Off-The-Books Diplomacy: Italy And Libya – Beyond Official Agreements

A photo of the Libyan Coast, with a view to the Mediterranean Sea / Wikimedia Commons

It is often said that, in politics, there is no room for morality. Indeed, sometimes a State accepts a certain degree of external injustice in order to cope with internal problems. That is, unfortunately, what the realpolitik sometimes requires. The question to be addressed is: what is the limit and what is the threshold of acceptance?

On the 2nd of February 2017, in the middle of a dramatic migratory crisis started in 2014, the Italian Government headed by the Prime Minister Gentiloni negotiated an official agreement with the Libyan President Fayez al-Sarraj in order to stem the number of sea arrivals and tackle illegal immigration. By signing the so-called Memorandum of Understanding, Italy committed to train the Libyan Coastal Guard, providing it with facilities, technologies and vessels. Furthermore, the deal also involved economic support (150 million of Euros in 3 years, plus as many from the European Union).

In return, Libyan Government started to patrol their specific SAR (Search and Rescue) area from July 2017, rescuing migrants and bringing them back to the point of departure, cutting down the arrivals on the Italian shores. In terms of numbers, the signing of the Memorandum strongly contributed to a reduction of the migratory extent. Comparing the triennium 2017-2019 with the previous one, the extent of the migratory flow towards Italy was cut down to less than one-third (152.681 against the former 505.378).

A photo of the Libyan President and Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj / Wikimedia Commons

On the 2nd of November 2019, Italy expressed the willingness to renew the official agreement with Libya. The Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi di Maio revealed that he was willing to modify the treaty and extend it in the future. The modifications would concern the possibility of intervention from international institutions like the UN in the management of Libyan detention camps.

The agreement was also backed by the Minister of Internal Affairs Luciana Lamorgese who stressed the advantages of a collaboration with the Libyan Coastal Guard, namely a significant reduction in the number of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea and of arrivals in the Italian Peninsula.

Such an explicit endorsement of the Memorandum provoked large reactions from several politicians, who accused the Minister of turning a blind eye to a terrible injustice. We might ask ourselves what lies behind the renewal of the agreement: is the Italian government trying to keep its dirty laundry outside the public sphere?

The state of affairs is much more complex and the moral legitimacy of the agreement is blurrier than it may appear. In the last two years, the UN and ICC (International Criminal Court) opened inquiries into Libyan detention centres, charged of several violations of prisoners’ human rights. There are countless reports of migrants being imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Women are systematically raped. Physical evidence of officers’ brutality range from beatings and broken fingers to acid burns and gunshots. A lot of migrants described the dangerous Mediterranean route as a valid alternative to the horrors of Libyan detention camps, which are often likened to Lagers.

Moreover, in the report delivered by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres on the 25th of August 2019 it is clearly stated that State officials actively collaborate with criminals. The report raises a legitimate suspicion concerning the Libyan Coastal Guard, which is believed to sell migrants who have been rescued in the Mediterranean to human smugglers. Not by chance, the increase in the number of people held in detention centres has followed the intensification of sea-rescues in Libyan waters. There are several pieces of evidence supporting the hypothesis of a full-fledged criminal network rooted in Libyan governmental soil.

Roughly, Libyan authorities are paid by Europe and Italy to rescue people, who are then purchased by human smugglers which put the same people into barges, jeopardizing their lives and fuelling the fire. What emerges is a vicious circle which profits of the detriment of innocent people. Furthermore, it is also a sharp debacle for Italian diplomacy.

A further question needs to be addressed: why have the perplexities around this agreement increased during the last year? What has changed since 2017? Since April 2019 the Libyan population is witnessing a Civil War between the Government of National Accord (GNA), backed by UN and held by Fayez al-Sarraj, and the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar. The military leader represents the Tobruk Administration, composed of the Libyan Parliament which has been separated from the official Government since 2014.

The current civil war is not just a constant threat for civilians (as the UN-Secretary General’s report points out), but also for those who are confined within detention centers. On the 7th of May 2019, two people were injured due to an airstrike at the Tajoura detention centre. Two months later, on the 2nd of July, the same detention centre was partially destroyed by another airstrike. 53 migrants were killed, and 130 others were injured. Suspicions link the tragedy to Haftar’s army. As a consequence, Libya cannot be considered as a safe harbour anymore and internal prisoners must be relocated. Moreover, following international treaties, people rescued at sea cannot be brought there.

A media scandal broke out during October which also contributed to increased suspicions towards Libyan Coastal Guards. Nello Scavo, journalist for the newspaper “Avvenire”, brought to light the unofficial and never disclosed participation of a notorious human smuggler, named Bija, to important meetings regarding migrants’ treatment in May 2017 in Italy.

More specifically, Bija was identified during a visit to the Cara Mineo, a Reception Centre for Asylum Seekers, on the 11th of May 2017. Scavo and part of his staff are currently under police protection, due to menaces from Bija. Also known as Abd Al-Rahman Al Milad, Bija is the chief of the Libyan Coastal Guard in the northern region of Zawiya and he is backed by the official government of Al-Sarraj.

He is accused of human trafficking, being a key figure in detention camps and responsible for shooting humanitarian vessels in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, alongside being the boss of a criminal organization that has infiltrated the socio-economic structure of Libya. Even if it is still not clear, Bija’s silent presence in the diplomatic panels can be explained in terms of a negotiation that Italian authorities may have tried to conduct with Libyan key-figures beneath the surface of the public eye. Indeed, the Libyan Coastal Guard started to patrol their SAR zone in July 2017, two months after Bija diplomatic tour, even if the official Memorandum has been in place since February.

The region of Zawiya, where Bija operates as the Chief of Libyan Coastal Guards / Wikimedia Commons

From July 2018 Bija has been under sanctions by the UN for human smuggling and he is currently considered an international fugitive. Formally, in the aftermath of the sanctions, Bija was ousted from his office by the Government. Nonetheless, in an interview released on the 25th October 2019, he proudly showed his official uniform as a statement against the sanctions, as the journalist Francesca Mannocchi points out. In this regard, also the UN is not free from criticism, sanctioning Bija, but at the same time, backing the Government for which he works. In conclusion, this set of results marks a large defeat, both for national and international diplomacies.

Lorenzo Lombardi