September 21, 2009

V. Italian-Libyan “Friendship” and the Return of Boat Migrants to Libya

In September 2006, Human Rights Watch published a report, “Libya: Stemming the Flow: Abuses against Migrants, Asylum Seekers and Refugees.”[6] The present report could have had the exact same title with one addition: Italy’s name would be added next to Libya’s.

On May 6, 2009, Italy began unilaterally interdicting boat migrants on the high seas and returning them summarily to Libya.[7] A week later, Libya and Italy announced the beginning of joint naval patrols in Libyan territorial waters, although it was unclear whether and how they were operating. At the May 14, 2009 launch ceremony for these patrols, the Guardia di Finanza commander,[8] Cosimo D'Arrigo, said that the boats “will be used in joint patrols in Libyan territorial water and international waters in conjunction with Italian naval operations.”[9] He added that “members of the Libyan coast guard will also be stationed at our command station on the island of Lampedusa and will take part in patrols on our ships.”[10]The joint Italian-Libyan patrolling mission is due to last an initial three years.[11]

In the first week after the interdiction program began, about 500 boat migrants were summarily returned to Libya, resulting in a dramatic curtailment in the number of boats attempting the journey from Libya.[12] Over the course of the next eight weeks, only 400 were interdicted and returned.[13] Irregular boat migrants to Sicily (including Lampedusa) and Sardinia fell by 55 percent in the first six months of 2009 compared to the same period the previous year.[14]  The migrant detention centers of Lampedusa, the tiny Italian island just off the North African coast, vividly illustrate this: in January 2009, they were filled beyond capacity, holding nearly 2,000 people, and migrants were sleeping on the floors.[15] For a time in early June, the Lampedusa detention centers were completely empty of migrants.[16]

Why the number of migrants attempting the Mediterranean voyage fell so dramatically is a matter of speculation. Certainly a new naval cordon was a strong deterrent to boat departures, as embarking on a dangerous journey is only worth the risk if there is some chance of success.[17] But the fall in the number of departures could also be because Libyan authorities strengthened their efforts to prevent departures.

Libyan leader, Mu`ammar al-Gaddafi’s incentive to stem the flow of migrants is a newfound partnership with Italy. After nearly a decade of negotiation, Italy and Libya signed TheTreaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation between the Italian Republic and Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (the ‘Friendship Pact’) on August 30, 2008.[18] The real trade off for Libya’s cooperation in stopping irregular migration appears to be Italian investments in Libya: The Friendship Pact provides for $5 billion in compensation for abuses committed during Italy's rule in Libya (from 1911 to 1943). The money will be invested by Italy over a 25-year period at the rate of $200 million per year in infrastructure projects in Libya.[19]

The Friendship Pact calls for “intensifying” cooperation in “fighting terrorism, organized crime, drug trafficking and illegal immigration.”[20] The two parties agree to strengthen the border control system for Libyan land borders (50 percent funded by Italy and 50 percent to be sought from the EU), and to use Italian companies in this endeavor.[21]

Both Italy and Libya have incentives for stemming the flow of irregular migrants.  Foreigners comprise 10.5 percent of Libya’s population of 5.8 million[22] and 87 percent of the 536,000 foreigners residing in the country in 2004 were undocumented.[23] Although for many years al-Gaddafi welcomed sub-Saharan Africans to Libya in the name of pan-African solidarity, present-day Libyan authorities seem to regard the influx from the south as more of a threat. Libyan foreign minister, Moussa Kusa, said the “real problem in Libya regarding illegal immigration” is the “uncontrollable” 4,000-kilometer southern border.[24]

The number of irregular boat migrants arriving in Italy from North Africa rose from 19,900 in 2007 to 36,000 in 2008, an 89.4 percentage increase.[25] Italy also received 31,164 new asylum applications in 2008, an increase of 122 percent from the 14,053 asylum applicants in 2007.[26] In 2008, Italy ranked as the fourth highest asylum host country in the industrialized world, trailing only the United States, Canada, and France.[27]

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who draws some of his political support from anti-immigrant parties, has used the issue of undocumented migrants for political advantage and to attack the idea that Italy is a multiethnic and multicultural society.[28]  “The Left’s idea,” he said, “is that of a multiethnic Italy. That’s not our idea.”[29] Berlusconi has said, “We don't want Italy to become a multiethnic, multicultural country. We are proud of our culture and of our traditions.”[30]


[6]Human Rights Watch, Libya – Stemming the Flow: Abuses Against Migrants, Asylum Seekers and Refugees, Vol. 18, No. 5(E), September 2006, (Hereafter, Stemming the Flow).

[7] “UNHCR deeply concerned over returns from Italy to Libya,” UNHCR press release, May 7, 2009, (accessed June 26, 2009). 

[8]The Guardia di Finanza (GdF) is a special police force of the Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance that carries out security, judicial and fiscal police activities in close cooperation with the Ministry of Defense, including control of terrestrial and coastal Italian borders. Italy’s coast guard is the Corpo delle capitanerie di porto - Guardia Costiera(commonly known as the Guardia Costiera), which operates as part of the Italian Navy corps under the Ministry of Defense. The Guardia Costiera is responsible for the safeguard of human life in sea.

[9]Consegnate alla Libia tre motovedette della Guardia di finanza per il pattugliamento nel mar Mediterraneo,”  Ministero dell’Interno – Notizie, May 14, 2009, (accessed July 23, 2009). See also, “Italy gives Libya Three Patrol Boats,” ANSA, May 14, 2009, (accessed July 27, 2009). Italy agreed to transfer six Guardia di Finanza vessels (three “Bigliani” class coast guard cutters and three “V.5000” class patrol boats) to Libya to be manned by mixed Italian and Libyan crews.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Nick Squires, “Concentration camps for immigrants’ admission by Silvio Berlusconi,”, May 20, 2009, (accessed July 17, 2009).  See also, Herman Grech, “Where have all the immigrants gone?” Times of Malta, June 28, 2009, (accessed June 29, 2009).

[13]UNHCR Briefing Note, “UNHCR interviews asylum seekers pushed back to Libya,” July 14, 2009, (accessed July 17, 2009). 

[14] “Immigration: Illegal Arrivals from Sea Halved in Italy,” ANSAmed, citing Frontex, July 9, 2009, (accessed July 17, 2009). 

[15] “UNHCR concerned over humanitarian situation in Lampedusa, Italy,” UNHCR, press release, January 23, 2009, (accessed June 26, 2009).

[16]Migration News Sheet reports Mr. Buccarello, councillor on immigration for the municipality of Lampedusa, as informing “the media that since May 6, 2009 when the Government began its new policy of returning to Libya those irregular migrants/asylum-seekers who departed from there, more than 170 more had arrived.” “Irregular migrants/asylum seekers are still arriving on the Italian island of Lampedusa,” Migration News Sheet, July, 2009. 

[17] According to the International Organization for Migration, “Many illegal immigrants have been discouraged from attempting the sea voyage because of Italy’s new policy.” Quoted in “'Outsourcing' asylum seekers the Italian way,” NRC Handelsblad, July 24, 2009, (accessed July 24, 2009). 

[18] “Gaddafi, Berlusconi sign accord worth billions,” Reuters, August 30, 2008, (accessed June 26, 2009). See also, “Firma per risarcimento Italia-Libia, ‘Saremo uniti sull'immigrazione,’” La, August 30, 2008,  (accessed July 23, 2009). The Italian Senate ratified the agreement on February 3, 2009; Libya ratified it a month later. “Italy-Libya: Tripoli Ratifies Friendship Treaty” ANSAmed, March 2, 2009, (accessed June 29, 2009). The treaty builds on a December 2000 bilateral agreement and a December 30, 2007 Protocol of Understanding in which the two countries agreed to collaborate to stop irregular migration, including through joint maritime patrols.  See Ministry of Foreign Affairs, (accessed June 26, 2009).

[19] “Libya okays pact with Italy to boost investment,” Reuters, March 2, 2009, (accessed June 5, 2009).

[20] “Ecco il testo dell’accordo, Va ratificato dal Parlamento,” La, October 23, 2008,  (accessed July 16, 2009). See Article 19. Translated by Human Rights Watch.

[21] Ibid.

[22] United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, “International Migration Report 2006: A Global Assessment,” 2006, (accessed July 16, 2009).

[23] There were 468,000 residents living illegally in Libya in 2004 out of a total foreigner population of 536,324, according to Omran Abdusalam Sofrani and Hussein Saleh Jwan, citing statistics from the General Department of Passports and Citizenship, 'International Migration to Libya', presented in Tripoli. Omran Abdulsalam Sofrani and Hussein Saleh Jwan, “International Migration to Libya,” 2009. On file with Human Rights Watch.

[24] “Immigration: Libyan Minister, Southern Border Uncontrollable,” ANSAmed, April 2, 2009, (accessed July 9, 2009).

[25] (accessed June 12, 2009).

[26]Email from UNHCR, June 25, 2009. See also, UNHCR Asylum Levels and Trends in Globalized Countries 2008, (accessed August 27, 2009).

[27] Ibid, page 6.

[28] The political manipulation of the issue became quite ugly. After UNHCR criticized Italy’s return of boat migrants in May, the Italian defense minister, Ignazio La Russa, said that UNHCR was “not worth a damn.” He accused UNHCR’s Italian spokesperson, Laura Boldrini, of being “a notable Communist party member and a criminal.” He went on, ''I accuse her of being inhumane because she wants us to keep [illegal immigrants] in holding centers and then expel them. Or, since she wants them to escape once they've reached Italy, she's a criminal who ignores the law.'' “La Russa contro l' Unhcr: ‘Non conta niente,’” Vincenzo Nigro, La Repubblica, May 22, 2009, p. 6, (accessed July 23, 2009). Minister of Foreign Affairs Franco Frattini rebuked La Russa, but only for being impolite, saying, “'International organizations always merit respect even if they make mistakes in evaluating a government.'' Quoted in “Migranti, Frattini frena La Russa: ‘L'Onu sbaglia, ma va rispettato,’” La, May 17 2009, (accessed August 27, 2009). La Russa later apologized for his remarks.

[29] “Berlusconi: ‘Sì ai rimpatri, non apriremo le porte a tutti’” (“Berlusconi: ‘Yes to push-backs, we won’t open the doors to everyone’”), Corriere della Sera, May 9, 2009, (accessed July 15, 2009). Translated by Human Rights Watch.

[30] “Non vogliamo un’Italia pluriculturale,” Corriere della Sera, March 28, 2006, (accessed July 15, 2009). Original Italian: “Noi vogliamo un’Italia che non diventi un paese plurietnico, pluriculturale, siamo fieri della nostra cultura e delle nostre tradizioni.” Translated by Human Rights Watch.