A controversial migration agreement between Italy and Libya has been automatically renewed for three years amid warnings by humanitarian organisations that this might make Rome and the European Union complicit in crimes against humanity.
The Memorandum of Understanding on Migration – signed on February 2, 2017, to provide Libyan authorities with financial and technical support to “combat illegal immigration” – was automatically renewed for a second time on Thursday after a November 2 deadline for making changes passed.
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Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Wednesday warned that “assisting Libya’s coast guard, knowing that it will facilitate the return of thousands of people to serious human rights violations, makes Italy and the European Union complicit in such crimes”.
A June 2022 report by the United Nations Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya found that migrants faced “murder, enforced disappearance, torture, enslavement, sexual violence, rape, and other inhumane acts … in connection with their arbitrary detention”.
In September 2022, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) found that crimes against migrants in Libya “may constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes”.
HRW said Italy’s “obsession” with keeping migrants and asylum seekers away from its shores has meant “facilitating” the return of about 108,000 people to abuse in Libya since 2017.
While about 9,000 refugees were evacuated from Libya by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) through an emergency mechanism since 2017, the rights watchdog said the measures were “a fig leaf” that “do not absolve Italy and other EU member states from their responsibility”.
Matteo de Bellis, researcher on asylum and migration at Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera that the renewal of the memorandum was “unconscionable”.
“Italian authorities are fully aware that the tools they are providing will be instrumental to more human rights violations,” de Bellis said.
The EU has allocated 57.2 million euros ($62.8m) for integrated border and migration management in Libya since 2017. Its border agency Frontex also provides surveillance information used by Libya to intercept refugees and migrants.
Last month, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni visited Libya to sign a major gas deal with the country and declared that Italy will provide the so-called Libyan coastguard – which rescue groups have filmed shooting at vessels carrying refugees and migrants – with five “fully equipped boats”.
The support provided means Italian authorities are “acting complicitly” with Libyan authorities and “could and should be held accountable for this, including before international courts,” de Bellis said.
“A case is already open before the European Court of Human Rights, and we will see with great interest whether the International Criminal Court will decide to look into this too,” he added.
Italy and the EU have argued that their measures are necessary to prevent undocumented arrivals in the member states.
“Combating illegal migration flows remains a central file for us,” Meloni said alongside Libya’s interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah. “Despite the efforts, the numbers of illegal migrants crossing from Libya to Italy are still high.”
The European Parliament last year said the EU has gradually shifted focus to “prioritise strengthening the EU’s external borders and preventing irregular migrants from reaching EU territory. To this end, the aim has been to stem illegal migration on all existing and emerging routes and extend the EU’s partnerships with third countries, notably Turkey and Libya.”
Meloni’s hard-right government has been accused of adopting new decrees to hinder NGOs operating search and rescue missions in the Central Mediterranean.
“The objective is clear: force NGO ships to leave the area so that as many people as possible are intercepted by the Libyan coastguard,” de Bellis said. “Amnesty International is calling on Italy to withdraw these measures.”
HRW has also called upon Italy and the EU to suspend its support to Libya “and ensure any future assistance is conditional upon Libyan authorities’ tangible progress in relation to the respect of migrants’ rights and their access to justice”.