Italy sees major drop in migrant crossings from Libya to Europe. But is the cost too high?

The number of migrant arrivals in August was down more than 80 percent from last year, thanks to Rome's partnership with Libyan authorities. But those sent back to Libya face torture and rape in the detention centers where they are held.

Hani Amara/Reuters
A member of the Libyan Coast Guard uses a pair of binoculars as he searches for migrants off the coast of Tripoli, Libya, in August 2017.

Statistically, it seems clear: Italy has figured out how to allay Europe’s migrant crisis.

After five difficult years of human pain and political drama, the number of migrants arriving in the country has plummeted in recent weeks. Only 15,365 landed at Italian ports in July and August, a 65 percent drop from the same period last year. August arrivals fell more than 80 percent from the year before.

Driving the downturn is Rome’s effort, with European Union backing, to help the Libyan Coast Guard turn boats back and crack down on search-and-rescue operations by international humanitarian groups. In addition, Italy is trying to cooperate with such authorities as can be found in Libya’s chaotic political landscape to police Africa’s people-smuggling routes.

Under pressure from next year's elections, in which immigration is an increasingly polarizing issue, government officials are pleased. “Balance is being restored” in the Mediterranean, Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said recently.

But at what moral price?

Though the flow of people to Europe is being throttled, alarmed nongovernmental organizations warn that the refugees returned to Libya are being condemned to prisons where torture and rape are commonplace. Italy risks being complicit in the abuse in the prisons, the NGOs argue, and is hampering their humanitarian operations by imposing a “code of conduct” on those rescuing migrants at sea. Further, Libya’s nascent Coast Guard has issued threats of violence against – and fired upon – NGO rescue vessels operating in the area, prompting several of the groups to suspend operations.

“We are seeing an erosion of recognized international principles to save lives at sea,” warns David Hammond, head of Human Rights at Sea.

Pressure is building

As in other European countries, the arrival of large numbers of migrants and refugees has become a sore political point in Italy, offering populist and extreme right-wing parties rich campaign pickings as next year’s parliamentary elections draw near.

And Italy’s ad hoc reception system for migrants, cobbled together in emergency fashion in recent years and bereft of any coherent body of law to guide it, can no longer cope, experts say.

Some half a million migrants have landed on Italy’s shores over the past three years. Almost all of them apply for political asylum because that is the only way they might be allowed to stay in Europe, and because the Italian asylum process, stretched out by appeals, can easily take more than three years.

But 51 percent of them are denied asylum, according to official figures, and so are ejected from the camps, disused hotels, or other facilities where they had been living. Legally they should be deported, “but we do not have an efficient system for this,” a senior official admits, so they almost all stay in Italy.

(Italy is not alone: A European Union report last March found that only 27 percent of the 1 million migrants ordered to leave EU territory in 2014-15 were actually sent home.)

For years Italy got by with its rickety reception system because most of the migrants and refugees did not want to stay, but made their way to wealthier countries further north. Now, however, Italy’s neighbors to the north have sealed their borders; the migrants are trapped, and pressure is building.

The only European program to relieve that pressure, catering mainly to Eritreans and Syrians who arrived since September 2015 – whose asylum requests are almost always granted – has relocated just 8,205 applicants from Italy to other EU countries. That is a drop in the ocean. Europe, Italian officials complain with some justification, has turned its back on the problem.

Even those who are granted political asylum and permission to work find that welcome is not worth much in Italy. “The government makes you legal but there is no integration,” complains Simon, an Eritrean refugee who preferred not to give his family name. “Hardly anyone gets Italian lessons, and if you don’t speak Italian how can you find a job?”

Nor can the refugees go anywhere else. Under EU rules set out in the Dublin Treaty, migrants and refugees are obliged to stay in the country where they are first registered – almost always Italy since Turkey closed the route to Greece. The EU is considering a reform of the Dublin rules, but no change is in sight soon enough for Rome.

Libya's new Coast Guard

But while Rome has been unable to address its domestic immigration issues, it has moved purposefully to stanch the flow of new migrants attempting to arrive. “I need to get control of the border in a short time,” says Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti.

Bram Janssen/AP/File
FILE - In this Thursday June 23, 2016 file photo, Migrants aboard a dinghy in the Mediterranean Sea wait to be rescued by members of the aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and the rescue group SOS Mediterranee Rescuers of SOS Mediterranee. Doctors Without Borders said Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017, it is temporarily suspending the activity of its rescue ship due to alleged threats from Libya’s coast guard, which has increasingly become more aggressive in patrolling the waters off its coasts where human traffickers launch boats crowded with migrants desperate to reach Europe.

To that end, Italy recently dispatched the first of 10 new Coast Guard patrol boats to the internationally recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli, along with Italian trainers, using 46 million euros ($55 million) of European Union funds.

“We have had good results from this strategy,” says the senior Italian official, pointing to the fall in migrant arrivals in recent months.

There has certainly been much less drama this year on the Central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy than is normal for the summer months when the weather is good and people-smugglers are usually busy. Search and rescue vessels run by NGOs, patrolling outside Libya’s 12 mile stretch of territorial waters, report finding far fewer rubber dinghies in distress, overloaded with migrants.

Libyan Coast Guard officials say this is because they have been more active in their own territorial waters, intercepting the migrant boats and towing them back to the coast. There have also been unconfirmed reports that local militiamen in control of a major migrant embarkation beach are preventing boats from leaving, allegedly in the hope of being paid for this new work.

“Something is going on in Libya that we don’t know about,” says Gabriele Eminente, head of the Italian branch of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has been active in rescuing migrants in distress.

The Libyan Coast Guard recently announced that it was extending its search and rescue authority 80 miles from the coast, and warned NGO boats to stay out of that zone. Mr. Minniti says that Libya cannot make “unilateral” decisions without international consultation, but a Coast Guard boat shot across the bows of an NGO boat in August and the Italian authorities have warned that even international waters are not safe.

Three NGOs have suspended operations in the face of what one called “an explicit threat.” “There is serious uncertainty among a lot of search and rescue NGOs about the safety of their crews because of an emboldened Libyan Coast Guard,” says David Hammond. “They have arguably been emboldened by the actions of the Italian state.”

Hampering NGOs?

The action that has most concerned NGOs is the Italian government’s demand that they sign a code of conduct regulating and circumscribing their operations. That came in the wake of allegations by right-wing politicians that NGO rescue vessels were acting as a “marine taxi service” for migrants and refugees, encouraging them to head for Europe.

Similar charges led a public prosecutor in Sicily to confiscate the Iuventa, a vessel belonging to the German rescue group Jugend Rettet, as part of an investigation into human trafficking amid suspicions that the NGO had colluded with smugglers.

Five of the eight NGOs operating rescue services in the central Mediterranean have now signed the charter, which obliges them to welcome armed Italian police on board, provide the police with information, and to collect smugglers’ boats and outboard engines.

“We have maximum faith in the only country that is continuing to disembark people on its shores,” says Regina Catrambone, co-founder of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, the first group to send a search and rescue boat to North African waters after the Italian navy discontinued its operations in 2014.

With NGO vessels rescuing around 40 percent of the migrants who end up in Italy, security concerns mean “it is very important for me as interior minister … to rely on full cooperation from NGOs … in counter-terrorist operations,” Minniti adds. “NGOs that sign are a full part of the Italian search and rescue system. Those that haven’t are not.”

That is exactly why MSF has refused to sign the code, explains Mr. Eminente. “By signing you agree to become part of a system that is more than search and rescue,” he worries. “You become part of an investigative system incorporating military forces that work with the Libyans. MSF is perceived as independent. That is the very basis of our existence.”

With three NGO boats suspended because of Libyan threats, one in judicial custody, and two being refitted, only three private vessels are currently operational off the Libyan coast. That means less international surveillance of Libyan Coast Guard activities.

Abuses in Libya

Clearly Libyan boats are carrying rescued migrants back to Libya, which is the last place they want to be. Migrants taken back to shore describe being beaten, robbed, and taken to detention centers.

Conditions in such centers, run by the government, militias, and smugglers, are appalling; rape and violent beatings are routine according to accounts by former inmates and United Nations reports. “The list of violations and abuses faced by migrants in Libya is as long as it is horrific,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said last December, issuing a human rights report.

Migrants in Libya “face torture, forced labor, and sexual exploitation,” added the UN Secretary General’s special representative in Libya, Martin Kobler.

Under international law, people rescued at sea must be taken to safe harbor where they can ask for protection without fear of abuse. “Libya is not that place,” says Annemarie Loof, MSF’s head of operations.

“The Italian navy and others who send [migrants] back are complicit in their treatment,” argues Hammond.

Minniti insists that Italy helps the Libyan Coast Guard to operate only in Libyan territorial waters, where arguably the migrants have not legally left Libya and international obligations do not hold. But he acknowledges that “there is a problem with human rights” in Libyan detention centers and suggests that “the international community must guarantee their human rights conditions” through UN agencies such as the International Office for Migration and the UN High Commission for Refugees.

'It’s an idea'

Reforms to Europe’s approach may be needed, but “a main part of the equation is playing out on the other side of the Mediterranean” in Libya and the countries further south from which most migrants set out, insists Minniti, the Italian interior minister.

To that end he says he is giving money not just to the Libyan Coast Guard, but to militiamen and tribal leaders in southern Libya who until now have run the criminal people-smuggling business in the Sahara desert. Now he is paying them to police the smuggling routes and to shut them down.

“Good money sweeps away bad money,” he argues, though he admits that “people thought I was crazy” when he first dived into the chaos of Libyan politics, summoning warring tribal leaders to Rome last March and brokering a peace deal between them.

Minniti has also met regularly with his counterparts from Mali, Chad, and Niger, trying to persuade them to crack down on the people smugglers heading for Libya. “The Sahara is Europe’s southern border,” he says. “A union between these countries and the Libyan tribes could be a strong base on which to build a security belt.”

Critics point out that Rome’s new Libyan partners have never yet shown any interest in human rights. But it’s better than doing nothing, Minniti insists.

“We have a vision, we have an idea,” he says. “I don’t know whether it is right or wrong, but it’s an idea. And in my view, it can work.”

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