The Italian Decreto Missioni: a new agreement, an old habit
28 August, 2020
On 16th July 2020, in almost total silence and disinterest, the Italian Chamber of Deputies approved the so-called Decreto Missioni (“Missions Decree”). With this political decision, Italy renewed its strategic interest in Africa and, in particular, its support to the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG), a military body responsible for controlling the Libyan borders and combating irregular migration from its shores. This new agreement, besides being very dangerous for the safeguard of human rights, is part of a long tradition of bilateral and multilateral agreements, which constitute the basis of both the civil and the military intervention in Africa not only of Italy, but the European Union itself.
The content of the decree
The Decreto Missioni firstly attempts to control movements in the Sahel, an absolutely crucial area for the transit of migratory flows towards the Mediterranean Sea. Given the regional destabilization due to the presence of armed groups, some even affiliated with the Islamic state, community conflicts and inter-ethnic tensions, Italy has decided to increase its military involvement in the area. Although the declared aim of these operations is to stabilize the region by fighting terrorist groups and strengthening the military capabilities of Sahelian states, this might also constitute an attempt to control those areas which, given their fragility, are sources of significant migratory flows. Further, the decree renews the commitment made in 2018 to support the Republic of Niger and Mali in controlling their territories and borders, combating cross-border trafficking and strengthening surveillance and intelligence activities. Italy also commits to fight piracy and armed crime in the Gulf of Guinea with the aim of guaranteeing the security of maritime trade routes, strengthening the cooperation with African states and providing naval surveillance. The decree envisions the participation of Italy to the EU missions in the Horn of Africa fighting piracy. Finally, the decree outlines support to the Libyan Coast Guard for border control, one crucial point for the control of illegal emigration from Libya and consequently of illegal immigration in Europe. In particular, it is stated that the EUBAM Libya (European Union Border Assistance Mission in Libya) mission aims at assisting the Libyan authorities in the establishment of state security structures in Libya, in particular in the areas of border management, law enforcement and criminal justice, in order to contribute to the dismantlement of criminal networks. Again, it is visible that the declared intention is complemented by a more instrumental one: if the purpose is the control of human traffickers and of illegal activities on the Libyan shore, the control of these places will actually lead to smaller emigratory flow towards Europe. Despite the fact that the current Italian government declares itself in discontinuity with the previous one that was marked by the fight against irregular immigration and the establishment of closing measures towards immigrants, no changes have been made at the level of political choices. With its recent vote on the Missions Decree, the Italian government recognizes the LCG as its institutional and privileged speaker, although this decision is strongly conflicting with the values of the Italian constitution that repudiates war and claims its support towards foreign people and migrants in need.
The support of the European Union
Agreements with a third party to control the flows of migrants and to keep them out of the continent are also sustained by the EU. European countries supported the operation Mare Nostrum, aimed at saving lives in the Mediterranean Sea until 2014, when it was replaced by Operation Triton, characterized by less funding and fewer ships. As a consequence, the deaths in the area started to grow. In 2018, the EU’s border and coast guard agency Frontex begun its involvement in training the LCG together with Italy and the EU Border Assistance Mission in Libya (EUBAM). The aim was to improve LCG’s capacity in the area of search and rescue, general law enforcement and fundamental rights. This is one clear example of how EU countries are increasingly externalising borders control. This new kind of agreement protects European states as it lifts them from their responsibility by “driving away” the threat of irregular immigration flows. With the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF Africa), the European Union has spent, more than 90 million euros in the past two years specifically to fund and train the LCG. This training occurs under the authority of the European Union Naval Force, in the mission called Operation Sophia. In addition, the EU offers its support to bilateral agreements, such as the 2018 agreement between Italy and Libya. This shows that the LCG represents the most preferred partner of the EU to prevent migrants from reaching European soil. Given the fact that the LCG has intercepted around 20,000 people only in 2017, it can be sustained that this kind of operations is quite successful and efficient. This happens, however, at the expense of migrants, who are detained in countries like Libya that often fail to protect their fundamental rights and guarantee them international protection.
The precarious conditions in Libya
The international principle of non-refoulment prohibits the rejection and relocation of migrants to unsafe countries, where fundamental human rights cannot be guaranteed. As this is the case in Libya, the cooperation with Libyan authorities to stem migration flows raises significant concerns. Armed conflicts are far from being resolved and human rights violations are commonplace. There are numerous evidences of arbitrary arrests and abduction of migrants by militias. In addition, they are often victims of human trafficking and abuses by criminal groups in the country. The ongoing hostilities enhance the dangers to which they are exposed. Thousands of migrants are unlawfully detained in Libyan detention centres, where exploitation and forced labour, as well as torture, rape, extortion and unlawful killings, are very common. The living conditions are absolutely inhuman: migrants have to face overcrowding, shortage of food, water and medical treatment, and in several cases the centres are located near active combat zones. In this scenario, the LCG has the power to intercept migrants in the Mediterranean Sea and send them to these detention centres. The frequent and numerous rights violations perpetrated by part of the Libyan Coast Guard are known. The LCG is accused of not only violating the rights of migrants kept in detention centres, but also of collaborating with human traffickers themselves. In addition, the United Nations have reported that the LCG has intentionally sunk the precarious boats on which migrants were trying to reach Europe in multiple occasions through the use of firearms.
An alarming perspective
This entire framework of military operations and support to the LCG by states like Italy and the EU is not only alarming, but totally inconsistent with international laws and principles. The renewal of the Memorandum of Understanding between Italy and Libya and the legality of international agreements signed by the EU is doubtful, as they contribute to the perpetration of human rights violations. Numerous academic and legal experts, but also international associations and NGO, have been trying to challenge these dangerous agreements for multiple reasons. Firstly, they go against the safeguarding of human rights, which should be a primary interest of Italy and, more largely, of the EU. Secondly, they breach the EU’s budget rules, given the abuses that happen in Libya. A huge amount of money is indeed used to support ambiguous and violent actions. Thirdly, it must be highlighted that Libya can in no way be considered a safe port, not only for the ongoing conflicts but also for the living conditions migrants are forced to live in. European congressmen have asked several questions to the Commission on the legality of the LCG, on the future actions of the Commission to safeguard human rights and on the reasonableness to continue to fund detention centres and entities that violate human rights.
The situation in Libya has not improved in recent times and rather continuous violations of migrant’s human rights have been highlighted. In this scenario, the renewal of these agreements provides a worrisome perspective, as European states insist on choosing Libya as a partner in the fight against irregular migration. Leaving the NGOs active in the Mediterranean as the only possible support to migrants, the European states turn their backs not only on the principle of non-refoulment but on their founding values, such as helping and welcoming those in need. They prefer to safeguard their interests, namely pushing irregular migrants away, rather than protecting the lives of people escaping from wars, persecution, violence and abuses. It is thus clear how strong and crucial the responsibility of Italy is, as well as of the entire EU, in this frightful support of the LCG. We have to ask ourselves when we will finally see a substantial and decisive change of course, a new approach to migratory movements that recognizes them not as a burden but as a challenge to face together. When will the money that we spend for military operations that lead to human rights violations and growing instability be used for practical welcoming actions? When will we convert refoulement and rejection of migrants into hospitality and integration?