Italy Urged to Retreat Migrant Return Deal with Libya

Humanitarian groups including Save the Children and Amnesty International are urging Italy’s new government to scrap a controversial EU-sponsored deal with Libya to stop migrant boat crossings to Europe.

The appeal by 40 organisations including Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty, calls for urgent action by Italy’s new hard-right government, which was sworn in at the weekend

“Migrants and asylum seekers held in detention centers remain subject to abhorrent conditions, and face serious abuses including torture and rape, as well as overcrowding. Further, their lives remain at risk due to the escalation of the ongoing conflict,” stated Amnesty International in its appeal for the deal to be scrapped.

“If by November 2 the Italian government does not issue a suspension,” NGOs said. “The Memorandum will be automatically renewed for another three years. It is an agreement that has had dramatic consequences for the past five years on the lives of thousands of migrant and refugee women, men and children, including abuse, exploitation, arbitrary detention and torture.”

In her inaugural speech to parliament, Italy’s new prime minister Giorgia Meloni said she wanted to “stop illegal departures and break up human trafficking,” adding that her government intends to propose an EU naval operation to block departures from North Africa.

The new interior minister recently signalled a return to the policy of blocking rescue ships, favoured by League leader Matteo Salvini, as he signed a directive seeking to ban two migrant rescue ships from entering Italian waters, as more vessels issued distress calls off the coast of Sicily.

Italy has long been on the migration frontline, taking in tens of thousands of people who attempt the world’s deadliest crossing yearly.

It had numerous agreements during the 2000s with Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi on curbing migratory flows.

The partnership was suspended following the collapse of the Libyan government and the European Court of Human Rights’ 2012 condemnation of Italy for intercepting and forcibly returning people to Libya.

But wars in Syria, Iraq and Libya sparked a wave of refugees in 2015, with over 150,000 people crossing in boats to Italy, followed by over 180,000 people in 2016. Thousands more died trying.

In 2017, Italy’s centre-left prime minister Paolo Gentiloni signed a new deal with Fayez al-Serraj, head of the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord, aimed at reducing arrivals.

Nearly 100,000 migrants, refugees returned to Libya

The organizations said that “between 2017 and October 2022, nearly 100,000 people have been intercepted at sea by Libyan coast guards and forcibly taken back to Libya, a country which cannot be considered safe.”

They called on the Italian government to “recognize its responsibility and not renew agreements with Libya.”

Moreover, the appeal asked to “shed light on the management of European funds financing Libyan coast guards.”

The organizations that signed the appeal also urged people to attend a demonstration against the Memorandum scheduled on Wednesday (October 26) in Rome’s Piazza dell’Esquilino.

The NGOs promoting the event, many of which aim to defend migrant rights, include Agency Habeshia, Alarm Phone, Amnesty International Italia, the Astalli Center, Fondazione Migrantes, Intersos, Medici del Mondo Italia, Mediterranea, Doctors Without Borders, Open Arms, Oxfam Italia, Refugees Welcome Italia, ResQ – People Saving People, Save the Children, and Sea-Watch.

Migrants face abuse, torture, exploitation in Libya
“The agreement, which was created with the objective of sending economic aid and support to Libyan coast guards to try to reduce migrant trafficking across the Mediterranean, fight illegal immigration and strengthen security at the border, did not reach any of the desired objectives”, the unions said.

“Thousands of women, men and children seeking protection have been intercepted at sea and taken back to Libya to face detention and torture”, they stressed. “In fact, violence, abuse and illegitimate detention are unfortunately common in Libya where the political situation is particularly unstable.”

They added that “according to multiple reports, the most vulnerable are not guaranteed protection, the most elementary human rights are denied in Libyan detention centers [and there is] no transparency on the work carried out by Libyan coast guards, often colluding with traffickers.”

Seeing migration as a positive development

In this regard, Global Rights Watch called for opening a serious debate, at a European level and in Italy, to overcome the idea of immigration as an emergency and to demand actions that favor a shared and responsible management of migration.

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