.

At the same time, civil rescue operations are being obstructed. They have been criminalised under the premise of ensuring that they are not collaborating with human smugglers. They have been prevented from docking at Italian ports, forced to sign a “code of conduct” that would impede efficient rescues, and one NGO even had its ship impounded.

Furthermore, Italy’s Foreign Minister has publicly backed Libya’s aggressive moves towards the humanitarian missions, commenting in an interview that things are moving “in the right direction” and that “this sends a signal that the balance is being restored in the Mediterranean”.

Detention, torture, extortion

When Libyan authorities forcefully interrupt crossings to Europe, migrants are put at great risk on the seas, but the dangers do not stop there. Passengers face graver dangers and vulnerabilities once they are returned to the Libya’s shores.

Since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, the country has been marked by conflict, instability and human rights abuses. Libya currently has three rival governments, all jostling to position themselves as legitimate authorities able to control migration in return for European funds. Moreover, the country is home to wide range of powerful militias. Many of these armed groups are heavily involved in crime, including human smuggling and trafficking, and their members are well-represented in the government in Tripoli and other agencies across the country.

The Coastguard, for example, has been referred to as an “aquatic militia”. Meanwhile, although 29 of Libya’s approximately 35 migrant detention centres are officially managed by the Directorate for the Combat of Illegal Immigration (DCIM), they are effectively run by local armed groups with limited oversight.

It is to this war-torn and violent country to which migrants seized at sea in European-funded operations are returned. And it is in the militia-run detention centres that they are kept. There, they face overcrowding, appalling conditions and possible extortion.

A report by the UN human rights agency in December detailed rampant torture, arbitrary detention, forced labour and sexual violence against migrants in Libya, including in these very detention centres.

“The prisons there, they beat us,” a young Gambian migrant now living in Palermo told African Arguments. “They beat you. They say ‘call your people, let them send money for you’.”

Under the principle of non-refoulement, European countries are forbidden under international law to return asylum seekers to Libya. This is because the country is deemed unsafe and it is understood that migrants sent back there are likely to face discrimination and a wide range of abuses. However, by getting Libyan authorities in Libyan waters to stop people reaching its waters in the first place, Europe can circumvent this fundamental principle.

Past wrongs

The ongoing tragedy in the Mediterranean is avoidable. People embark on dangerous journeys – typically across vast distances and treacherous terrains before even reaching the North African coast – because there are no other options. Whether people have left their home countries for reasons of poverty or persecution, crossing the sea is ultimately the only viable option for those seeking to build a better life in Europe.

In return, European governments have increasingly turned to military approaches to keep migrants at bay. It sees the mass movement of people to its shores as a problem facing Africa or the Global South, and one to be contained there.

But Europe cannot claim to have no hand in the causes of migration. Most migrants come from countries with dark histories of colonial injustice and an enforced inequitable distribution of resources. In fact, Europe’s problem is not one of the arrivals, but of atonement for past and current wrongs. Migration is not a question of border control and security, but global economics, politics and justice.

This must be recognised if the crisis is to be genuinely addressed. It may not play as well in an increasingly right-wing Europe, but a work visa regime that would allow people to come to Europe legally and real support for development in Africa would not only diminish the causes of migration, but begin to acknowledge an unjust history and present.

The alternative, it seems, is to continue handing over millions of Euros to Libyan warlords. It is to avoid thinking about the repercussions for vulnerable migrants now or to where reactionary short-term actions might lead in the future.


Leanne Tory-Murphy – writer and researcher. migration, labor, borders, and resistance. Leanne is a freelance reporter based in Palermo, Sicily, where she is pursuing research on migration issues as a Fulbright scholar.


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