Rome’s reputed support for Libyan militias sparks scrutiny
Milan - The presence of Italian naval ships off the coast of Libya is being questioned and Italy’s intentions scrutinised after fighting broke out in Sabratha, a coastal city in western Libya. The fighting was thought to be a result of Italian-funded militias trying to stop refugees and migrants from setting sail for the Italian coast.
A battle broke out in Sabratha in September among competing militias over attempts to stop human smuggling. Fingers pointed to Italy, which denied involvement.
Rome has subsequently been pressured by the Council of Europe and human rights organisations that say Italian naval vessels may be turning refugees and migrants back to Libya. Also of concern is the case of an Italian naval vessel colliding with a refugee boat, resulting in the death of eight passengers and the disappearance of another 29.
“The Foreign Ministry firmly denies that there is an agreement between Libyan traffickers and the Italian government,” an official with the Italian ministry’s media office told Reuters. “The Italian government does not deal with traffickers.”
Despite the denials, it has been widely reported that Italian funds sent through the UN-backed government in Tripoli ended up in the coffers of anti-smuggling militias. Conditions in Libya for migrants and refugees, the majority of whom are from sub-Saharan Africa, are reported to be brutal.
“The more assertive role of Italian ships off Libya has been a component of Rome’s policy since late July,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a doctoral candidate in geopolitics at Paris 8 University and a frequent commentator on Libyan affairs. “As a result of the abrupt slowdown in migrant flow this summer, sub-Saharan Africans keep accumulating in Libya.”
With Italian interference in the passage to Europe, migrants and refugees are gathering in Libyan coastal towns and analysts said the effects are hard to predict.
“No one knows what this new dynamic will trigger,” Harchaoui said. “It may engender quite nasty developments: More horrendous conditions for migrants, a greater chance of a backlash from the Libyan population and many other possible ripple effects. However, Sabratha was not a result of migrants accumulating on Libyan soil.”
The Italians announced they would get involved after claiming that Libya had asked for help from Europe. Libyan officials, including Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj of the UN-backed Government of National Accord, have taken an ambivalent position on Italian support, allegedly asking for help behind closed doors then publicly denouncing the Europeans and expressing distrust of the Italians’ intentions.
Italy’s actions may be violating international conventions. The European Convention on Human Rights stipulates that an actor may not expose people to “torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” By turning back boats, Italy may be in violation of that issue.
With an election in 2018, the Italian government is seemingly doing whatever it can to stop the large number of new arrivals on the country’s shores. The far right in Italy wants severe limits and restrictions placed on immigration but even anti-racist and nominally left-leaning Italians express exasperation at the country’s influx of foreigners.
“Rome has not just one audience to please but several audiences quite distinct from one another,” Harchaoui said. “The most important one for [Prime Minister Paolo] Gentiloni and [Interior Minister Marco] Minniti is the Italian public, which is by and large in favour of Minniti’s short-term strategy, regardless of what it means medium-to-long term for Libya.”
Politicians from traditional parties such as Gentiloni’s Democratic Party must fight off the insurgent far right as well as the increasingly popular Five Star Movement (5SM), a populist effort that borrows platform planks from both left and right, depending on the topic. The 5SM took a strong shift right on immigration last summer. Internal politics aside, there is the international and continental arena in which Italy must placate its partners.
“Rome must also manage its own image vis-à-vis another audience: The EU parliament and the other EU governments,” Harchaoui said. “All those might be turning against Minniti as we speak because from a humanitarian and even security perspectives, it is now very difficult to maintain that the Minniti approach — embraced and applauded by [High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy] Federica Mogherini and [French President] Emmanuel Macron in early September — is an impeccable success.”