Italy’s new government—an unholy alliance of the populist M5S and far-right League parties—careened into office on an uncompromising anti-migrant platform, soliciting the warnings of politicians and financial institutions around the world. With its recent decision to hand naval control of a large swath of the Mediterranean—extending almost to Malta and Crete— to failed-state Libya, the coalition government may yet set a new low more rapidly than expected.
Italy’s hope is that the Libyan forces it has ceded responsibility to will prevent shipwrecked migrants from reaching European shores, instead returning them to the very country they are trying to flee. While this plan might sound attractive to a government which has lamented it can’t deport its own citizens from minority backgrounds, NGOs working in the area have stressed the grave threat the new policy poses to migrants. Those rescued now face a return to prolonged detention and harsh treatment in a country which has been desperately torn apart for seven years. From the spate of warring militias which control Tripoli to General Khalifa Haftar’s lengthy campaign against Islamist forces in the country’s east, Libya is plagued with conflicts which make it no safe haven for migrants.
In this context, Italy’s decision to hand over responsibility of such a large portion of the Mediterranean to Libya is likely not only against international law, but an affront to basic human rights. The Italian government is set to donate 12 boats to enhance the capabilities of the Libyan coast guard—such as it is— given its new responsibilities. Libya will need these twelve vessels and more before they can carry out even the most basic search and rescue operations. At present, the country only has three operational patrol boats; barely seaworthy, they are often forced to stay at port due to lack of fuel. “It’s very clear that the priority is not saving lives”, one spokesman from the German charity Sea Watch remarked about the sorry state of Libya’s fleet; “I have not seen a single life jacket.”
Unsurprisingly, Libya’s track record on saving migrants at sea is hardly exceptional. More than 100 migrants, including young children, recently drowned off Libyan shores after the coast guard picked up just 16 survivors when their overloaded vessel capsized. In a separate incident, a shipwreck east of Libya’s capital Tripoli saw 63 people go missing after their inflatable boat sank. The Libyan coast guard was unable to even locate their bodies.
The number of migrants dying during the dangerous crossing has significantly increased since the European Union began to back away from rescue missions and close crucial ports. At the same time human traffickers are exploiting the desperation of those attempting to flee violence on the African continent, the European bloc seems ever more reluctant to extend a well-trained, well-resourced helping hand.
That reluctance has had deadly consequences. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), one out of seven migrants attempting the journey across the Mediterranean died at sea last month, compared to last year’s average of one in 38 migrants.
Though it is becoming increasingly obvious the EU cannot accept further significant inflows of migrants without exacerbating tensions that risk breaking the bloc apart, plans to send migrants back to be detained in war-torn Libya under horrific conditions are simply inhumane.
If Italy is determined to turn over control of migrant rescue operations to the Libyan government, it first needs to make sure that that government is stable and just. So far, the West has done little to support Libya, privileging short-term solutions to the country’s deeply-rooted problems. Many Western countries have also stubbornly continued to push for the unelected, UN-backed-government in Tripoli, long after it has proven to be weak and ineffective. Upon the violent end of Muammar Gaddafi’s four decades of dictatorial rule, the US abdicated responsibility for “picking up the pieces” of Libya. At the same time, the UN worked to reconcile adversarial political blocs under the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA). This top-down approach has proven profoundly flawed, not least because it has sidelined actors outside the UN government, such as General Haftar, who already commands significant respect and power in the country.
Thankfully, Western attempts to stabilize Libya are slowly becoming more effective. Major international powers now finally recognize that all principal Libyan stakeholders must necessarily be involved in crafting a sustainable solution. France in particular is taking the lead on pushing for a workable way out of the crisis. Paris believes Haftar, whose four-year-long military campaign has been successful at rooting out the Islamic State and its affiliates from Derna and other fundamentalist strongholds, must inherently be a part of that process. In an encouraging breakthrough, Haftar and the three other key Libyan leaders have met and even tentatively agreed to hold elections in December.
This new approach to diplomacy within Libya’s chaotic borders is promising, and may point to a more stable future in years to come. In the meantime, Libya cannot be trusted with patrolling a huge section of the Mediterranean until a steadfast Libyan government can prove its mettle in ensuring the rule of law domestically.