international analysis and commentary

Working to control migration flows: Italy, Lybia and Tunisia


Amid reports of record increases in migrant deaths at sea, Italy is building on cooperation with its two key partners in North Africa, Libya and Tunisia, to stem migration flows. In its efforts, Italy has relied on a long string of agreements and deals made since 1998 and 2003 with Tunisia and Libya respectively that can be questioned as to whether they are legitimate and whether they respect migrants’ rights.

During the 2000s, several agreements that focused on curbing migratory flows and enhancing re-admission were carried out with the regime of Muammar Gheddafi in Libya. In February 2017, an EU-supported memorandum of understanding was signed between then-Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and Fayez al-Serraj, head of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. The agreement, reactivated the 2008 Friendship Treaty between Italy and Libya signed by Gheddafi and then-Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi. It essentially aimed to outsource the containment and push-back of migrants by boosting the capacity of the Libyan Navy and Coast Guard. Based on the memorandum, Italy would supply technical and technological support while Libya would close its southern border and stop migrant boats heading towards Europe.

The coastline of the Mediterranean Sea


With the 2008 treaty, Italy agreed to pay Libya $5 billion in reparations for its occupation of the country in the decades before World War II; in return, Libya would prevent illegal migrants from departing from its shores and receive those sent back. The pact was slammed by human rights groups pointing to arbitrary detention of migrants, abuse and torture at the hands of the Libyan authorities. However, the hard fact is that it worked. The number of irregular migrants from Libya dropped from almost 40,000 in 2008 to 3,200 in the first seven months of 2009.

Besides being highly criticized for trapping thousands of people in abusive Libyan detention camps, the 2017 Italy-Libya deal lacks clarity regarding the origin and destination of funds.

The main source (in addition to the EU Trust Fund for Africa) according to most estimates is the Italian Fund for Africa, a €200 million instrument approved by the 2017 budget act, whose primary goal is to stop irregular migration flows, according to then Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano. This raises some doubt as to what extent these funds can be used to support development programmes. It also feeds allegations of funds being channelled to smugglers for halting boats embarking from Libya’s shores.

In this context, the actions of the Libyan Coast and Border Guard, who are being trained, equipped and funded by the Italian government, could make Italy liable, as argued for instance by Human Rights Watch. Indeed, under international law, no one rescued or intercepted by an EU-flagged ship or under the custody or control of an EU member state can be sent back to a place or handed over to authorities where they face a risk of torture or ill-treatment (non-refoulement principle).

The €1.8 billion EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, whose contribution to the North Africa region from Italy is valued at €11 million, was established at the Valletta Summit on Migration in November 2015 to address irregular migration and improve migration management.

Mangement of the EUTF. Image: IAI.


Since the Valletta Summit, the majority of the development funds have been tied to the management of irregular migration, according to investigative journalist Lorenzo Bagnoli who participated in a project looking into how a growing part of EU development funds are being diverted to support programmes aimed at managing migration flows in Africa. When Italy supports such programmes, it usually does so through ad hoc funds whose provenance may or may not be attached to development aid resources. The journalist cited a €42 million project managed by the Italian Interior Ministry for training and helping the Libyan Coast Guard to secure land and sea borders.

Figures released by the Italian Interior Ministry showed an 87% decrease in the arrivals in August 2017 compared to the previous year. This was thought to be mainly due to increased activity by the Libyan Coast Guard, and strong pressure by the Italian government on several players in Libya to halt departures. An additional €220 million deal signed with Tripoli on February 3, 2017 was to train Libyan Coast Guard to stop migrant boats from attempting to cross.

By focusing its actions on reducing crossings to Italy, the Italian policy approach has been expanded to include dialogues with a range of Libyan actors, from institutional players to local tribes, mayors, entrepreneurs and competitors. Libya is a historical partner to Italy in terms of politics, economics and security. As such, the country’s stability and security are major concerns for Rome, particularly in the energy,  infrastructure, and economic cooperation.

As combating illegal migration remains one of its priorities, the Italian government has initiated multilateral and bilateral dialogues with other countries situated along the main migratory routes, including Tunisia. Italy and Tunisia cooperate in the coordination of border security and the return of irregular migrants. In a joint declaration signed by Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui and his Italian counterpart Angelino Alfano in February 2017, the two countries committed to increase cooperation in handling illegal migration and human trafficking across the Mediterranean. Alfano confirmed Italy’s support to modernising and maintaining patrol vessels supplied to the Tunisian National Guard, cooperation in training and supply of equipment for the control of maritime borders. The agreement came just days after the EU announced during a summit in Malta that it would increase collaboration with Libya’s neighbors in tackling the Libya crisis.

A “priority country and a strategic partner” for Italy, in Alfano’s words, Tunisia plays a central role in the stability of the entire Mediterranean region, including the migration issue and Libya crisis. Furthermore, Tunisia has quickly become an immigration and transit country, with migrants coming mainly from the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa.

With that in mind, the recent visit by Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini to Tunis came in the form of an specific request to the Tunisian authorities to accelerate efforts to both block irregular migrants from entering Italy, and to repatriate Tunisian nationals who are illegally in Italy. Despite his hopes to raise the repatriation quota – set at 80 per week – Salvini instead received Tunisia’s promise to reinforce bilateral agreements with Italy.

Although Tunisia is currently the largest sender of migrants to Italy, total arrivals have dropped dramatically. Less than 21,000 people were counted at the end of August since the beginning of the year, based on UNHCR data. Tunisia crucially taps into the Italian (and European) priority issue of containing – if not cutting – migration numbers, being one of Italy’s few close and long-standing partners in this field.

Monthly number of arrivals from Tunisia to Italy. Sources: Italian Ministry of Interior, UNHCR. Image: ECFR


The Action Aid evaluation of the use of aid resources being spent in Tunisia and Libya alongside Niger – the three key transit and departure points for the vast majority of African migrants – shows the Italian Fund for Africa poses a problematic case. With €200 million on top of funds for ordinary development activities, the Fund is aimed at starting special actions to relaunch cooperation with African countries of strategic importance for the migratory flows.

Unlike prior European financing pledges, the funds are intended to boost efforts by African security forces to stop people from leaving, and to pay for equipment to monitor the borders. As much as 75%  of the resources were allocated to Libya and Niger (30.1% and 45.3% respectively). The remaining 25% was distributed among five other states, for the main part going to Tunisia (close to 10%). The sectors in which the money was spent – with money flowing from the Directorate General for Italians Abroad and Migration Policies (DGIT) to the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF) – were not specified nor are the activities carried out mentioned.

In the specific instance of Tunisia, within the framework of its 2017 joint agreement with Italy, the nature of the expenditure (€12 million) is clearly attributed to activities of technical support to the Tunisian authorities in border management and migration. A project of this kind can hardly be placed in the scope of the development field. This is especially the case for Tunisia.

As for Libya, the allocation of funds (€10 million) for developing border management and reinforcing surveillance along the southern borders can be traced back to the implementation of control activities along Libya’s southern border envisaged by the 2017 memorandum of understanding.

As for the management of European development funds, it appears that the money has been used through loose procedures, and on the basis of national priorities of controlling migratory flows rather than in the interest of the recipient countries. This is what emerged from a monitoring report on the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa and the EU’s Migration Compact issued by NGO networks Concord and Cini in November 2017.

Based on numerous testimonies gathered in the report, more than 40% of €162 million was unlocked by the Trust Fund in Libya for migration control programmes, thus shifting the use of funds from fighting poverty to security actions like financing the Libyan Coast Guard to take intercepted migrants back to detention camps. Among the security-focused projects, there is one worth €42.2 million of Italian origin that aims to strengthen the Libyan maritime authorities in activities of surveillance and fight against irregular migration, improve rescue operations in Libya’s search and rescue zone, plan to establish a coordination center in Tripoli, and to create a surveillance system of land borders.  The dossier denounced that for the majority of the projects the aid allocation was based on the migratory routes, and not according to the needs of the country.

Not only has much of the financial aid injected by the EU and Italy been purposely channelled toward migration containment, but in cases like Libya aid has caused problems in the management of economic resources weighing on the precarious country’s situation, and possibly leading to an exacerbation of the crisis, as Bagnoli documented in his investigation in December 2017. From his viewpoint, the Libyan context creates very high competition between rival militias wanting to grab European money and become the privileged partners that member states can count on in the EU’s interest of stemming migration.

Several investigative reports indicate that the government in Tripoli, with Italy’s backing, has enlisted militias implicated in trafficking to stop migrants. In the western city of Sabratha, the biggest launching port for migrants, the Dabbashi militia received money from the Italian government to prevent crossings before the summer of 2017. The clashes in the area were to be attributed to Italian interference, according to researcher Jalel Herchaoui. Italy’s pledging of funds in Fezzan, southwest of Libya, may have had a similar destabilising effect. Former Italian Interior Minister, Marco Minniti, had promised money in exchange for collaboration on fighting the illicit trafficking of migrants.

While European institutions and key member states have repeatedly praised Italy for its proactive role in Africa, there are concerns about to whom Italian and European aid is given and how it is spent. Aside from the dubious destination and use of these funds, the risk of fragmenting the North African region by outsourcing the control of Europe’s southern borders to controversial local forces is very high according to Italian intelligence sources.

For the foreseeable future, cooperation on migration between the two shores of the Mediterranean remains largely attached to the external dimension of EU migration policy. Based on the conclusions from the European Council summit held at the end of June, Italy will receive more funds and support from the EU to send back arriving migrants and expel more than 600,000 who arrived in the last few years. Rome will be, however, handling the task alone.