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immigrants destert

181.405 migrants have landed in Italy from Libya in 2016. 18% more than the year before. Over 5.000 people have died while crossing the Mediterranean, at least 700 of them were minors. Libya is still the source of 80% of the migrants that reach Italian coasts.

This year the flows have changed: in the first three months of 2017 the arrival of migrants increased by a whopping 60% on the year before. This happened during the winter months, when both climate and sea are usually turbulent. The flow was stopped in the past three months or so, when it dropped by 80%.

In recent years, illegal immigration has gotten out of hand and has turned into a social emergency, a national security threat and an economic burden for the Italian State. There are still a number of unanswered questions: how do you assist those who land, how do you block this flow of people, and how do you return those who have no right to asylum.

How the system works

Italian immigration policies should be capable of dealing with the migrants arriving in the country, but they have been overwhelmed. When they first touch Italian soil, migrants are put into Centri di Prima Accoglienza (First Reception Centers), run both by government and regional states. After that, asylum seekers enter the so-called CARA (Reception centers for asylum seekers), who will then help refugees obtain protection. For those who fail the refugee test, the way out of the country is through the CPR (Centri di permanenza per il rimpatrio, repatriation centers).

According to this scheme, the migrant arriving in Italy is received, evaluated and either hosted as a refugee or expelled. There is hence a selection between those worthy of the protection of the 1951 Geneva Convention and illegals who have no right to remain in the country. Let’s pretend it is simple to distinguish a refugee from an economic migrant – when several people provide false identities, including their nationality, and tend to tell the Territorial Commission charged with evaluating their credibility all sorts of stories – the biggest issue is the length of this bureaucratic selection process. While in theory a migrant should be evaluated within a few months, it actually takes over a year, or more than that when a person decides to appeal if they are turned down. And when the legal options are over, the asylum seeker turns into a clandestine immigrant and is handed a request for expulsion.

Another problem are unaccompanied minors. They land in Italy alone (over 12 thousand in 2017, and the figures are on the rise), they cannot be expelled and have a right to be assisted regardless of their provenance. The plan is to create a dedicated section in the SPRARs (Sistema di Protezione per richiedenti asilo e rifugiati, the protection system for asylum seekers and refugees). In 2016, 28.223 minors entered Italy (16% of all arrivals), and 25.846 were unaccompanied. Over the last three years, out of the 64 thousand minors welcomed in Italy, only 17 thousand eventually made it to the reception centers.

If you are not a refugee or a minor, you are apprehended and put inside a CPR and wait to be expelled. These are not detention centers, although you cannot leave the facilities. And this is where another issue comes into play: how do you expel an illegal immigrant when you don’t have a re-admission protocol with his country of origin? Since most migrants come from sub-Saharan Africa where poverty is endemic, there are little or no incentives to welcome a fellow citizen back home. This means the migrant is handed a piece of paper that says he is to be expelled, but the actual expulsion never takes place. And the illegal migrant takes off and starts moving below the radar, possibly using false identities.

immigrant boat

The search for deals

What Italy tried to do was to seek bilateral deals with the countries of origin of the migrants, or with the countries along the route. The idea is to block migrants at home or before they reach Libyan coasts. The latest agreement signed with Niger, worth some 50 million euro, goes in this direction.

Other negotiations are ongoing with Egypt (where 10% of boats depart from), Tunisia and Nigeria, statistically the first country of origin of illegal migrants in Italy. It is in this context that the Italian Ministry of Interior signed a deal with the Tuareg, Tebu and other tribes in Southern Libya. The Italians will train desert border patrols and offer other economic benefits.

Italy is repeating the scheme it used in the past. In 2008 the Italian government led by Silvio Berlusconi signed a deal with Muammar Gaddafi which included, among other things, the collaboration of Libyan authorities in taking back the migrants that had left their coast and had been intercepted at sea. The price tag was pretty expensive: 5 billion euros worth of roads, scholarships, development programs, surveillance systems etc.

Recently, the agreement reached with Sayez al Sarraj’s government in Tripoli runs on two levels: a political one, whereby the Italians hope his partner will be able to honor his commitments; and on the practical one, by helping Libyans obtain the tools they need to implement the deal.

Looking for a partner

However, Italy is aware of the fact that the government in Tripoli exists only on paper and that it won’t be capable of honoring the deal alone. This is why diplomacy has moved its pawns to include forces hostile to al Sarraj in a national reconciliation effort. The recent invitation to Rome of the Prime Minister’s arch-enemy, General Khalifa Haftar, and the promise of more aid (humanitarian and not humanitarian) is part of this endeavor.

The same can be said of the field hospital that was sent to Misrata to support the militias that fought against the ISIS in Sirte. This armed group supports al Sarraj and, at the same time, is hostile to Haftar’s Libyan National Army. Italy is juggling with a national reconciliation effort that is a pre-requisite for any meaningful fight against the traffic of human beings.

Once this has been achieved – even a detente will do for the time being – the second phase begins. This includes providing the Tripoli government with the tools to block the departures. And since the boats leaving for Italy are concentrated around the Libyan capital, it is here that the Italians are concentrating the supply of coast guard vessels and training. This, again, is a measure already adopted during the Gaddafi regime.

To date Italy has said it will provide 10 patrol vessels – not all of them have been delivered yet – and set up an operations center in Tripoli (with its own radar system to coordinate patrolling activities) and provide logistical support on Libyan soil. Some Libyan requests were turned down because of the UN arms embargo on the country, while some equipment was specifically authorized by the United Nations. The total cost of this intervention will be around 800 million euro.

CPT lampedusa
CPT on Lampedusa island, Italy

Libya all the way

The Italy-Libya Memorandum signed on February 2, 2017 includes 8 points with a list of vague needs to be satisfied. The details were added later. It is curious how the Libyans have insisted on including in their wish list article 19 of the 2008 memorandum signed by Gaddafi. It dealt with a radar system to monitor the southern Libyan border and block migrant flows. Back then it was clear that the radar had no use in spotting people, but was requested for military purposes. The estimated cost at the time was 300 million dollars and Selex was the company for the job. The recent meeting with the mayors from Fezzan in Rome could have resuscitated the idea.

As in the past, the Libyan Coast Guard will prevent boats from leaving its coasts and will take back those migrants that have been intercepted at sea by Italian or Frontex patrol ships. During a EU meeting in Malta in early 2017 member states proposed to draw a “protection line” in the Mediterranean to push back migrant-filled dinghies. Until recently, Frontex ships could not enter Libyan territorial waters. This is not the case anymore.

Flows from Libya have actually diminished, at least for the time being. The Italian supplies and the support to the creation of a Libyan Coast Guard are part of the success story. And although Italian officials deny any role, several militias in the Sabratha area have been “financed” to block the traffickers. After all, Sarraj’s government doesn’t control the area. And the dirty work had to be carried out by the AISE, the Italian secret service abroad and probably the European intelligence agency with the largest foothold in Libya.

We all know human trafficking is a transnational phenomenon that can never be stopped, but it can be reined in. When one route closes, another one opens given the amount of people willing to risk their lives on their way to Europe. And if Libya closes shop, Tunisia and Algeria are slowly taking over and the Balkans are opening up again. The ideal situation would be to prevent people from reaching Libya – or northern Africa – in the first place. An international force will soon be deployed in Niger, Chad and Mali, while the French continue stationing their troops in their former colonies. Another idea is to create hotspots to identity asylum seekers south of the Sahara with the help of the UNHCR.

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