Italy and Libya: A Risk of Rising Mediterranean Migration?


    Italy and Libya

    Dating from as far back as the colonial era, Italy and Libya have had a dysfunctional relationship marred by a legacy of domination, but also marked by lasting and close trade ties. Aside from trade, the most important recent area of cooperation has been controlling migration. In 2008, Italy agreed to pay Colonel Gaddafi $5bn to stop migrant boats from leaving Libya. Recent agreements build on this pattern of Italian support in exchange for control of migration, though their efficiency in 2020 may be under pressure; there are reasons to suggest Mediterranean migration to Italy may rise.

    In 2017, Italy and Libya’s UN backed government, the Government of National Accord (GNA) signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) that resulted in Italy financing Libyan efforts to halt migration flows, and cooperation in combatting people smuggling. The deal has come under a great deal of criticism, mostly on the grounds that it represents a prioritisation of the integrity of Italian borders over the humane policy towards asylum seekers. Critics and NGOs argue that sending migrants back towards Libya with no guarantee of proper treatment is both illegal and immoral, and even worse: there is evidence of extreme abuse in the Libyan-run detention centres.

    Regardless, the policy would seem to be successful in its objectives. Per UNHCR data, in 2017 there were 199,369 sea arrivals in Italy. By 2018, this had fallen to 23,370, and in 2019, it had fallen again to 10,565 migrants as of 25thNovember. Unfortunately, despite the fall of overall arrivals from 2017 to 2018 of around 80%, the number of dead and missing fell proportionally less, from 2,873 in 2018 to 1,311 in 2017. No such UN data exists for this year yet, though Missing Migrants estimates a total dead of 1,159 so far in 2019.

    Italy and Libya
    Figure 1: UNHCR table on arrivals by year

    As the initial MoU was due to expire soon, Italy and the GNA have extended the deal in November 2019 for a further three years in Libya. However, the GNA is not necessarily in any position to enforce the deal – the rival Tobruk-based government and the Libyan National Army (LNA) control much of the Libyan coast, including the city of Benghazi. Furthermore, data from the UNHCR shows that since the LNA’s April offensive, the number of migrants arriving in Italy per day has started to climb again.

    Most importantly, as previous years have shown, extreme spikes of migrant activity can happen very quickly, and activity usually reaches a low point in the winter. Therefore, as normal, we can expect migrant flows to increase after winter ends in early 2020. 

    Italy and Libya
    Figure 2: Sea Arrivals to Italy, UNHCR graph

    Based on this analysis, there are three factors that suggest migration from Libya to Italy may rise in early 2020. The GNA lacks coastal control, and despite the renewal of the 2017 MoU, the GNA may not be in any position to enforce control of migration. Secondly, there has already been an up-tick of migrants arriving in Italy since April 2019 and the LNA offensive on Tripoli. Lastly, in winter, the flow of migrants is normally lower – when the winter ends, the flow of migrants is likely to rise.

    Image: Wikimedia Commons

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