18. September 2017 · Kommentare deaktiviert für „Italy, Going It Alone, Stalls the Flow of Migrants. But at What Cost?“ · Kategorien: Italien, Libyen · Tags: ,

The New York Times | 17.09.2017

By DECLAN WALSH and JASON HOROWITZ

CAIRO — As they scrambled to curb the flow of migrants, Europe’s leaders wrestled with a vexing question: How to stop the ruthless Libyan militias that control the human-trafficking trade from dispatching countless boats across the Mediterranean?

Now Italy, after striking out on its own, appears to have found a solution — one that, though wildly successful for the moment, is provoking questions about its methods and the humanitarian costs.

Arrivals of migrants in Italy have plunged in recent months. In August alone, they fell 85 percent, leading some to charge that Italy was paying off Libya’s most rapacious warlords at the risk of further destabilizing the fractured North African country, while condemning migrants to misery.

Human rights activists liken the grimy conditions at militant-run detention centers inside Libya to concentration camps, while the top United Nations human rights official, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, recently warned that the Italian-led tactics were “very thin on the protection of the human rights of migrants inside Libya and on the boats.”

Italian ministers deny giving even a single euro to Libya’s armed militias. Instead, they attribute their success to painstaking diplomacy and other inducements, like the possibility of rejoining a regularly paid, national army.

“We approached the issue slowly, slowly, Italian style,” Mario Giro, deputy foreign minister, said in an interview. “We spoke to everyone.”

Many are skeptical: Money and the threat of brute force are the usual considerations when it comes to persuading the fractious militias that hold sway across Libya. But if Italy’s aggressive new approach to migration includes dealing with unsavory strongmen, it would not be the first time.

Such unpalatable compromises hark back to the era of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator who effectively extorted tens of millions of dollars in assistance from Italy in return for keeping a lid on migration.

That arrangement came apart when Colonel Qaddafi was ousted and killed in a bloody uprising in 2011, an event that presaged the migrant crisis that has since bedeviled Europe.

“This is basically what Italy did with Qaddafi, but on a much wider scale, because instead of a single dictator, you have to pay 10 warlords,” said Mattia Toaldo, a Libya expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, referring to Italy’s new approach.

“Even if no money is paid,” Mr. Toaldo added, “the idea that these groups are the gatekeepers to Europe gives them huge leverage.”

Italian officials say they had little choice but to act.

For years, Rome channeled its antimigration efforts under the umbrella of the European Union, cooperating with programs to train the flimsy Libyan Coast Guard and offering aid to the African countries where many migrants come from.

Yet the number of migrants continued to explode, to more than 180,000 arrivals last year, with over 5,000 people dying at sea.

Italian officials say they felt abandoned by their European neighbors, especially France, which refused to take a greater share of the migrants.

This spring, Italian voters voiced their frustration by electing conservative candidates at local elections, sending a jolting message to the governing center-left coalition. The Italians decided to go it alone.

Marco Minniti, the interior minister and a former spymaster, has introduced a range of initiatives that reach far and wide into Libya, which still has no central authority.

In April Mr. Minniti hosted feuding tribesmen in Rome, mediating a peace deal between groups that controlled the desert trafficking trails from Algeria, Chad and Niger.

Italian Coast Guards trained their Libyan counterparts and sent a naval ship to repair the Libyan service’s boats. Italy curbed the sea operations of aid groups that rescue migrants, forcing them to work further from the Libyan coast.

But the turning point for Mr. Minniti’s efforts came in July, after Italy persuaded the clan-based militias that control the migrant trade along a stretch of the lawless Libyan coast, west of the capital, Tripoli, to keep their boats onshore.

Just how Mr. Minniti turned human traffickers into gatekeepers is a contentious matter — he has flatly denied making cash payments — but the results have been striking.

Migrant arrivals from Libya fell 50 percent in July. In August, just 2,729 landed on Italy’s shores, down from over 18,000 a year earlier, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

Fewer people died at sea, too — 11 in August compared with 42 in the same period in 2016.

But a policy that tackles human trafficking by relying on the same armed groups that have profited from the trade has obvious pitfalls.

Those traps, too, have been demonstrated in the past.

In early 2011, furious that Italy had sided with the rebels trying to overthrow him, Colonel Qaddafi threatened to retaliate by sending floods of migrants across the Mediterranean, recalled Franco Frattini, then Italy’s foreign minister.

“He said, ‘We’ll make them aware of the blood in the sea,’” said Mr. Frattini, citing a phone call intercepted by Italian intelligence.

As the Libyan uprising closed in on Colonel Qaddafi, his security forces did just that: They loaded hundreds of African migrants onto a rickety fishing vessel in Tripoli.

The boat was so overloaded that it capsized in a storm before it even set out. Dozens of African migrants drowned: Their bodies were fished from the water, months later, on the day that Colonel Qaddafi was killed.

This time, there is the risk that migrant boats could still set off, requiring a sweetening of whatever inducements Rome is providing.

The stakes are vividly illustrated in Sabratha, a port town and major node of the human trafficking trade about 40 miles west of Tripoli.

Here, the flare from an offshore gas plant guides boats packed with migrants headed to Europe, many of which are controlled by the Dabbashis, a powerful local clan that has also profited handsomely from smuggling cheap Libyan fuel.

Human trafficking is not the Dabbashis’ only link to Italy: Their largest militia, known as Al Ammu, has a contract to protect the nearby Mellitah Oil and Gas plant, which is operated by the Italian state-controlled energy giant Eni.

Despite the chaos that has engulfed Libya since 2011, Mellitah, which pipes gas directly across the sea to Italy, is one of the few energy plants to have operated virtually uninterrupted, which experts say reveals much about Eni’s deep reach inside Libya.

After the boats filled with migrants suddenly stopped leaving Sabratha, the clan indicated it had done a deal.

The leader of the main militia, Ahmed Dabbashi, told The Times of London that the United Nations-backed unity government in Tripoli had promised him vehicles, boats and salaries in exchange for cooperation.

That assistance, financial or otherwise, was being channeled through the United Nations-backed unity government in Tripoli, which in turn is funded by Italy. Speaking by phone, several unity government officials said Rome had stepped up payments and supplies of equipment to militias in Sabratha, Zuwarah and other coastal smuggling hubs.

“We met the Italians today, and we expect to get 200 million euros, which we will distribute according to our needs,” said Tarek Shanbour, head of the coastal security department in Tripoli. That is about $240 million.

Mr. Giro, the Italian deputy foreign minister, acknowledged that some former traffickers had received medicine, funds for hospitals, and other forms of assistance.

But he insisted that no money changed hands and that the militias were motivated by the possibility of having a stake in political decisions, rejoining a future Libyan national army, and of benefiting from a return of Italian business.

“I can’t speak for others, but I would rule it out,” he said, when asked if Italy’s secret services could be funding such groups.

Most Libyans, though, see the overtures in a more cynical light.

Mohamed Eljarh, an analyst with the Atlantic Council, said that while promises of official recognition were certainly attractive to some armed groups, money was their principal incentive.

“I don’t think they would give up on huge amounts of cash just like that,” he said. “Without money, these groups don’t have power in their areas.”

Others warn that Rome is inadvertently arming a new generation of gunmen and traffickers, and say that it might be a matter of time before those groups revise the price for cooperation, much as Colonel Qaddafi once did.

“We know the greed of these groups,” said Mohamed Dayri, foreign minister for one of the Libya’s three rival governments, who described the Italian policy as a disaster. “They will use the money to buy more weapons,” he said.

Italy’s success in slashing migrant arrivals on its shores has brought a sharp sigh of relief across Europe, where fury over migration has driven a populist revolt. On Tuesday, European Union interior ministers gathered in Brussels signaled their approval for Italy’s tactics.

But the ministers also agreed to new funding for United Nations programs to help the estimated 400,000 migrants stranded in Libya, many of whom are being kept in filthy detention centers where abuse and exploitation are rife. The International Organization for Migration has documented cases of enslavement in some places, while Doctors Without Borders recently decried in an open letter the awful condition in the camps.

The extra funding announced Tuesday was taken as a tacit recognition of what one senior European official termed “unacceptable, inhumane treatment and human rights violations” for migrants in Libya.

Even as Italian politicians have eagerly sought to claim a piece of the recent success, already this weekend there were ominous signs their jubilation could be short-lived.

According to La Stampa, a Turin-based newspaper, the Italian Coast Guard and boats operated by aid groups like Save the Children in waters near Libya have brought to Sicily more than 1,000 migrants in the last few days.

And on Saturday the Libyan Coast Guard intercepted 1,074 migrants in at least eight boats that departed from beaches in and around Sabratha on Saturday, the service said on its Facebook page.

So some Italian officials are cautious about declaring victory over a problem that has long vexed Europe.

“Why did the flow of migrants stop?” Mr. Giro said. “The real question is, ‘Has it really stopped?’”

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