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On December 29th 2007 the Italian Interior Minister, Giuliano Amato, landed in Tripoli on an Italian Aeronautics' Falcon jet for an official visit. With him were the head of Police, Antonio Manganelli, his chief of cabinet, Gianni De Gennaro, the Chief of Staff of the Guardia di Finanza (financial police), Gen. Paolo Poletti, and his diplomatic counsel, Guido Lenzi. Amato was received by the Libyan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdurahman Mohamed Shalgam, and signed two cooperation protocols to fight illegal immigration to Italy.
The first protocol dealt with the "temporary" handing over of 6 Coast Guard vessels owned by the Guardia di Finanza (3 "Bignami" class vessels and 3 class "V 5000") for the patrolling of Libyans coasts. The deal also included: joint crews on board, training/assistance/maintenance paid by Italy, area of intervention spanning from Libyan territorial waters to international ones, a joint inter-force Command (Libyan commander, Italian vice-commander) that would coordinate sea-borne operations and act as a link with Italian authorities in Lampedusa, Italy's far-most island .
The Italy-Libya deal on illegal immigration was an integral part of the European initiative known as Frontex, a system of joint patrolling of the Mediterranean coasts put in place in October 2005 and  that never produced any relevant result.
The Amato-Shargam protocol also specified that the migration control would cover the 2.000 km of Libyan coasts on the Mediterranean and the 5.000 km of desert borders down South. On this topic the protocol cited a Memorandum signed by the European Union only months before. This also implied that a radar control system on both fronts would be put into place.
The second protocol was signed between the head of Italian police, Antonio Manganelli, and the Libyan undersecretary for Public Security, Faraj Nasib Elqabaili. This document integrated the first one and defined details and procedures. Among other things, it mentioned that the boats provided by Italy would bear neither badges nor insignia. A number of Italian police officials would be sent to Tripoli to liaison with the locals.

The horse of Troy

The document also mentioned other aspects deemed very important by the Libyans:

- within 3 years from the signature of the protocol, Italy would have to hand over to Tripoli 3 vessels.
- Italy would have lobbied so that the European Union sign a similar deal with Libya and pay Tripoli a fee.

Besides getting three boats for free (even though unarmed, the vessels were military ones), it was the second point that Libya was after. Tripoli wanted the illegal immigration issue to be high-placed in the agendas of both Italy and the EU, with Libya coming out as the victim of this traffic. In other words: make of the issue an international one, get Libya to enter in direct talks with Europe (with Tripoli gaining a positive image for its regime and  gaining the upper-hand in the talks that were due in Brussels), make some cash.
The deal struck by Giuliano Amato in December 2007 was not the first one of its kind between Italy and Libya on this very same issue: in the year 2000 a similar deal had been signed by the respective Prime Ministers and two more, at Ministerial level, were signed in 2002 and 2005. As a part of these prior deals Italy had already supplied Libya with all sorts of equipment and assets: vessels, cars, off-road vehicles, pick-up trucks, IT systems for managing and protecting data, small coast guard boats, solar panels for street lighting, rafts, sniffer dogs for both drugs and explosives, machinery for the detection of finger prints, training courses for Libyan police (from language classes to investigative techniques, piloting of light aircrafts, airport security, VIP protection etc.), the building of 3 facilities (a police station in Gharyan finished in 2007, a health center in Ghat and one in Kufra still in the making), tents, first aid kits etc. The cost of these goods and services was estimated between 50 and 60 million euros.
It was probably the Italian uncritical disposition to pay - for nothing, seen as illegal migrants kept arriving by the thousands - that led Libya to believe it could cash in the immigration problem both politically and financially. Libya knew that the arrival of migrants in Italy was a domestic political issue and it had the instruments to stress its relevance: get more people on those boats bound for Lampedusa. At the same time Tripoli aimed at Europe as the next victim of this blackmail. And who should have convinced the EU to treat with Libya? Well, Italy, of course.

Migrants used as a weapon

The Libyan scheme was evident, as was Italy's subordinate role. And since the deals signed between the two countries were not producing - politically and economically - what Geddafi wanted to obtain, the flux of migrants to Italy continued without pause:

- 13.594 migrants arrived in 2004
- 22.824 in 2005
- 21.400 in 2006
- 16.875 in 2007

In 2008 the center-right wing governed in Italy and its Interior Minister was from the ranks of the extreme right-wing Northern League party (Lega Nord). The fight against illegal immigration became more relevant paid off well politically. The friendship, partnership and cooperation Treaty signed by Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi and Muammar Geddafi on the 30th of August 2008 in Benghazi - article 9 mentioned cooperation in the fight against terrorism, crime, drug trafficking and illegal immigration - seemed to pave the way for real cooperation on the issue.  But contrary to expectations, in 2008 the number of migrants landing in Italy from Libya increased to 34.540.
Between the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 more meetings between Tripoli and Rome were scheduled to reach an agreement. The most relevant political event at the time was the first visit by Muammar Geddafi in Italy in June 2009.
On May 20th 2009 the first 3 coast guard "Bignami" vessels landed in Tripoli. Libya refused to accept the smaller crafts and the original agreement was modified to a total of 6 "Bignami" vessels. They were deployed in the port of Zuwarah. The joint patrolling started five days later. What made the bilateral accord tricky until the last minute were both Libya's continuous negotiating and the clashes within Tripoli's administration.  Negotiations were initially conducted by the Minister of public security and his Italian counterpart but were later passed on to the Libyan Navy who took over the coast guard vessels.

Just a few days earlier, on May 7th 2009, Libya had accepted - for the first time - that illegal immigrants intercepted by the Italian Navy be repatriated to Libya. In the port of Tripoli arrived 120 migrants that were brought ashore by 3 Italian boats (two from the Coast Guard and one from the Guardia di Finanza). The migrants were mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa and were treated brutally by the Libyan security forces. Among them were pregnant women, young and dehydrated migrants who were not going to receive a humane treatment. What happened to them after their detainment by Libyan authorities is unknown.

Negotiated blackmail

In order to highlight its commitment to the fight against human trafficking, Libya set up an ad hoc organism: "The High Committee for the Fight against Illegal Immigration". It's head was Gaddafi's brother-in-law Abdallah Senussi. He was (and still is) currently wanted internationally on terrorism charges. This did not prevent him from dealing with Italian authorities on security issues.

Finally, Libya seemed to have taken a more cooperative path. Until the repatriation of the first migrant boat on May 7th 2009, the illegal migrants landing in Italy had been 6.340. From that day until the end of the year a mere 1.800 arrived in Lampedusa, while the vast majority of attempts were blocked at sea and returned on Libyan soil by the joint patrolling and with the frequent exchange of migrants in international waters.

Libya's efforts were compensated by exorbitant economic requests, thus exploiting Italy's passiveness. During an official visit to the Italian ministry of Interior in June 2009 Libyans put forward requests worth billions of euros. They asked for more and bigger vessels (four 60/70-meter long vessels, ten 35-meter speedboats, 2 tug boats), airplanes (2 bi-motors, 6 helicopters Augusta 109, other unspecified planes for reconnaissance and support), a ruinous amount of vehicles ( 70 4x4 vehicles, 40 support and combat vehicles, another 800 off-road cars, 250 pick up trucks, 120 6x6 lorries to which they wanted to add 550 vehicles to be deployed in the desert and 120 thematic vehicles such as ambulances and tanker lorries). Suffice to say - with reference only to the vehicles - that Italy had already provided Tripoli with 80 off-road jeeps, 150 pick ups and 4 land cruisers.

This situation of "cooperation under negotiated blackmail" continued until the beginning of the so-called "Arab Spring" in Libya. In the meanwhile Tripoli had managed to receive three more speedboats and funding for a project longly cherished by Gaddafi: a radar system on Libya's Southern border. Officially its deployment was part of the fight against illegal immigrants, but in truth - as Italy also knew well - a radar system is notoriously not suitable to scan a series of moving points like migrants marching along desert dunes. The contract was worth 350 million euros and Italy decided to award it to Selex Sistemi Integrati - part of Finmeccanica. Half of the funding would be provided by Italian taxpayers, a minimal part by Libya, and the rest by the EU (which expressed its disagreement for the lack of an international tender for the project). The project is still operative even after Gaddafi's fall. A number of Italian police officers have been recently deployed to Tripoli for this purpose.

A deafening silence

It is still not clear how the new Libyan government will behave regarding illegal immigration. The country has other priorities at the moment. Surely the problem is not as immanent as it was before the conflict since most migrants, especially those from Sub-Saharan Africa, have already left. The threat of a civil war, the danger of being mistaken for a mercenary from Niger or Mali, the disbanding of the trafficking networks have all contributed to the blocking of the exodus.

Over all these years, the Italian cooperation initiatives with Libya on illegal immigration have all been focused on contrasting the phenomena, without ever dealing with the issue of the migrants' fundamental rights. In practice, when the repatriations of migrants started, Italian authorities never asked the Libyans to respect their fundamental rights.

In 2009 there were about 20 detention centers for migrants in Libya where abuses, beatings, rapes and ill-treatment were the widespread. Such abuses happened in dire hygienic conditions and in overcrowded structures with no health care and where men, women and children were all confined together in the same cell. Religious persecution for whoever declared himself a Christian was also abound. The detention of migrants did not follow any rule regarding the length of the detainment. Most of the times it depended on how much the jail guards were paid off or if one was lucky enough to work (for free) for the local power-brokers.

Only few international organizations were - at least in principle - allowed inside the prisons. Those  authorized - usually only in specific facilities - dared not report the abuses in fear of being kicked out of the country. This is what happened to the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees), which had been in Libya since 1991 and whose presence was not based on a Memorandum of understanding with Libyan authorities. This meant there was a limit to the organizations' ability to report on abuses. In fact, Libya never accepted the term "refugee" as such and especially if combined with the adjective "political".

Another international organization based in Tripoli since 2005 was the IOM (International Organization for Migration), whose role was to repatriate the migrants who wished to return to their home country. The IOM also avoided exposing the abuses. They probably feared Libya's reprisal, but also - since Italy is one of the organizations' main financiers - to put its main donor in a bad light.

Then there was the CIR, (Consiglio Italiano per i Rifugiati, an Italian NGO) that worked through a local non-governmental organization, the International Organizations for Peace, Care and Development, led by the son of a member of the Revolutionary Council, Khaled Kwelldi al Humaidi. This made any criticism of the regime highly improbable.

Lastly there was the International Red Cross whose offices were not in Tripoli, but in Tunis and which was not allowed to visit the detention centers.  All of these factors meant that little or no light was shed on the plight of the illegal immigrants detained in Libya.

Nothing new under the sun?

The last chapter of the Italy-Libya deals on illegal migration took place on January 21st 2012 as the  Italian PM Mario Monti landed in Tripoli to meet the new authorities. The August 2008 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation signed by Berlusconi and Geddafi (both out of office) has been renamed “Tripoli Declaration” (even though it was signed in Benghazi). The Italian Interior Minister is expected in Libya to re-open – once again – negotiations on the issue. Libya's Interior Minister, Fawzi Abdelali, has already stated that his country “is not the border patrol of Europe” and that in order to curb illegal immigration, his country needs both money and assets. Nothing new under the sun...