Charlotte Boitiaux

Italian authorities on Monday accused the Russian paramilitary group Wagner of being responsible for the recent increase in the Mediterranean Sea of ​​illegal migration to Europe. A rather extravagant and “unfounded” assertion, according to Emadeddin Badi, specialist in Libya.

It is a press release which makes react in the Italian peninsula. “I think it is now possible to affirm that the exponential increase in the migratory phenomenon departing from the African coasts is […] part, in no small measure, of a clear strategy of hybrid warfare that the Wagner division is implementing […]”, Defense Minister Guido Crosetto said Monday, March 13.

Same allegations a few hours later from the Italian Foreign Minister. During a visit to Israel, Antonio Tajani told the Italian news agency Ansa that it was “worrying” that many migrants come from areas “controlled by the Wagner group”. “I would not like there to be an attempt to push migrants towards Italy,” he added, quoted by Corriere della Serra.

According to Rome, therefore, the explosion of arrivals on the Italian coasts via the Mediterranean since the beginning of the year would thus be attributable – more or less directly – to the influence of the Russian paramilitary group. “Laughable”, replies immediately Emadeddin Badi, specialist in Libya and researcher at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC).


If the group is present on the other side of the Mediterranean and that its members “pose a certain number of strategic threats to Europe as well as to the stability in Libya”, nothing demonstrates their control over the mafia trafficking of the side. “Italian officials are trying to use Wagner as a scapegoat, but this has no basis in reality,” says the specialist.

The Libyan coasts are indeed controlled by numerous mafias attracted by the – extremely lucrative – trade of crossings of the Mediterranean. “Criminal networks are maturing there and have developed there […] that Russia benefits from this migratory dynamic – of course, but it is not responsible for it”, develops Emadeddin Badi.

“In reality, their ability to ‘control migration flows’ to Europe is unfounded,” he continues. Wagner members have “so far no ‘known’ influence in this illicit and crowded human trafficking market”. And to add: “Wagner cannot create a monopoly” in this area, and thereby influence the frequency and pace of crossings.

For his part, the leader of the Wagner militia, Evgeny Progozhin, replied directly to Minister Guido Crosetto: “He should take care of his problems which he probably has not been able to solve”, according to reports by the same article in Corriere della Sera. “We don’t know what’s going on with the migration crisis, we don’t deal with it, we have a lot of our own issues to deal with.”

“Destabilize the West”

Wagner’s presence is obviously no coincidence in the Libyan landscape where the rule of law has collapsed. The group has notably signed security contracts with Marshal Haftar – the rival authority of the government of national unity installed in the capital and led by Faïez Sarraj. The country’s oil, gas and gold resources make it an El Dorado for many militias.

“Wagner – and Russia – are involved in illegal gold mining in the Fezzan [desert region of Libya, editor’s note], they have positioned themselves near key airbases and near Libyan oil installations”, specifies to this topic Emadeddin Badi.

The Wagner company is today unanimously considered the armed wing of the Kremlin. In the eyes of experts, it is taking advantage of the failure of many African states, particularly in the Sahel, the Central African Republic and Libya, to wage a war of influence on the continent.

Italian accusations are ‘counterproductive’

Why does Italy seek to blame Wagner? Surely “because it is much easier to stir up anti-Russian sentiment now than to face the failures of Italian and European policies on the issue of migration in Libya”. As a reminder, 32.6 million euros have been paid by Rome to Tripoli for support missions to the Libyan coast guard since 2017. Without real results on the crossings.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 20,000 people have landed on Italian shores since the start of 2023, three times more than in

In addition, for years, the Old Continent has struggled to pursue a common policy on the migration issue, with each Member State imposing its own rules on the reception – and refoulement – of migrants.

Still, “the Italian approach is doubly counter-productive,” concludes Emadeddin Badi. “She wrongly assigns blame [to Wagner] for a very real problem – which will embolden the real criminal smuggling networks. Moreover, this misdiagnosis prevents the right policies from being used to remedy the situation.”

An opinion shared by the Vice-President of the European Commission, Margaritis Schinas. Basically, knowing if “Wagner, not Wagner [is responsible for the increase in the flow of migrants], is incidental”, he made a point of specifying during a press conference on Tuesday. “We must help countries of origin and transit […] Because the root cause of migration is that people move to have a better life or to escape war and persecution”.


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