MILAN — Over the last year, thousands of migrants and refugees have made the perilous journey from the shores of Libya to the Italian coast. The figures of new arrivals in 2016 were set to surpass 2017 — that is, until last month.
Italy received over 78,000 people from Jan. 1 to July 12, 2016, according to the International Organization for Migration. The same dates in 2017 recorded over 86,000 new arrivals.
But August saw an 87% drop in new arrivals in Italy, and the development has left researchers and monitors scratching their heads as to what is behind such a massive change in migration. Initially, nobody seemed to know why there was such a drop in newcomers. Recent details have emerged though, and it turns out that a large part has come down to Italian influence.
In a recent interview with the Guardian on Sept. 7, controversial Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti said he cut deals with warring tribes in southern Libya to try to halt migration coming across the borders of Chad, Mali and Niger. Minniti said he didn’t bribe the tribes but offered them resources to build an “alternative economy.”
“His success in reducing migrant flows has won him praise and popularity on the right and notoriety on parts of the left,” the Guardian reported. “There have been rumors of deals struck in the desert to induce tribes and militia to end the business of human trafficking. It is claimed his methods are fragile, and leave unresolved the fate of the tens of thousands of migrants trapped in Libya in inhumane detention camps unable to reach Italy and unwilling to return to their country of origin on the other side of the Sahara desert.”
Working with local actors in Libya is a common tactic of the Italian government. The two countries have long enjoyed close relations. During the era of Libyan autocrat Moammar Gadhafi, the eccentric ruler had a strong connection with Italy’s scandal-clad Premier Silvio Berlusconi. The Libyan civil war of 2011 ended Gadhafi’s oppressive rule though, and today the country is fractured, with a number of armed militias competing for land, resources and international legitimacy.
The country’s east is largely dominated by Gen. Khalifa Hifter and his Libyan National Army, while the west is under the rule of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. Sarraj also enjoys the recognition of the United Nations. Italian diplomats and government figures have been on the ground in Libya lately working with local actors, including Sarraj, to find ways to stem migration. Migration has become possibly the most prescient issue in the run-up to Italy’s 2018 parliamentary elections.
Migration has become possibly the most prescient issue in the run-up to Italy’s 2018 parliamentary elections.
In addition to Minniti’s dealings on the southern border, other key points in Libya have also seen local deals work to prevent the flow of human bodies into Europe.
“In recent days, we have heard from a couple reporters that Italy in fact struck a financial arrangement with the municipality of Sabratha [on the Libyan coast] and armed groups there,” Jalel Harchaoui, a doctoral candidate in geopolitics at Paris 8 University and a frequent commentator on Libyan affairs, told Al-Monitor.
He explained, “If the above is proved with hard evidence, it will fit squarely with everything else Rome has been doing in the western half of Libya. Rome has gone out and cut deals with local players, sometimes going through the Government of National Accord [of Sarraj], which Italy supports genuinely, but also very often in a direct way.”
These deals are thought to be behind the large drop in migration. Instead of closing borders, as suggested by some European leaders, Italy is trying to go further up the migration chain and cut off the route before humans hit the Mediterranean Sea.
“The main cause of the drop is what has been happening in the two ports of Zawiya and Sabratha where most of the dinghies with migrants used to leave from,” Mattia Toaldo, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Middle East & North Africa program, with a special focus on Libya, told Al-Monitor. “Particularly in Sabratha, there are increasing signs that an armed group has been stopping departures and more generally in these ports smugglers have clearly decided it was better to hold off on people smuggling in order not to attract too much attention.”
Militias that once funded themselves with human trafficking have taken money from the Italian government to keep migrants and refugees off the seas in a move that is angering Libyan officials, The Washington Post reported in August.
Minniti and company seem pleased with the results of their work. Less arrivals may well turn into success at the polls for Italian politicians. But experts believe these policies are short-sighted and may well have negative repercussions in the long run with Italian-funded militias further challenging the legitimacy of an already fractured Libyan government. They could also put a number of refugees and migrants at high risk of human rights abuses.
Medicins Sans Frontieres President Joanne Liu wrote an open letter to European leaders on Sept. 6 that accused them of abetting such abuses in exchange for less bodies reaching European shores.
“Blinded by the single-minded goal of keeping people outside of Europe, European funding is helping to stop the boats from departing Libyan waters, but this policy is also feeding a criminal system of abuse,” Liu wrote. “The detention of migrants and refugees in Libya is rotten to the core. It must be named for what it is: a thriving enterprise of kidnapping, torture and extortion. And European governments have chosen to contain people in this situation. People cannot be sent back to Libya, nor should they be contained there.”
Furthermore, the likelihood that these deals will last is small. Human trafficking is a massive source of income for traffickers, and without finding alternative means of income, it shouldn’t be too long before it kicks off again.
“Anything is possible, but I do not believe [the current situation will last],” Harchaoui said. “It is possible that the arrangements that have allowed Italy to achieve this month’s drop last, but I believe it is unlikely. This is a shifty terrain, and one never knows what incentives emerge when a deal is struck. These things always evolve gradually over the months.”