The Eclipse of Europe: Economic Agreements between Italy and Libya and the Surveillance of Borders
Pubblicato da Fulvio Vassallo
Bilateral Agreements between Italy and Libya: Security without Human Rights
Not much has been said about the Ministerial Conference held in Rome on the 6th of March 2014, where foreign ministers, high level delegations from Libya and representatives from international organisations gathered to discuss the current situation of Libya. At the forefront of the Conference there were the economic ties between Libya and its partners, the necessity to defend them by disarming paramilitary groups, the patrolling of borders and the subsequent issue of illegal migration.
These last two points come with no surprise, given that Libya is among the signatories of the CTOC Protocol against human trafficking. Yet, not even a word was spent on the life-straining condition of migrants in transit through Libya, who despite coming from countries such as Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Togo or Mali, are not regarded as potential asylum seekers, but rather considered “illegal” and “unwanted” people, as they were under the Gaddafi’s regime.
In this context methods of implementation of the CTOC Protocol by Libya and its partners have sparked some controversies, including the European Court of Human Rights’ condemnation of Italy for the rendition of some hundreds sub-Saharan migrants to Libyan authorities without due assessment of their needs of international protection. While this practice was against human rights laws, it was in line with Italy-Libya bilateral agreements on human trafficking. Following the European Court of Human Rights’ sentence against Italy on the 23th of February 2012 for the Hirsi and others v. Italy case, Italy has formally stopped its push-back policies, but pursued its collaboration with Libyan authorities, providing them with guard ships, training, and logistics, in a process that de facto, externalises Italy’s border controls, and leaves the respect of migrants rights at the discretion of Libya which has no formal agreement with the UNHCR.
In the absence of new bilateral agreements between Italy and Libya, in May 2013 “practical cooperation” for border control has been reactivated with the blessing and funds of the EU in the so-called EUBAM Libya, EU Border Assistance Mission in Libya. As prised by the Libya Herald, “The mission mentors, trains and advises Libyans working in various areas of border security on ways to strengthen Libya’s land, sea and air borders”. Activated upon the Libyan government request during the G8 Compact, EUBAM Libya involves the training of 500 Libyan military personnel, who after the first stage in situ, is sent to Italy for the last stage of the training session. The selection process of the Libyan personnel is coordinated by 15 members of the Italian military. While officially funded by the EU, the project fits within the bilateral cooperation agreement on defence between Italy and Libya as spelled out in the Memorandum of Understanding signed in Rome on the 28th of May 2012. The same Italian personnel involved in the EU project is also part of the Italian Mission in Libya (MIL), launched in October 2013 as a follow-up of the Cyrene Operation of organising, coordinating and leading the training and support of the Libyan Defence.
While in October 2013 the Italian and international press focussed on the 500 migrants coming from Libya drawn near Lampedusa, the Italian government was ratifying its military presence in, and cooperation with Libya, a country with low human rights records and where migrants are illegally detained, abused and trafficked, as testimonies from Kufra report. Despite the large number of appeals to protect migrants in transit in the Mediterranean following the tragedies in Lampedusa and Malta, the externalisation of EU border control in the name of security and the economic interests underlying the defence agreement have taken over concerns over human lives.
The “practical cooperation” between Italy and Libya is nothing new, and in many ways has supplied for the absence of multilateral agreements between the EU and Libya, that have been attempted several times, but have failed because of the political instability of this last, and its humanitarian crisis. By “practical cooperation”, I refer here to the fact that rather than ratifying agreements through the Parliament, Italy has opted for pacts of understanding, such as the protocols signed in Tripoli in December 2007 that set forth a chain of defence mutual command, and the treaty of friendship signed in 2008 between Berlusconi and Gaddafi.
In the field of migration, on the Italian front the “practical cooperation” was particularly needed, given the difficulties to establish formal agreements on migration with a country which has not signed the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees. Implementation of the cooperation on migration has thus been assigned to the local police force of the two countries, under the supervision of the respective Ministries of Interior, often leaving open the possibility of forced repatriation and refoulement, this last forbidden under art. 33 of the Geneva Convention. This was the case in October 2004, when collective repatriations from Lampedusa to Libya were put in place, or when in 2005 several deportation operations from Libya to other countries occurred with the funding of the Italian government.
Frontex and EUBAM: New Development in the Italo-Libyan Border Control Politics
Since 2004 the collaboration between the EU, Libya and EU states on the Mediterranean Sea has changed several times depending on government shifts in Europe, and on the internal situation in Libya that led to the execution of Gaddafi. It was this moment in particular that marked the beginning of severe uncertainty in the relationship between Europe and Libya, because it led to the dismantlement of a central authority and the subsequent formation of a power vacuum in some areas of Libya, where it exists neither police force nor rule of law, and where arbitrary detentions and hasty legal processes is what migrants in Libya have to face. Let alone that they are often accused of being mercenaries or Gaddafi supporters. Despite the situation was widely known because denounced by several human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and ProAsyl, the EU has decreed the operation EUBAM in Libya to assist Libyan police force and authorities in their border control practices. Earmarking € 30 millions for the first year, the primary aim of the mission is to supply border management strategies to Libya to face the mounting issue of “illegal” migration both in Libya and in the EU Mediterranean states.
Moreover, as EUobserver reports, Frontex, the EU border management agency, is also planning “concrete activities in Libya under EUBAM’s flag”. Surely, at the beginning they will be activities very limited in scope, given that EUBAM personnel at the moment is confined in the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli, and is under protection of the French private security company ARGUS. However, in the long term, the EUBAM-Frontex synergy is intended to provide a full-scale patrol of Libyan borders so to stop the influx migrants, most of whom are asylum seekers, into Europe. In the meantime though, while waiting to achieve some stability in the country, operations will be limited to military training that at present are not favouring the protection of asylum seekers’ rights, but are worsening their transit to Europe, and to human rights recognition, because implementation of strategies is completely left to Libyan authorities. Moreover, security missions on the ground are often assigned to private security companies such the English Aegis, and the Canadian Garda World, which are allocated a fifth of the EUBAM Libya Budget, thus externalising and privatising EUBAM’s monitoring activities and limiting its role to training and the compiling of security reports to be sent to EU headquarters.
Towards the Somalisation of Libya?
Just before his kidnapping, Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan announced that 1600 policemen from Turkey, Italy and the UK were going to be sent to Libya to train local forces and improve the security of the country. The US, Bulgaria and even NATO are planning on sending troops to Libya, fearing that terrorist armed groups might take control of some regions of the country, as it has happened in the northern part of Mali. This in particular was a topic at the forefront of the International Conference on Libya held in Rome on the 6th of March 2014. The dismissal of Zeidan by the General National Congress due to his perceived inability to manage the taking control of three ports in the east of the country by Cyrenaican rebel autonomist militia, and their selling of oil tanks to North Korea-flagged ships, has drawn attention to the fact that the country is actually divided in three parts: the eastern Cyrenaica, the southern Fezzan, and the western Tripolitania.
The perspective of “Somalisation” of Libya, a vast country, with law population density, oil rich, and that supplies energy to Europe, raises several concerns, also because it questions the ability of multilateral institutions to manage migration. So far, the multilateral policies have proven limited, as the tragedies in Lampedusa and Malta have shown. The economic crisis in Europe has contributed towards a process of institutional forgetting, and the sensationalisation of the events by the media has certainly not fostered the formation of a critical public opinion. Several proposals to tackle the issue have been rejected, such as the plan for humanitarian admission put forward by Luigi Manconi, President of the Human Rights Commission of the Italian Senate, or the visa request to European embassies in northern Africa proposed by Christopher Hein, director of the Italian Council for Refugees.
Moreover, it is important t note that the EU lacks a common foreign policy to tackle immigration, thus national foreign policies fill this gap, as it has been highlighted in the report of the University of Malta on Migration in the Central Mediterranean. It emerges that EU states mostly affected by migration influxes deal with the issue as a matter of transnational terrorism. A parallel technocratic diplomacy often takes precedent over the democratic EU Parliamentary decisions, with the EU Commission and Council getting elevated above the Parliament in matters of migration, creating also internal conflicts. This was when in 2012 the Parliament brought to the EU Court of Justice the EU Council following this latter decision of supplementing the Schengen Border Code to surveil the sea external borders by Frontex (Case C 355/10). The same might happen if the EU commission takes over the EU Parliament in directing the operations of EUBAM and Frontex. Given this, it is of paramount importance that the network of NGOs and humanitarian associations across Europe put forward not only their humanitarian support, but also political initiatives at the local level. This becomes increasingly important to face mounting concerns with security that come at the expenses of human rights and the rights of migrants set forth in both national constitutions and international law.
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