With record numbers of refugees crossing into Europe from the Mediterranean in the past two years, Italy, which is a frequent point of entry, has sought to limit refugee flows. It has done so, in part, by entering into an agreement with the Libyan government, in which the later agreed to intercept these refugees. Often serving as the primary gateway to the sea for many sub-Saharan refugees, Libya is a strategic point for blocking migration. While the deal may help alleviate European fears about immigration influxes, it has left countless sub-Saharan refugees stranded in Libyan detention centers where they are enduring inhumane conditions.

The agreement between Italy and Libya was signed in February 2017, by Interior Minister Marco Minniti and Fayez al-Sarraj, leader of Libya’s UN-backed government in Tripoli. The deal establishes greater collaboration between the Italian government and the Libyan coast guard, in order to intercept rafts headed for Italy, and is being funded by the EU. 

The agreement includes provisions for more patrol vessels and also expands Libya’s search measures. As The Christian Science Monitor recently reported, for instance, “the Libyan coast guard recently announced that it was extending its search and rescue authority 80 miles from the coast, and warned NGO boats to stay out of that zone.”  

As part of the deal, EU funds have also been used to strengthen Libya’s southern border, in order to prevent refugees from reaching the Mediterranean coast in the first place.  Tribal militias have been employed to patrol the land border, and have already received praise from Minniti  as gatekeepers of the southern crossing into Libya. Italy’s decision to support these militias is problematic, however, as these groups have often been the ones running the illegal human smuggling routes.

Since the agreement was implemented, Mediterranean migrant crossings have dropped 87 percent. Although the Italian government has boasted about this figure and highlighted the concomitant decreased number of drownings, it has overlooked the fact that intercepted refugees are being rerouted to detention centers in Libya, which have deplorable conditions. As Orla Guerin reported for the BBC, a recent UN report on these centers highlighted consistent accounts of torture, sexual violence, and forced labor, as well as cases of severe malnutrition. 

Speaking out against these abuses, International President for Doctors Without Borders, Joanne Liu, recently denounced both Italy and the EU, accusing them of complicity in the criminal abuses taking place at the Libyan detention centers. Liu’s condemnation is understandable. In their haste to stop migration across the Mediterranean, Italy and, by extension, the EU seems to care little about the conditions refugees must endure, so long as they do not cross into Europe.

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