During a visit to the White House last week, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte tried to gain the support of U.S. President Donald Trump to hold a conference to focus on ways to stabilize Libya, according to Reuters.
Newly elected Conte is trying to make good on his promise of cracking down on immigration by gathering Italy’s allies later this year to discuss how to decrease illegal immigration from Libya, which has long been a main departure point for migrants trying to reach Europe from Africa.
“We would like to deal [with] and discuss all of the issues related to the Libyan people, involving all of the stakeholders, actors, [and] protagonists in the whole of the Mediterranean,” Conte told reporters at the White House.
The Italian Prime Minister emphasized that the gathering would also focus on economic issues and social issues including the “need for protection of civil rights; the problem of constitutional process – of issuing and passing laws so as to enable Libya, in particular, to get to democratic elections in a condition of the utmost stability.”
Conte hopes to establish Rome as the major interlocutor for Libya’s warring factions by hosting the conference in Rome with U.S. support. However, Rome has recently been mired in controversy as a result of the measures that it has taken to curb the illegal flow of migrants to its shores.
Earlier this week, the United Nations (U.N.) described a rescue operation carried out by Asso 28, an Italian tugboat which saved more than 100 migrants and returned them to Libya, as illegal. The legal status of the tugboat’s rescue activity is still in question because the U.N International Organization for Migration has not been able to establish where the rescue took place.
Italy’s coastguard claims that the Asso 28’s rescue operation took place in Libyan waters and was carried out by the Libyan coastguard, but there is a great deal of skepticism surrounding this claim. Òscar Camps, the founder of Proactiva Open Arms, a Spanish sea search and rescue NGO, alleged that the Italian tugboat rescued the 108 migrants from international waters and returned them to Libya unlawfully.
Under international law, migrants who have been rescued in international waters may not be returned to a place where their lives might be in jeopardy. The U.N. and European Union have both deemed Libya unsafe. However, contradictory accounts of the incident have made it nearly impossible to ascertain the real location of the rescue.
Under the Geneva Conventions, it is also against the law for a country to return people to another territory that is at war or where it is believed that they could be subjected to the death penalty, torture, or other inhumane treatment. For many years, human rights organizations have said that migrants in Libya endure harrowing living conditions.
The Asso 28 rescue incident comes just weeks after Italy shut its ports to humanitarian ships sailing in the Mediterranean. The country’s new far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said that rescue ships would no longer be welcome in Italian ports, claiming that his country had taken more than its fair share of migrants.
This shift in rhetoric could make conditions for migrants coming from Libya even worse, as they would be forced to return to Libya, where they risk abuse and beatings from smugglers who run the country’s many unofficial and overcrowded detention centers.
This year, the 10,789 migrants who were intercepted by the Libyan coastguard ended up being held indefinitely in detention centers run by the Tripoli government, according to Cristophe Biteau, a Doctors without Borders (MSF) mission leader in Libya.
However, the concern about illegal migration from the Central Mediterranean Route — the name given to the route between Libya and Italy — is not new.
In 2008, former Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, signed a “friendship” agreement with then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The deal required Libya to tighten its border controls in exchange for $5 billion in compensation for colonial-era crimes.
In the first seven months after the joint Libyan-Italian maritime patrols began in 2009, the number of migrants trying to reach Europe from Libya declined from nearly 40,000 in 2008 to 3,200, according to EU-funded research.
According to another report published about the Libyan migration corridor, it is estimated that a total of 206,880 people left Libyan shores between 2003 and 2012 — an average of 23,000 a year. Over 90 percent of these migrants went to the Italian island, Lampedusa, while the remaining migrants went to Malta.
Although the 2008 “friendship” agreement was later suspended, a similar deal between Italy’s center-left government and Libya, which was endorsed by other European leaders, was struck down last year. Under the terms of the deal, Italy would train, equip, and finance the Libyan coastguard in an effort to curb illegal migration to Europe.
The controversial deal has received a lot of criticism from human rights activists recently, as they claim that the return of migrants to Libya puts them at risks for beatings, sexual violence, and slavery.
A lawsuit based on the account of 17 victims of this process was recently filed at the European Court of Human Rights and could pose a serious threat to the deal, which has been credited with dramatically decreasing the illegal arrival of migrants to Italian shores.
As tensions continue to rise over the issue of immigration in Europe, the humanitarian situation of migrants in Libya will continue to grow worse. The absence of law enforcement in the North African nation leaves migrants vulnerable to unspeakable human rights violations, with little or no legal recourse. The increasingly hostile environment throughout the European continent is unlikely to make Europeans very receptive to the plight of these migrants, thus making their search for a better future that much harder.