NATO prepares for Libya blockade over migrants
London - “Living here is not always easy. Like many other migrants who are now living in Italy, I would like to tell the people who stayed in my country what the journey to Europe is really like but they wouldn’t believe me. When I tel my brothers back home about the dangers of coming to Italy, they think I just don’t want them to come to Europe,” Senegalese migrant Ismail said.
Rescued by the Italian Coast Guard from an overcrowded, capsizing dinghy in the Mediterranean, Ismail was given the chance to enrol in the third year of Italian public middle school in Palermo. His story, part of the I am a Migrant series supported by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), is one that it is hoped will become a rarity following a forthcoming NATO blockade of Libya.
As NATO prepares to organise the blockade of the Libyan coastline to prevent migrants from attempting the dangerous Mediterranean route to Europe, questions arise about the precise nature of the operation and whether this is too little, too late.
Italian Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti announced that NATO was three months away from launching the naval blockade, which would be modelled on an existing NATO operation that aims to patrol the Mediterranean and monitor shipping to help “deter, defend, disrupt and protect against terrorist activity”.
“At the NATO level we have asked for Operation Active Endeavour to be recalibrated from an anti-terrorist operation in the Eastern Mediterranean to one that oversees the Libyan coast,” Pinotti announced in an interview with Italian newspaper La Stampa. “This is the road to follow, combined with respect for human rights and support for countries of origin to handle the repatriated.”
The operation, clamping down on trans-Mediterranean migration from Libya to Lampedusa — Italy’s southernmost island — is expected to be approved at meeting July 7th in Warsaw. The United States has said it would be willing to commit warships to the operation.
US President Barack “Obama said he was willing to commit NATO assets to block the traffic in human beings and the people smugglers that we refer to as modern slavers,” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said after a late-April meeting with the US president and other EU leaders.
However, the number of migrants attempting the Mediterranean crossing has surged after previously easier routes into Europe were blocked and as summer, characterised by relatively calm seas, approaches. Even more desperate refugees and migrants could rush to use this dangerous route in the knowledge that it will soon be closed, leading to scenes such as those seen at the end of April when at least 99 people drowned in two shipwrecks off the coast of Libya.
At least 1,360 people have been reported dead or missing in 2016 after trying to cross the Mediterranean while 182,800 have reached European shores. More than 350,000 migrants have reached Italy by boat from Libya since the beginning of 2014.
Many of those who made the journey previously were Libyans fleeing violence, although there is an increasingly number of Africans, like Ismail, who are making the journey.
“If it continues at this rate through the coming spring and summer months, we have every reason to think that arrivals to Italy will pass 100,000 for the third straight year and could possibly be many, many more than that,” IOM spokesman Joel Millman said.
Millman, briefing the United Nations on an IOM report in April, said the difficult situation in Libya was not helping, with many people, including migrants from sub- Saharan Africa, looking to leave the North African state. “There’s a huge amount of pent-up demand in Libya to get away from that situation,” he said.
Questions remain regarding just what the NATO warships will do when they intercept refugee boats. Escort them safely to Italian shores or send them back?
“It is worth remembering that Libya is not party to the Geneva convention and that conditions in its detention centres are appalling. I don’t think NATO will turn boats back but I do think Italy will start flying people home directly from Sicily,” Libya expert Mattia Toaldo told Agence France-Presse.
Any repatriation of migrants would depend on agreement with individual governments, something that will be difficult for the European Union to arrange, let alone organise given that many migrants destroy their identity papers. Libya’s fledgling government has offered to enter into a Turkey-style agreement with Italy to take back migrants but African governments are not so keen and it would be difficult to organise such a programme in three months.
For Senegalese migrant Ismail, the forthcoming NATO blockade will not affect him but its many repercussions, including potential repatriation agreements between Rome and African governments, could.