Italy and Libya: A Memorandum of Misunderstanding

The international news circuit, in its coverage of the refugee crisis, has consistently focused on the burden faced by southern European countries. In the wake of the European Union’s agreement with Turkey last year — in which Turkey received a stipend from the EU and in return agreed to take back any new asylum-seekers landing in Greece — migration across the Aegean has diminished, alleviating part of the migration burden for Greece. However, other southern European countries, notably Italy, continue to be among the hardest hit by the large influx of migrants across the Mediterranean.

With the media spotlight focused on Europe’s task of keeping up with waves of migrants, the ways in which human traffickers are exploiting this enormous influx of immigrants to Europe are far too often overlooked. Trafficking gangs have managed to take advantage of the legal immigration system from Africa to Europe by monopolizing the mass transportation of persons across regions that face political instability. The most striking example of this tactic lies in the case of Nigerian migrants hoping to escape the threat of the Islamic fundamentalist group Boko Haram by fleeing to a safer future in Europe. En route to Europe, these migrants must first travel through Libya, a journey that has become increasingly treacherous as civil conflict continues. Nevertheless, the number of Nigerian women registered to have arrived in Sicily has increased eightfold since 2014 (11,009 in 2016, compared to 1,450 in 2014), despite a consistent decline in the political stability of Libya and its surrounding regions.

According to the International Organisation for Migration, as many as 80 percent of all Nigerian women and 70 percent of all Northern African migrants to Italy in 2016 were victims of human trafficking. Instead of deterring migrants from passing through Libya or its neighbors, political instability has provided a conduit for trafficking gangs — most notably those of Nigerian and Eritrean origin — to move massive numbers of migrants to Europe. These groups have capitalized on the fact that they are among the only forces capable of the mass-transport of people through Libya. This has not only increased the overall migrant burden on Italy but has also exacerbated the state of the sex and labor trade. Italy has struggled greatly to provide anti-trafficking services for massive numbers of “irregular arrivals (approximately 154,000 in 2015), as these migrants and asylum-seekers arriving by boat from Sub-Saharan Africa are highly vulnerable to trafficking. This influx overwhelmed the government to such a degree that it was forced to send 90,000 asylum-seekers to “improvised” shelters, despite the fact that international organizations have cited shortages of official shelters as a “direct link” to incidents of labor and sex trafficking of asylum-seekers. Additionally, despite the enormous increase in volume of migration of highly vulnerable persons to Italy in the past several years, the Italian government has demonstrated a decrease in investigations and prosecutions of traffickers; in 2014 there were approximately 1,000 fewer investigations than in 2013, and the government actually prosecuted only 828 defendants for suspected trafficking crimes in 2014, compared to 1,024 in 2013.

Instead of deterring migrants from passing through Libya or its neighbors, political instability has provided a conduit for trafficking gangs — most notably those of Nigerian and Eritrean origin — to move massive numbers of migrants to Europe.

On February 2, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj signed a memorandum of understanding in an effort to combat this illegal immigration to Europe across the Mediterranean and ease the immigration burden on Italy. This EU-backed agreement was made in anticipation of the coming spring season and the increase in immigration that warmer weather will inevitably bring. The very next day, European leaders convening in Malta agreed on this plan, under which the Libyan government will receive $215 million of funding to reinforce its coast guard, in the hope that it will be better able to intercept and regulate people-smuggling boats bound for Europe. The plan also stipulated that these migrants, once intercepted, will be subsequently returned to Libya, where they will be processed by Libya’s UN-backed government. Although this agreement is masqueraded as an attempt to rescue refugees from the Mediterranean, in reality, it operates solely to ease the burden on Italy and the EU without ensuring that cooperation with Libyan authorities has a strong human rights component.

While the memorandum of understanding appears to echo the quasi-successful 2016 agreement with Turkey, the notable differences in the situations in Turkey and Libya should temper expectations of its successful application there. The EU-Turkey agreement has had some success in limiting illegal migrant flow to the EU while holding up internationally-recognized standards of law. Even so, treatment of returning migrants by the Turkish government has raised questions regarding the respect of migrants’ human rights. At the time of the 2016 deal, Turkey was deemed a safe place for returning refugees, although this claim was still met with some doubts from international rights groups. The same cannot be said for Libya. As a result of the current political instability, any person who crosses the border into the country without a permit — most migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers included — is immediately subject to be taken into custody by the Libyan authorities, and is consequently at risk of exploitation and human rights abuses. This has led migrants passing through Libya to more easily be targeted by human trafficking organizations and has also led migrants to leave Libya much more quickly in an attempt to escape the abuses they may face there.

Most importantly, the EU-backed deal between Italy and Libya operates under the problematic assumption that the Libyan government can be unquestionably relied upon to uphold international law and standards of human rights. Libya has been in a state of civil war and conflict since the assassination of former leader Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, which has essentially left the country with no solidified, central governing body. Although Prime Minister al-Serraj has garnered the support of the UN and much of the international community, he has not won over his own public, as evidenced by the ongoing civil war between three rival governing parties. The Serraj administration has limited control, at best, over its territory, making it an unreliable party for the EU to collaborate with to broker immigration reform. Given the demonstrated ability of crime lords and human traffickers to effectively and lucratively manipulate the existing political climate in Libya, it is clear that the Serraj government has neither the capacity nor the domestic influence to exercise the necessary control over its territory to effectively uphold this agreement.

Due in part to the pervasive nature of trafficking gangs in Libya, and in part to its unstable political climate, many migrants are now at risk of human rights violations for example, being held for ransom at a location against their will — while in Libya. The agreement between the EU and Libya not only fails to address the human rights violations enabled by the current system but also threatens to exacerbate these issues by returning people who are subject to exploitation by smugglers and traffickers back to Libya. The human trafficking business model has risen out of the lack of security and effective governance in Libya, and the EU’s agreements simply force migrants back into the very climate from which they had initially sought protection.

Furthermore, the EU-backed agreement between Italy and Libya fails to directly address the ways in which human trafficking and smuggling have capitalized on both the current political climate of Libya and the existing migration system. The rapid rise in the number of migrants traveling by boat from Libya, coupled with the increase of those subject to human trafficking, demonstrate that human traffickers have monopolized the movement of persons across migration routes, greatly increasing the migration burden on Italy. Rather than focus on ensuring “effective control of our external border and stem illegal flows in the EU,” (as stated in an EU declaration on migration), perhaps the EU should turn their efforts towards halting human and sex traffickers’ monopolization of the existing immigration system between Libya and Italy. Due to fear of harsh treatment by the Libyan government and official migrant detention centerssusceptibility of migrants to traffickers and smugglers is highest when they first arrive in Libya. Their fear of harsh treatment often drives migrants to seek protection in centers run by traffickers and smugglers, which are often in far worse condition and can ultimately result in a lifetime of modern-day slavery. If the EU were to more carefully monitor and examine the conditions of those official centers, as well as the treatment and arbitrary detention rates of migrants in them, perhaps they could cut off trafficking and smuggling gangs from migrants from the time migrants enter the country.

In addition to focusing on an anti-trafficking approach in Libya, increasing access to anti-trafficking services in Italy may also serve to ease the overall migration burden, deterring trafficking gangs by reducing the lucrativeness of trade to Europe. Not only would this strategy be more pragmatic and cost-effective, but it could also be just as effective. Despite this possibility, the Italian government seems to be making little to no effort to control trafficking activity within its own borders. According to anti-trafficking organization Piam Onlus, the Italian government only provides anti-trafficking services to 1,600 victims, which is not sufficient to help all of the 11,009 Nigerian women arriving in a year, let alone the multiplicity of migrants from other countries of origin. Moreover, despite the rise in human trafficking in Italy in recent years, in September of 2016, the Italian government cut funding to organizations like Piam Onlus. By failing to provide these women with help or security upon their entrance into Italy, the Italian government is tacitly enabling the success of human trafficking organizations.

Italy and the EU can continue their attempts to close off the borders of both Libya and Italy. However, the success of highly-organized human trafficking organizations demonstrates that they are more than capable of finding a new way to manipulate the system. By embracing an anti-trafficking approach both in Libya as well as in Europe, Italy and the EU would have a chance at sustainably easing the migration burden on Italy, while also upholding standards of human rights.

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