Migration policy in Italy: On the front line of migrant control

Italy’s aim is to outsource migration control to Africa. To achieve its goal, it is tactically signing agreements to ensure that fewer migrants arrive on its shores by boat.

The isle of Lampedusa became a symbol for the dangerous crossing over the Mediteranean Foto: dpa

On August 24th 2016 a handful of activists came together at Milan’s Malpensa airport. Their plan was to scale a radar tower in a show of protest against the deportation of 48 Sudanese citizens placed on a direct flight from Italy to Khartoum. They were unable to stop the deportation: Italian authorities in Turin had organised the flight at very short notice.

The date of the departure – in the middle of the holiday period – was chosen intentionally. More or less hidden from the public gaze, Italy was able to go ahead with its deportation. The media barely registered a response. The refugees had been taken in Ventimiglia on the French border. Sudanese police had assisted their Italian colleagues in identifying them. These refugees hadn’t applied for asylum for the simple reason that they planned to travel onwards to other European countries. It was a decision that sealed their fate. Italy’s authorities had no qualms about flying these men out to a country whose president, Omar al-Bashir, has been under an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court since 2009 for the crime of genocide.

And why would they? Al-Bashir has been one of Italy’s trusted partners since 3 August 2016 when the two states signed an agreement in Rome to arrange the readmission of Sudanese citizens by Sudan. Article nine of the Memorandum of Understanding stipulates that the two states would co-operate to identify and remove Sudanese citizens from Italy whilst “fully respecting the migrants’ dignity and human rights“. For its part, Italy committed to readmit any person who had been removed to Sudan “inadvertently“ as such fast-track identification procedures could lead to the odd case of mistaken identity.

Italy’s agreement with Sudan is only the most recent piece of legislation in an overarching policy that aims at curbing, if not stopping entirely, the influx of refugees and migrants by co-operating with the countries of origin and transit nations, specifically on the African continent. This policy comprises two pillars. Firstly, Italy is looking to 'outsource’ refugee control measures to the other side of the Mediterranean. The instrument at play here is agreements that put the onus on states bordering the Mediterranean – primarily Tunisia and Libya – to tackle trafficking networks and prevent illegal crossings. Secondly, the southern European state is seeking out deals with countries across the entire African continent – even those far from the Libyan and Tunisian coasts – to put a stop to migrant transit and to ensure readmission of refugees.

Lampedusa: a symbolic island

After national unification in 1860, Italy essentially remained a country of emigration for over 100 years. But since 1990, it has experienced a radical reversal of migratory movement. In the early 1970s a mere 150,000 foreign nationals were living in the country, mainly from western Europe and the USA, and migrants didn’t really become visible until 1990, when photos appeared showing thousands of people (this time from Albania) packed onto boats moored in the port of Brindisi.

From the mid-1990s onwards, a small island situated far to the country’s south, just off the Tunisian coast, became a byword for this new migratory trend: Lampedusa. Pictures of frightfully overcrowded cutters carrying hundreds of refugees and migrants that had set sail from Tunisia or Libya and were moored in the island’s quay became etched on Italy and Europe’s collective memories. Back then, all the attention focused on Lampedusa was somewhat misplaced as the island was not the main migratory channel into Italy. Between 1997 and 2010, there were, on average, no more than 23,000 arrivals on Lampedusa, Sicily and the Italian mainland coast per year. By contrast, roughly 300,000 individuals from Latin America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe entered the country by land or by air.

As such, there are around five million foreign nationals in the country today, 1.2 million of whom have obtained Italian citizenship. Yet the ruling governments of the past 20 years – both from parties of the right and left – have mainly devoted their attention to reducing the numbers of migrants and refugees arriving by sea.

Italy’s agreements with Tunisia and Libya formed the core of this strategy. In 1998 representatives of the Italian foreign ministry – the centre-left government was, at that time, led by Prime Minister Romano Prodi – and of the Tunisian embassy in Rome signed a Note Verbale in which Tunisia agreed to implement stricter controls and, in exchange, Italy promised legal entry to a few thousand Tunisians. Moreover, Italy also offered €20 million in technical assistance from 1999 to 2001. Then, in 2003, another agreement followed. This time the police authorities of both countries agreed to work more closely together and Italy pledged assistance to train maritime patrols. Once more, this involved the transfer of money – €7 million in 2004 alone – but the exact details are unknown. The actual text of the agreement was and remains confidential. The same is true of the readmission agreement the two states signed in 2009.

Hardware in exchange for refugee control

The agreements began to take effect; refugees tried even more desperately to make their way across Libya while the number of voyages from Tunisia all but dried up. But then came the Arab Spring in 2011, toppling Ben Ali’s government: in the first three months of the year, almost 30,000 Tunisians arrived in Lampedusa. However, it didn’t take long for Italy to respond. On 5 April 2011, Berlusconi’s interior minister signed a new deal with the Tunisian transitional government. The Tunisians agreed to help clamp down on people traffickers operating in Tunisia as well as to readmit all those who had left Tunisia for Italy after 5 April.

As part of this pact, which was renewed in March 2012, Italy agreed to provide material supplies. In December 2012 the first two patrol boats were handed over; the following year, Italy supplied an additional eight vessels as well as 62 Jeeps intended for use along Tunisia’s land borders. A further six vessels were also provided to the Tunisian coast guard between 2014 and 2015. As such, it remained extremely difficult for migrants to travel by sea from Tunisia to Italy even after the regime had been ousted. As far as Italy was concerned, the system for repatriating migrants and refugees, which had been in place since 2009, was working effectively, with up to 200 people being flown back to Tunisia every month.

It decided to adopt the same approach for the country that had become the departure point for the second-highest number of migrants: Libya. In 2000 the centre-left government was still in power, and they signed an initial agreement with the Gaddafi regime to jointly combat irregular immigration. This was followed three years later by an agreement on police co-operation. Once again, the content was kept secret. The only information given was that it was an “operative agreement to define the practical routes of bilateral co-operation in order to prevent clandestine immigration across the sea“.

What is known is that Italy is also providing resources to build and run detention centres in Libya as well as to deport migrants from Libya back to their countries of origin. In addition, between 2003 and 2004, Italy donated 40 night-vision devices, 150 pairs of binoculars, six off-road vehicles, three buses, 100 dinghies, 6,000 mattresses, 12,000 blankets and 1,000 body bags. It also funded 50 charter flights from Libya to third countries, which were used to deport 5,688 individuals to ten different countries of origin.

Friends in Libya

Libya then agreed to even more stringent demands in the agreements it signed in 2007 and 2008. In 2007 the Italian police chief signed a protocol on joint efforts to prevent refugees at sea on behalf of the centre-left government of Romano Prodi, who was in power at the time. Italy pledged to provide Libya with six patrol boats and offer training led by Italian personnel to Libyan officers.

Then, in August 2008, new Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi signed 'The Treaty on Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation’ with Gaddafi’s Libya. For years, Libya had demanded reparations from Italy for injustices committed during Rome’s colonial rule. Italy complied with many of Gaddafi’s demands and agreed to build, and fund, a coastal highway that would run from Libya’s eastern to western border. It was agreed that Libya would receive $250 million every year for a period of 20 years.

In addition, surveillance along Libya’s land borders would be bolstered. For this to happen, Italy provided €152 million between 2009 and 2011. During this period, Italy also supplied nine patrol boats.

Libya’s patrols began intercepting a high number of the traffickers’ boats. And should one manage to slip through the net, the two countries had a slick operation to prevent those on board from reaching shore, even if it meant riding roughshod over human rights. On 6 May 2009 vessels belonging to the Italian navy intercepted roughly 200 Eritreans and Somalis who were 35 nautical miles from Lampedusa and brought them on board with the sole aim of taking them straight back to Tripoli. According to the Italian authorities, not a single one requested asylum. The European Court of Human Rights didn’t find the story credible and, in 2012, ruled that Italy’s actions had violated the refugees’ rights.

Collapse in Tripoli

The Arab Spring, a widespread revolt that began in Benghazi and subsequent western military intervention brought about the end of the Gaddafi regime, and Italy lost a key partner in its efforts to stop refugees. But soon enough, Italy’s interior minister had signed a new, and yet again confidential, agreement with Libya’s interim government, which it did in April 2012. It committed Italy to bear the costs for the Kufra detention camp – later renamed a 'medical centre’ – and the European nation once again declared its willingness to provide technical assistance to Libyan border police. Libya stated its intention to maintain its maritime patrol obligations as outlined in existing agreements.

But the deal only held for a few months. In 2012 the number of those crossing from Libya to Italy by boat dropped even further to just 13,000. Then Libya descended into civil war; the central government was longer in charge – local militia were calling the shots. Suddenly the number of new arrivals in Italy skyrocketed. In 2014, 170,000 arrived, followed by 153,000 in 2015. 2016 is set to be a record-breaking year: 171,000 refugees and migrants had already arrived in Italy by the beginning of December.

The country is thus relying more heavily on readmission and co-operation agreements with the countries of origin, the majority signed by the respective chiefs of police. These deals are not diplomatic contracts between states; they are Note Verbales or protocols. This type of arrangement offers two advantages: first, the exact content of the pact remains secret and, second, the deal does not need to be ratified by parliament. Even MPs are not aware of what their government is actually agreeing to.

As such, a table compiled by the Italian foreign office shows that over the past 17 years only three readmission agreements were signed: two with Algeria and Nigeria in 2007, and an agreement with Egypt from the same year. However, even these transparent agreements do not contain operative details (most importantly, the commitments Italy has made to the countries in question).

A number of agreements have been signed with a range of states in Sub-Saharan Africa, but these documents remain completely opaque. In August 2015, and then again in April 2016, a group of various left-wing MPs submitted parliamentary questions in which they demanded information about the deals with Gambia (signed in 2010, renewed in 2015) and on various Memoranda, such as those signed with Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Niger and Djibouti. They also requested details on the pledges Italy had made in exchange for the supply of technical equipment. Renzi’s government refused to give a response.

The deal with Niger is the only partial exception. It was signed as a state treaty by both governments in 2010 and ratified by the parliament in Rome in 2014. In the treaty, both sides agreed to an “exchange of information“, Italy pledged its support to train Nigerien officials as well as to an exchange “of experiences“. In the ratified law itself, Italy offered up resources totalling the very meagre sum of €57,000 per annum. However, an online search yields a call for tender published by the Italian Ministry of the Interior in 2012, an extremely rare find. The contract is worth a total of €1.4 million and concerns the supply of 15 Toyota Land Cruisers and three buses. All of the vehicles are required to be specially equipped for use in desert regions.

It can be safely assumed that similar pledges were also made to other African states, ranging from Nigeria to Senegal and Sudan to the Gambia. This policy approach may be expensive, but the results are, at best, modest. In 2015 Italy ordered 34,000 expulsions, 16,000 of which were carried out. In over 8,000 cases, individuals were refused entry at the border, 3,500 were removed to other EU countries and only 3,700 were deported to countries of origin outside the EU, mainly Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and Nigeria.

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