An ActionAid investigation into how Italy tried to stop migration from Africa, using EU funds, and how much money it spent.
There are satellites, drones, ships, cooperation projects, police posts, repatriation flights, training centers. They are the bricks of an invisible but tangible and often violent wall. Erected starting in 2015 onwards, thanks to over one billion euros of public money. With one goal: to eliminate those movements by sea, from North Africa to Italy, which in 2015 caused an outcry over a “refugee crisis”. Here we tell you about the (fragile) foundations and the (dramatic) impacts of this project. Which must be changed, urgently.
Ready, Set, Go
Imagine a board game, Risk style. The board is a huge geographical map, which descends south from Italy, including the Mediterranean Sea and North Africa and almost reaching the equator, in Cameroon, South Sudan, Rwanda. Places we know little about and read rarely about.
Each player distributes activity cards and objects between countries and along borders. In Ethiopia there is a camera crew shooting TV series called ‘Miraj’ [mirage], which recounts the misadventures of naive youth who rely on shady characters to reach Europe. There is military equipment, distributed almost everywhere: off-road vehicles for the Tunisian border police, ambulances and tank trucks for the army in Niger, patrol boats for Libya, surveillance drones taking off from Sicily.
There is technology: satellite systems on ships in the Mediterranean, software for recording fingerprints in Egypt, laptops for the Nigerian police. And still: coming and going of flights between Libya and Nigeria, Guinea, Gambia. Maritime coordination centers, police posts in the middle of the Sahara, job orientation offices in Tunisia or Ethiopia, clinics in Uganda, facilities for minors in Eritrea, and refugee camps in Sudan.
Hold your breath for a moment longer, because we still haven’t mentioned the training courses. And there are many: to produce yogurt in Ivory Coast, open a farm in Senegal or a beauty salon in Nigeria, to learn about the rights of refugees, or how to use a radar station.
Crazed pawns, overlapping cards and unclear rules. Except for one: from these African countries, more than 25 of them, not one person should make it to Italy. There is only one exception allowed: leaving with a visa. Embassy officials, however, have precise instructions: anyone who doesn’t have something to return to should not be accepted. Relationships, family, and friends don’t count, but only incomes, properties, businesses, and titles do.
For a young professional, a worker, a student, an activist, anyone looking for safety, future and adventure beyond the borders of the continent, for people like me writing and perhaps like you reading, the only allies become the facilitators, those who Europe calls traffickers and who, from friends, can turn into worst enemies.
We called it The Big Wall. It could be one of those strategy games that keeps going throughout the night, for fans of geopolitics, conflicts, finance. But this is real life, and it’s the result of years of investments, experiments, documents and meetings. At first disorderly, sporadic, then systematized and increased since 2015, when United Nations agencies, echoed by the international media, sounded an alarm: there is a migrant crisis happening and Europe must intervene. Immediately.
Italy was at the forefront, and all those agreements, projects, and programs from previous years suddenly converged and multiplied, becoming bricks of a wall that, from an increasingly militarized Mediterranean, moved south, to the travelers’ countries of origin.
The basic idea, which bounced around chancelleries and European institutions, was to use multiple tools: development cooperation, support for security forces, on-site protection of refugees, repatriation, information campaigns on the risks of irregular migration. This, in the language of Brussels, was a “comprehensive approach”.
We talked to some of the protagonists of this story — those who built the wall, who tried to jump it, and who would like to demolish it — and we looked through thousands of pages of reports, minutes, resolutions, decrees, calls for tenders, contracts, newspaper articles, research, to understand how much money Italy has spent, where, and what impacts it has had. Months of work to discover not only that this wall has dramatic consequences, but that the European – and Italian – approach to international migration stems from erroneous premises, from an emergency stance that has disastrous results for everyone, including European citizens.
Libya: the tip of the iceberg
It was the start of the 2017/2018 academic year and Omer Shatz, professor of international law, offered his Sciences Po students the opportunity to work alongside him on the preparation of a dossier. For the students of the faculty, this was nothing new. In the classrooms of the austere building on the Rive Gauche of Paris, which European and African heads of state have passed though, not least Emmanuel Macron, it’s normal to work on real life materials: peace agreements in Colombia, trials against dictators and foreign fighters. Those who walk on those marble floors already know that they will be able to speak with confidence in circles that matter, in politics as well as diplomacy.
Shatz, who as a criminal lawyer in Israel is familiar with abuses and rights violations, launched his students a new challenge: to bring Europe to the International Criminal Court for the first time. “Since it was created, the court has only condemned African citizens – dictators, militia leaders – but showing European responsibility was urgent,” he explains.
One year after first proposing the plan, Shatz sent an envelope to the Court’s headquarters, in the Dutch town of The Hague. With his colleague Juan Branco and eight of his students he recounted, in 245 pages, cases of “widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population”, linked to “crimes against humanity consciously committed by European actors, in the central Mediterranean and in Libya, in line with Italian and European Union policies”.
The civilian population to which they refer comprises migrants and refugees, swallowed by the waves or intercepted in the central Mediterranean and brought back to shore by Libyan assets, to be placed in a seemingly endless cycle of detention. Among them are the 13.000 dead recorded since 2015, in the stretch of sea between North Africa and Italy, out of 523.000 people who survived the crossing, but also the many African and Asian citizens, who are rarely counted, who were tortured in Libya and died in any of the dozens of detention centers for foreigners, often run by militias.
“At first we thought that the EU and Italy were outsourcing dirty work to Libya to block people, which in jargon is called ‘aiding and abetting’ in the commission of a crime, then we realized that the Europeans were actually the conductors of these operations, while the Libyans performed”, says Shatz, who, at the end of 2020, was preparing a second document for the International Criminal Court to include more names, those of the “anonymous officials of the European and Italian bureaucracy who participated in this criminal enterprise”, which was centered around the “reinvention of the Libyan Coast Guard, conceived by Italian actors”.
Identifying heads of department, office directors, and institution executives in democratic countries as alleged criminals might seem excessive. For Shatz, however, “this is the first time, after the Nuremberg trials, after Eichmann, that Europe has committed crimes of this magnitude, outside of an armed conflict”. The court, which routinely rejects at least 95 percent of the cases presented, did not do so with Shatz and his students’ case. “Encouraging news, but that does not mean that the start of proceedings is around the corner”, explains the lawyer.
At the basis of the alleged crimes, he continues, are “regulations, memoranda of understanding, maritime cooperation, detention centers, patrols and drones” created and financed by the European Union and Italy. Here Shatz is speaking about the Memorandum of Understanding between Italy and Libya to “reduce the flow of illegal migrants”, as the text of the document states. An objective to be achieved through training and support for the two maritime patrol forces of the very fragile Libyan national unity government, by “adapting” the existing detention centers, and supporting local development initiatives.
Signed in Rome on February 2, 2017 and in force until 2023, the text is grafted onto the Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation signed by Silvio Berlusconi and Muammar Gaddafi in 2008, but is tied to a specific budget: that of the so-called Africa Fund, established in 2016 as the “Fund for extraordinary interventions to relaunch dialogue and cooperation with African countries of priority importance for migration routes” and extended in 2020 — as the Migration Fund — to non-African countries too.
310 million euros were allocated in total between the end of 2016 and November 2020, and 252 of those were disbursed, according to our reconstruction.
A multiplication of tools and funds that, explains Mario Giro, “was born after the summit between the European Union and African leaders in Malta, in November 2015”. According to the former undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from 2013, and Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs between 2016 and 2018, that summit in Malta “sanctioned the triumph of a European obsession, that of reducing migration from Africa at all costs: in exchange of this containment, there was a willingness to spend, invest”. For Giro, the one in Malta was an “attempt to come together, but not a real partnership”.
Libya, where more than 90 percent of those attempting to cross the central Mediterranean departed from in those years, was the heart of a project in which Italian funds and interests support and integrate with programs by the European Union and other member states. It was an all-European dialogue, from which powerful Africans — political leaders but also policemen, militiamen, and the traffickers themselves — tried to obtain something: legitimacy, funds, equipment.
Fragmented and torn apart by a decade-long conflict, Libya was however not alone. In October 2015, just before the handshakes and the usual photographs at the Malta meeting, the European Commission established an Emergency Trust Fund to “address the root causes of migration in Africa”.
To do so, as Dutch researcher Thomas Spijkerboer will reconstruct years later, the EU executive declared a state of emergency in the 26 African countries that benefit from the Fund, thus justifying the choice to circumvent European competition rules in favor of direct award procedures. However “it’s implausible – Spijkerboeker will go on to argue – that there is a crisis in all 26 African countries where the Trust Fund operates through the duration of the Trust Fund”, now extended until the end of 2021.
However, the imperative, as an advisor to the Budget Commission of the European Parliament explains, was to act immediately: “not within a few weeks, but days, hours“.
Faced with a Libya still ineffective at stopping flows to the north, it was in fact necessary to intervene further south, traveling backwards along the routes that converge from dozens of African countries and go towards Tripolitania. And — like dominoes in reverse — raising borders and convincing, or forcing, potential travelers to stop in their countries of origin or in others along the way, before they arrived on the shores of the Mediterranean.
For the first time since decolonization, human mobility in Africa became the keystone of Italian policies on the continent, so much so that analysts began speaking of migration diplomacy. Factors such as the number of migrants leaving from a given country and the number of border posts or repatriations all became part of the political game, on the same level as profits from oil extraction, promises of investment, arms sales, or trade agreements.
Comprising projects, funds, and programs, this migration diplomacy comes at a cost. For the period between January 2015 and November 2020, we tracked down 317 funding lines managed by Italy with its own funds and partially co-financed by the European Union. A total of 1.337 billion euros, spent over five years and destined to eight different items of expenditure. Here Libya is in first place, but it is not alone.
A long story, in short
For simplicity’s sake, we can say that it all started in the hot summer of 2002, with an almost surrealist lightning war over a barren rock on the edge of the Mediterranean: the Isla de Persejil, the island of parsley. A little island in the Strait of Gibraltar, disputed for decades between Morocco and Spain, which had its ephemeral moment of glory when in July of that year the Moroccan monarchy sent six soldiers, some tents and a flag. Jose-Maria Aznar’s government quickly responded with a reconquista to the sound of fighter-bombers, frigates, and helicopters.
Peace was signed only a few weeks later and the island went back to being a land of shepherds and military patrols. Which from then on, however, were joint ones.
“There was talk of combating drug trafficking and illegal fishing, but the reality was different: these were the first anti-immigration operations co-managed by Spanish and Moroccan soldiers”, explains Sebastian Cobarrubias, professor of geography at the University of Zaragoza. The model, he says, was the one of Franco-Spanish counter-terrorism operations in the Basque Country, exported from the Pyrenees to the sea border.
A process of externalization of Spanish and European migration policy was born following those events in 2002, and culminating years later with the crisis de los cayucos, the pirogue crisis: the arrival of tens of thousands of people – 31,000 in 2006 alone – in the Canary Islands, following extremely dangerous crossings from Senegal, Mauritania and Morocco.
In close dialogue with the European Commission, which saw the Spanish border as the most porous one of the fragile Schengen area, the government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero reacted quickly. “Within a few months, cooperation and repatriation agreements were signed with nine African countries,” says Cobarrubias, who fought for years, with little success, to obtain the texts of the agreements.
The events of the late 2000s look terribly similar to what Italy will try to implement a decade later with its Mediterranean neighbors, Libya first of all. So much so that in 2016 it was the Spanish Minister of the Interior himself, Jorge Fernández Díaz, who recalled that “the Spanish one is a European management model, reproducible in other contexts”. A vision confirmed by the European Commission officials with whom we spoke.
At the heart of the Spanish strategy, which over a few short years led to a drastic decrease of arrivals by sea, was the opening of new diplomatic offices in Africa, the launch of local development projects, and above all the support given to the security forces of partner countries.
Cobarrubias recounts at least four characteristic elements of the Madrid approach: the construction of new patrol forces “such as the Mauritanian Coast Guard, which did not exist and was created by Spain thanks to European funds, with the support of the newly created Frontex agency”; direct and indirect support for detention centers, such as the infamous ‘Guantanamito’, or little Guantanamo, denounced by civil society organizations in Mauritania; the real-time collection of border data and information, carried out by the SIVE satellite system, a prototype of Eurosur, an incredibly expensive intelligence center on the EU’s external borders launched in 2013, based on drones, satellites, airplanes, and sensors; and finally, the strategy of working backwards along migration routes, to seal borders, from the sea to the Sahara desert, and investing locally with development and governance programs, which Spain did during the two phases of the so-called Plan Africa, between 2006 and 2012.
Replace “Spain” with “Italy”, and “Mauritania” with “Libya”, and you’ll have an idea of what happened years later, in an attempt to seal another European border.
The main legacy of the Spanish model, according to the Italian sociologist Lorenzo Gabrielli, however, is the negative conditionality, which is the fact of conditioning the disbursement of these loans – for security forces, ministries, trade agreements – at the level of the African partners’ cooperation in the management of migration, constantly threatening to reduce investments if there are not enough repatriations being carried out, or if controls and pushbacks fail. An idea that is reminiscent both of the enlargement process of the European Union, with all the access restrictions placed on candidate countries, and of the Schengen Treaty, the attempt to break down internal European borders, which, as a consequence, created the need to protect a new common border, the external one.
La externalización europea del control migratorio: ¿La acción española como modelo? Read more
At the end of 2015, when almost 150,000 people had reached the Italian coast and over 850,000 had crossed Turkey and the Balkans to enter the European Union, the story of the maritime migration to Spain had almost faded from memory.
But something remained of it: a management model. Based, once again, on an idea of crisis.
“We tried to apply it to post-Gaddafi Libya – explains Stefano Manservisi, who over the past decade has chaired two key departments for migration policies in the EU Commission, Home Affairs and Development Cooperation – but in 2013 we soon realized that things had blown up, that that there was no government to talk to: the whole strategy had to be reformulated”.
Going backwards, through routes and processes
The six-month presidency of the European Council, in 2014, was the perfect opportunity for Italy.
In November of that year, Matteo Renzi’s government hosted a conference in Rome to launch the Khartoum Process, the brand new initiative for the migration route between the EU and the Horn of Africa, modeled on the Rabat Process, born in 2006, at the apex of the crisis de los cayucos, after pressure from Spain. It’s a regional cooperation platform between EU countries and nine African countries, based on the exchange of information and coordination between governments, to manage migration.
Il processo di Khartoum: l’Italia e l’Europa contro le migrazioni Read more
Warning: if you start to find terms such as ‘process’ and ‘coordination platform’ nebulous, don’t worry. The backbone of European policies is made of these structures: meetings, committees, negotiating tables with unattractive names, whose roles elude most of us. It’s a tendency towards the multiplication of dialogue and decision spaces, that the migration policies of recent years have, if possible, accentuated, in the name of flexibility, of being ready for any eventuality. Of continuous crisis.
Let’s go back to that inter-ministerial meeting in Rome that gave life to the Khartoum Process and in which Libya, where the civil war had resumed violently a few months earlier, was not present.
Italy thus began looking beyond Libya, to the so-called countries of origin and transit. Such as Ethiopia, a historic beneficiary of Italian development cooperation, and Sudan. Indeed, both nations host refugees from Eritrea and Somalia, two of the main countries of origin of those who cross the central Mediterranean between 2013 and 2015. Improving their living conditions was urgent, to prevent them from traveling again, from dreaming of Europe. In Niger, on the other hand, which is an access corridor to Libya for those traveling from countries such as Nigeria, Gambia, Senegal, and Mali, Italy co-financed a study for a new law against migrant smuggling, then adopted in 2015, which became the cornerstone of a radical attempt to reduce movement across the Sahara desert, which you will read about later.
A year later, with the Malta summit and the birth of the EU Trust Fund for Africa, Italy was therefore ready to act. With a 123 million euro contribution, allocated from 2017 through the Africa Fund and the Migration Fund, Italy became the second donor country, and one of the most active in trying to manage those over 4 billion euros allocated for five years. [If you are curious about the financing mechanisms of the Trust Fund, read here: ▻https://thebigwall.org/en/trust-fund/].
Through the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS), born in 2014 as an operational branch of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Italy immediately made itself available to manage European Fund projects, and one idea seemed to be the driving one: using classic development programs, but implemented in record time, to offer on-site alternatives to young people eager to leave, while improving access to basic services.
Local development, therefore, became the intervention to address the so-called root causes of migration. For the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the newborn AICS, it seemed a winning approach. Unsurprisingly, the first project approved through the Trust Fund for Africa was managed by the Italian agency in Ethiopia.
“Stemming irregular migration in Northern and Central Ethiopia” received 19.8 million euros in funding, a rare sum for local development interventions. The goal was to create job opportunities and open career guidance centers for young people in four Ethiopian regions. Or at least that’s how it seemed. In the first place, among the objectives listed in the project sheet, there is in fact another one: to reduce irregular migration.
In the logical matrix of the project, which insiders know is the presentation – through data, indicators and figures – of the expected results, there is no indicator that appears next to the “reduction of irregular migration” objective. There is no way, it’s implicitly admitted, to verify that that goal has been achieved. That the young person trained to start a micro-enterprise in the Wollo area, for example, is one less migrant.
Bizarre, not to mention wrong. But indicative of the problems of an approach of which, an official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs explains to us, “Italy had made itself the spokesperson in Europe”.
“The mantra was that more development would stop migration, and at a certain point that worked for everyone: for AICS, which justified its funds in the face of political landscape that was scared by the issue of landings, and for many NGOs, which immediately understood that migrations were the parsley to be sprinkled on the funding requests that were presented”, explains the official, who, like so many in this story, prefers to remain anonymous.
This idea of the root causes was reproduced, as in an echo chamber, “without programmatic documents, without guidelines, but on the wave of a vague idea of political consensus around the goal of containing migration”, he adds. This makes it almost impossible to talk about, so much so that a proposal for new guidelines on immigration and development, drawn up during 2020 by AICS, was set aside for months.
Indeed, if someone were to say, as evidenced by scholars such as Michael Clemens, that development can also increase migration, and that migration itself is a source of development, the whole ‘root causes’ idea would collapse and the already tight cooperation budgets would risk being cut, in the name of the same absolute imperative as always: reducing arrivals to Italy and Europe.
Maintaining a vague, costly and unverifiable approach is equally damaging.
Bram Frouws, director of the Mixed Migration Center, a think-tank that studies international mobility, points out, for example, how the ‘root cause’ approach arises from a vision of migration as a problem to be eradicated rather than managed, and that paradoxically, the definition of these deep causes always remains superficial. In fact, there is never talk of how international fishing agreements damage local communities, nor of land grabbing by speculators, major construction work, or corruption and arms sales. There is only talk of generic economic vulnerability, of a country’s lack of stability. An almost abstract phenomenon, in which European actors are exempt from any responsibility.
There is another problem: in the name of the fight against irregular migration, interventions have shifted from poorer and truly vulnerable countries and populations to regions with ‘high migratory rates’, a term repeated in dozens of project descriptions funded over the past few years, distorting one of the cardinal principles of development aid, codified in regulations and agreements: that of responding to the most urgent needs of a given population, and of not imposing external priorities, even more so if it is countries considered richer are the ones doing it.
The Nigerien experiment
While Ethiopia and Sudan absorb the most substantial share of funds destined to tackle the root causes of migration — respectively 47 and 32 million euros out of a total expenditure of 195 million euros — Niger, which for years has been contending for the podium of least developed country on the planet with Central African Republic according to the United Nations Human Development Index — benefits from just over 10 million euros.
Here in fact it’s more urgent, for Italy and the EU, to intervene on border control rather than root causes, to stop the flow of people that cross the country until they arrive in Agadez, to then disappear in the Sahara and emerge, days later — if all goes well — in southern Libya. In 2016, the International Organization for Migration counted nearly 300,000 people passing through a single checkpoint along the road to Libya. The figure bounced between the offices of the European Commission, and from there to the Farnesina, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: faced with an uncontrollable Libya, intervening in Niger became a priority.
Italy did it in great style, even before opening an embassy in the country, in February 2017: with a contribution to the state budget of Niger of 50 million euros, part of the Africa Fund, included as part of a maxi-program managed by the EU in the country and paid out in several installments.
While the project documents list a number of conditions for the continuation of the funding, including increased monitoring along the routes to Libya and the adoption of regulations and strategies for border control, some local and European officials with whom we have spoken think that the assessments were made with one eye closed: the important thing was in fact to provide those funds to be spent in a country that for Italy, until then, had been synonymous only with tourism in the Sahara dunes and development in rural areas.
Having become a priority in the New Partnership Framework on Migration, yet another EU operational program, launched in 2016, Niger seemed thus exempt from controls on the management of funds to which beneficiaries of European funds are normally subject to.
“Our control mechanisms, the Court of Auditors, the Parliament and the anti-corruption Authority, do not work, and yet the European partners have injected millions of euros into state coffers, without imposing transparency mechanisms”, reports then Ali Idrissa Nani , president of the Réseau des Organizations pour la Transparence et l’Analyse du Budget (ROTAB), a network of associations that seeks to monitor state spending in Niger.
“It leaves me embittered, but for some years we we’ve had the impression that civil liberties, human rights, and participation are no longer a European priority“, continues Nani, who —- at the end of 2020 — has just filed a complaint with the Court of Niamey, to ask the Prosecutor to open an investigation into the possible disappearance of at least 120 million euros in funds from the Ministry of Defense, a Pandora’s box uncovered by local and international journalists.
For Nani, who like other Nigerien activists spent most of 2018 in prison for encouraging demonstrations against high living costs, this explosion of European and Italian cooperation didn’t do the country any good, and in fact favoured authoritarian tendencies, and limited even more the independence of the judiciary.
For their part, the Nigerien rulers have more than others seized the opportunity offered by European donors to obtain legitimacy and support. Right after the Valletta summit, they were the first to present an action plan to reduce migration to Libya, which they abruptly implemented in mid-2016, applying the anti-trafficking law whose preliminary study was financed by Italy, with the aim of emptying the city of #Agadez of migrants from other countries.
The transport of people to the Libyan border, an activity that until that point happened in the light of day and was sanctioned at least informally by the local authorities, thus became illegal from one day to the next. Hundreds of drivers, intermediaries, and facilitators were arrested, and an entire economy crashed
But did the movement of people really decrease? Almost impossible to tell. The only data available are those of the International Organization for Migration, which continues to record the number of transits at certain police posts. But drivers and foreign travelers no longer pass through them, fearing they will be arrested or stopped. Routes and journeys, as always happens, are remodeled, only to reappear elsewhere. Over the border with Chad, or in Algeria, or in a risky zigzagging of small tracks, to avoid patrols.
For Hamidou Manou Nabara, a Nigerien sociologist and researcher, the problems with this type of cooperation are manifold.
On the one hand, it restricted the free movement guaranteed within the Economic Community of West African States, a sort of ‘Schengen area’ between 15 countries in the region, making half of Niger, from Agadez to the north, a no-go areas for foreign citizens, even though they still had the right to move throughout the national territory.
Finally, those traveling north were made even more vulnerable. “The control of borders and migratory movements was justified on humanitarian grounds, to contrast human trafficking, but in reality very few victims of trafficking were ever identified: the center of this cooperation is repression”, explains Nabara.
Increasing controls, through military and police operations, actually exposes travelers to greater violations of human rights, both by state agents and passeurs, making the Sahara crossings longer and riskier.
The fight against human trafficking, a slogan repeated by European and African leaders and a central expenditure item of the Italian intervention between Africa and the Mediterranean — 142 million euros in five years —- actually risks having the opposite effect. Because a trafiicker’s bread and butter, in addition to people’s desire to travel, is closed borders and denied visas.
A reinvented frontier
Galvanized by the activism of the European Commission after the launch of the Trust Fund but under pressure internally, faced with a discourse on migration that seemed to invade every public space — from the front pages of newspapers to television talk-shows — and unable to agree on how to manage migration within the Schengen area, European rulers thus found an agreement outside the continent: to add more bricks to that wall that must reduce movements through the Mediterranean.
Between 2015 and 2016, Italian, Dutch, German, French and European Union ministers, presidents and senior officials travel relentlessly between countries considered priorities for migration, and increasingly for security, and invite their colleagues to the European capitals. A coming and going of flights to Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Tunisia, Senegal, Chad, Guinea, to make agreements, negotiate.
“Niamey had become a crossroads for European diplomats”, remembers Ali Idrissa Nani, “but few understood the reasons”.
However, unlike the border with Turkey, where the agreement signed with the EU at the beginning of 2016 in no time reduced the arrival of Syrian, Afghan, and Iraqi citizens in Greece, the continent’s other ‘hot’ border, promises of speed and effectiveness by the Trust Fund for Africa did not seem to materialize. Departures from Libya, in particular, remained constant. And in the meantime, in the upcoming election in a divided Italy, the issue of migration seemed to be tipping the balance, capable of shifting votes and alliances.
It is at that point that the Italian Ministry of the Interior, newly led by Marco Minniti, put its foot on the accelerator. The Viminale, the Italian Ministry of the Interior, became the orchestrator of a new intervention plan, refined between Rome and Brussels, with German support, which went back to focusing everything on Libya and on that stretch of sea that separates it from Italy.
“In those months the phones were hot, everyone was looking for Marco“, says an official of the Interior Ministry, who admits that “the Ministry of the Interior had snatched the Libyan dossier from Foreign Affairs, but only because up until then the Foreign Ministry hadn’t obtained anything” .
Minniti’s first move was the signing of the new Memorandum with Libya, which gave way to a tripartite plan.
At the top of the agenda was the creation of a maritime interception device for boats departing from the Libyan coast, through the reconstruction of the Coast Guard and the General Administration for Coastal Security (GACS), the two patrol forces belonging to the Ministry of Defense and that of the Interior, and the establishment of a rescue coordination center, prerequisites for Libya to declare to the International Maritime Organization that it had a Search and Rescue Area, so that the Italian Coast Guard could ask Libyan colleagues to intervene if there were boats in trouble.
Accompanying this work in Libya is a jungle of Italian and EU missions, surveillance systems and military operations — from the European Frontex, Eunavfor Med and Eubam Libya, to the Italian military mission “Safe Waters” — equipped with drones, planes, patrol boats, whose task is to monitor the Libyan Sea, which is increasingly emptied by the European humanitarian ships that started operating in 2014 (whose maneuvering spaces are in the meantime reduced to the bone due to various strategies) to support Libyan interception operations.
The second point of the ‘Minniti agenda’ was to progressively empty Libya of migrants and refugees, so that an escape by sea would become increasingly difficult. Between 2017 and 2020, the Libyan assets, which are in large part composed of patrol boats donated by Italy, intercepted and returned to shore about 56,000 people according to data released by UN agencies. The Italian-European plan envisages two solutions: for economic migrants, the return to the country of origin; for refugees, the possibility of obtaining protection.
There is one part of this plan that worked better, at least in terms of European wishes: repatriation, presented as ‘assisted voluntary return’. This vision was propelled by images, released in October 2017 by CNN as part of a report on the abuse of foreigners in Libya, of what appears to be a slave auction. The images reopened the unhealed wounds of the slave trade through Atlantic and Sahara, and helped the creation of a Joint Initiative between the International Organization for Migration, the European Union, and the African Union, aimed at returning and reintegrating people in the countries of origin.
Part of the Italian funding for IOM was injected into this complex system of repatriation by air, from Tripoli to more than 20 countries, which has contributed to the repatriation of 87,000 people over three years. 33,000 from Libya, and 37,000 from Niger.
A similar program for refugees, which envisages transit through other African countries (Niger and Rwanda gave their availability) and from there resettlement to Europe or North America, recorded much lower numbers: 3,300 evacuations between the end of 2017 and the end of 2020. For the 47,000 people registered as refugees in Libya, leaving the country without returning to their home country, to the starting point, is almost impossible.
Finally, there is a third, lesser-known point of the Italian plan: even in Libya, Italy wants to intervene on the root causes of migration, or rather on the economies linked to the transit and smuggling of migrants. The scheme is simple: support basic services and local authorities in migrant transit areas, in exchange for this transit being controlled and reduced. The transit of people brings with it the circulation of currency, a more valuable asset than usual in a country at war, and this above all in the south of Libya, in the immense Saharan region of Fezzan, the gateway to the country, bordering Algeria, Niger, and Chad and almost inaccessible to international humanitarian agencies.
A game in which intelligence plays central role (as also revealed by the journalist Lorenzo D’Agostino on Foreign Policy), as indeed it did in another negotiation and exchange of money: those 5 million euros destined — according to various journalistic reconstructions — to a Sabratha militia, the Anas Al-Dabbashi Brigade, to stop departures from the coastal city.
A year later, its leader, Ahmed Al-Dabbashi, will be sanctioned by the UN Security Council, as leader for criminal activities related to human trafficking.
The one built in record time by the ministry led by Marco Minniti is therefore a complicated and expensive puzzle. To finance it, there are above all the Trust Fund for Africa of the EU, and the Italian Africa Fund, initially headed only by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and unpacked among several ministries for the occasion, but also the Internal Security Fund of the EU, which funds military equipment for all Italian security forces, as well as funds and activities from the Ministry of Defense.
A significant part of those 666 million euros dedicated to border control, but also of funds to support governance and fight traffickers, converges and enters this plan: a machine that was built too quickly, among whose wheels human rights and Libya’s peace process are sacrificed.
“We were looking for an immediate result and we lost sight of the big picture, sacrificing peace on the altar of the fight against migration, when Libya was in pieces, in the hands of militias who were holding us hostage”. This is how former Deputy Minister Mario Giro describes the troubled handling of the Libyan dossier.
For Marwa Mohamed, a Libyan activist, all these funds and interventions were “provided without any real clause of respect for human rights, and have fragmented the country even more, because they were intercepted by the militias, which are the same ones that manage both the smuggling of migrants that detention centers, such as that of Abd el-Rahman al-Milad, known as ‘al-Bija’ ”.
Projects aimed at Libyan municipalities, included in the interventions on the root causes of migration — such as the whole detention system, invigorated by the introduction of people intercepted at sea (and ‘improved’ through millions of euros of Italian funds) — offer legitimacy, when they do not finance it directly, to the ramified and violent system of local powers that the German political scientist Wolfram Lacher defines as the ‘Tripoli militia cartel‘. [for more details on the many Italian funds in Libya, read here].
Fondi italiani in Libia Read more
“Bringing migrants back to shore, perpetuating a detention system, does not only mean subjecting people to new abuses, but also enriching the militias, fueling the conflict”, continues Mohamed, who is now based in London, where she is a spokesman of the Libyan Lawyers for Justice organization.
The last few years of Italian cooperation, she argues, have been “a sequence of lost opportunities”. And to those who tell you — Italian and European officials especially — that reforming justice, putting an end to that absolute impunity that strengthens the militias, is too difficult, Mohamed replies without hesitation: “to sign the Memorandum of Understanding, the authorities contacted the militias close to the Tripoli government one by one and in the meantime built a non-existent structure from scratch, the Libyan Coast Guard: and you’re telling me that you can’t put the judicial system back on its feet and protect refugees? ”
The only thing that mattered, however, in that summer of 2017, were the numbers. Which, for the first time since 2013, were falling again, and quickly. In the month of August there were 80 percent fewer landings than the year before. And so it would be for the following months and years.
“Since then, we have continued to allocate, renewing programs and projects, without asking for any guarantee in exchange for the treatment of migrants”, explains Matteo De Bellis, researcher at Amnesty International, remembering that the Italian promise to modify the Memorandum of Understanding, introducing clauses of protection, has been on stop since the controversial renewal of the document, in February 2020.
Repatriations, evacuations, promises
We are 1500 kilometers of road, and sand, south of Tripoli. Here Salah* spends his days escaping a merciless sun. The last three years of the life of the thirty-year-old Sudanese have not offered much else and now, like many fellow sufferers, he does not hide his fatigue.
We are in a camp 15 kilometers from Agadez, in Niger, in the middle of the Sahara desert, where Salah lives with a thousand people, mostly Sudanese from the Darfur region, the epicenter of one of the most dramatic and lethal conflicts of recent decades.
Like almost all the inhabitants of this temporary Saharan settlement, managed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and — at the end of 2020 — undergoing rehabilitation also thanks to Italian funds, he passed through Libya and since 2017, after three years of interceptions at sea and detention, he’s been desperately searching for a way out, for a future.
Salah fled Darfur in 2016, after receiving threats from pro-government armed militias, and reached Tripoli after a series of vicissitudes and violence. In late spring 2017, he sailed from nearby Zawiya with 115 other people. They were intercepted, brought back to shore and imprisoned in a detention center, formally headed by the government but in fact controlled by the Al-Nasr militia, linked to the trafficker Al-Bija.
“They beat us everywhere, for days, raped some women in front of us, and asked everyone to call families to get money sent,” Salah recalls. Months later, after paying some money and escaping, he crossed the Sahara again, up to Agadez. UNHCR had just opened a facility and from there, as rumour had it, you could ask to be resettled to Europe.
Faced with sealed maritime borders, and after experiencing torture and abuse, that faint hope set in motion almost two thousand people, who, hoping to reach Italy, found themselves on the edges of the Sahara, along what many, by virtue of investments and negotiations, had started to call the ‘new European frontier’.
Three years later, a little over a thousand people remain of that initial group. Only a few dozen of them had access to resettlement, while many returned to Libya, and to all of its abuses.
Something similar is also happening in Tunisia, where since 2017, the number of migrants and refugees entering the country has increased. They are fleeing by land and sometimes by sea from Libya, going to crowd UN structures. Then, faced with a lack of real prospects, they return to Libya.
For Romdhane Ben Amor, spokesman for the Tunisian Federation for Economic and Social Rights, “in Tunisia European partners have financed a non-reception: overcrowded centers in unworthy conditions, which have become recruitment areas for traffickers, because in fact there are two options offered there: go home or try to get back to the sea “.
In short, even the interventions for the protection of migrants and refugees must be read in a broader context, of a contraction of mobility and human rights. “The refugee management itself has submitted to the goal of containment, which is the true original sin of the Italian and European strategy,” admits a UNHCR official.
This dogma of containment, at any cost, affects everyone — people who travel, humanitarian actors, civil society, local governments — by distorting priorities, diverting funds, and undermining future relationships and prospects. The same ones that European officials call partnerships and which in the case of Africa, as reiterated in 2020 by President Ursula Von Der Leyen, should be “between equals”.
Let’s take another example: the Egypt of President Abdel Fetah Al-Sisi. Since 2016, it has been increasingly isolated on the international level, also due to violent internal repression, which Italy knows something about. Among the thousands of people who have been disappeared or killed in recent years, is researcher Giulio Regeni, whose body was thrown on the side of a road north of Cairo in February 2016.
Around the time of the murder, in which the complicity and cover-ups by the Egyptian security forces were immediately evident, the Italian Ministry of the Interior restarted its dialogue with the country. “It’s absurd, but Italy started to support Egypt in negotiations with the European Union,” explains lawyer Muhammed Al-Kashef, a member of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Right and now a refugee in Germany.
By inserting itself on an already existing cooperation project that saw italy, for example, finance the use of fingerprint-recording software used by the Egyptian police, the Italian Ministry of the Interior was able to create a police academy in Cairo, inaugurated in 2018 with European funds, to train the border guards of over 20 African countries. Italy also backed Egyptian requests within the Khartoum Process and, on a different front, sells weapons and conducts joint naval exercises.
“Rome could have played a role in Egypt, supporting the democratic process after the 2011 revolution, but it preferred to fall into the migration trap, fearing a wave of migration that would never happen,” says Al-Kashef.
With one result: “they have helped transform Egypt into a country that kills dreams, and often dreamers too, and from which all young people today want to escape”. Much more so than in 2015 or that hopeful 2011.
Cracks in the wall, and how to widen them
If you have read this far, following personal stories and routes of people and funds, you will have understood one thing, above all: that the beating heart of this strategy, set up by Italy with the participation of the European Union and vice versa, is the reduction of migrations across the Mediterranean. The wall, in fact.
Now try to add other European countries to this picture. Since 2015 many have fully adopted — or returned to — this process of ‘externalization’ of migration policies. Spain, where the Canary Islands route reopened in 2019, demonstrating the fragility of the model you read about above; France, with its strategic network in the former colonies, the so-called Françafrique. And then Germany, Belgium, Holland, United Kingdom, Austria.
Complicated, isn’t it? This great wall’s bricks and builders keep multiplying. Even more strategies, meetings, committees, funds and documents. And often, the same lack of transparency, which makes reconstructing these loans – understanding which cement, sand, and lime mixture was used, i.e. who really benefited from the expense, what equipment was provided, how the results were monitored – a long process, when it’s not impossible.
The Pact on Migration and Asylum of the European Union, presented in September 2020, seems to confirm this: cooperation with third countries and relaunching repatriations are at its core.
Even the European Union budget for the seven-year period 2021-2027, approved in December 2020, continues to focus on this expenditure, for example by earmarking for migration projects 10 percent of the new Neighborhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument, equipped with 70 billion euros, but also diverting a large part of the Immigration and Asylum Fund (8.7 billion) towards support for repatriation, and foreseeing 12.1 billion euros for border control.
While now, with the new US presidency, some have called into question the future of the wall on the border with Mexico, perhaps the most famous of the anti-migrant barriers in the world, the wall built in the Mediterranean and further south, up to the equator, has seemingly never been so strong.
But economists, sociologists, human rights defenders, analysts and travelers all demonstrate the problems with this model. “It’s a completely flawed approach, and there are no quick fixes to change it,” says David Kipp, a researcher at the German Institute for International Affairs, a government-funded think-tank.
For Kipp, however, we must begin to deflate this migration bubble, and go back to addressing migration as a human phenomenon, to be understood and managed. “I dream of the moment when this issue will be normalized, and will become something boring,” he admits timidly.
To do this, cracks must be opened in the wall and in a model that seems solid but really isn’t, that has undesirable effects, violates human rights, and isolates Europe and Italy.
Anna Knoll, researcher at the European Center for Development Policy Management, explains for example that European policies have tried to limit movements even within Africa, while the future of the continent is the freedom of movement of goods and people, and “for Europe, it is an excellent time to support this, also given the pressure from other international players, China first of all”.
For Sabelo Mbokazi, who heads the Labor and Migration department of the Social Affairs Commission of the African Union (AU), there is one issue on which the two continental blocs have divergent positions: legal entry channels. “For the EU, they are something residual, we have a much broader vision,” he explains. And this will be one of the themes of the next EU-AU summit, which was postponed several times in 2020.
It’s a completely flawed approach, and there are no quick fixes to change it
David Kipp - researcher at the German Institute for International Affairs
Indeed, the issue of legal access channels to the Italian and European territory is one of the most important, and so far almost imperceptible, cracks in this Big Wall. In the last five years, Italy has spent just 15 million euros on it, 1.1 percent of the total expenditure dedicated to external dimensions of migration.
The European Union hasn’t done any better. “Legal migration, which was one of the pillars of the strategy born in Valletta in 2015, has remained a dead letter, but if we limit ourselves to closing the borders, we will not go far”, says Stefano Manservisi, who as a senior official of the EU Commission worked on all the migration dossiers during those years.
Yet we all know that a trafficker’s worst enemy are passport stamps, visas, and airline tickets.
Helen Dempster, who’s an economist at the Center for Global Development, spends her days studying how to do this: how to open legal channels of entry, and how to get states to think about it. And there is an effective example: we must not end up like Japan.
“For decades, Japan has had very restrictive migration policies, it hasn’t allowed anyone in”, explains Dempster, “but in recent years it has realized that, with its aging population, it soon won’t have enough people to do basic jobs, pay taxes, and finance pensions”. And so, in April 2019, the Asian country began accepting work visa applications, hoping to attract 500,000 foreign workers.
In Europe, however, “the hysteria surrounding migration in 2015 and 2016 stopped all debate“. Slowly, things are starting to move again. On the other hand, several European states, Italy and Germany especially, have one thing in common with Japan: an increasingly aging population.
“All European labor ministries know that they must act quickly, but there are two preconceptions: that it is difficult to develop adequate projects, and that public opinion is against it.” For Dempster, who helped design an access program to the Belgian IT sector for Moroccan workers, these are false problems. “If we want to look at it from the point of view of the security of the receiving countries, bringing a person with a passport allows us to have a lot more information about who they are, which we do not have if we force them to arrive by sea”, she explains.
Let’s look at some figures to make it easier: in 2007, Italy made 340,000 entry visas available, half of them seasonal, for non-EU workers, as part of the Flows Decree, Italy’s main legal entry channel adopted annually by the government. Few people cried “invasion” back then. Ten years later, in 2017, those 119,000 people who reached Italy through the Mediterranean seemed a disproportionate number. In the same year, the quotas of the Flow decree were just 30,000.
Perhaps these numbers aren’t comparable, and building legal entry programs is certainly long, expensive, and apparently impractical, if we think of the economic and social effects of the coronavirus pandemic in which we are immersed. For Dempster, however, “it is important to be ready, to launch pilot programs, to create infrastructures and relationships”. So that we don’t end up like Japan, “which has urgently launched an access program for workers, without really knowing how to manage them”.
The Spanish case, as already mentioned, shows how a model born twenty years ago, and then adopted along all the borders between Europe and Africa, does not really work.
As international mobility declined, aided by the pandemic, at least 41,000 people landed in Spain in 2020, almost all of them in the Canary Islands. Numbers that take us back to 2006 and remind us how, after all, this ‘outsourcing’ offers costly and ineffective solutions.
It’s reminiscent of so-called planned obsolescence, the production model for which a technological object isn’t built to last, inducing the consumer to replace it after a few years. But continually renewing and re-financing these walls can be convenient for multinational security companies, shipyards, political speculators, authoritarian regimes, and international traffickers. Certainly not for citizens, who — from the Italian and European institutions — would expect better products. May they think of what the world will be like in 10, 30, 50 years, and avoid trampling human rights and canceling democratic processes in the name of a goal that — history seems to teach — is short-lived. The ideas are not lacking. [At this link you’ll find the recommendations developed by ActionAid: ▻https://thebigwall.org/en/recommendations/].