The Italian Navy, Libya and Maritime Migrants


Migrants continue to stream across the Mediterranean this summer from Libya to Italy. In recent days Italy has been in talks with Libya about helping to stem the tide. But in a sign of how complicated life is these days, this isn’t as simple as it sounds. Last week Italy said that the UN-recognized authorities of Libya had requested Italian Navy assistance to the Libyan Coast Guard to help deal with migrant smuggling. There is of course more than one government in Libya, which is another story, but the UN-recognized government then denied that it had invited Italy to help. Once that was sorted out, on 2 August Italy approved a mission to deploy the Italian Navy in Libyan waters. The objective of the mission is “to assist Libyan forces in the fight against illegal immigration and human smuggling through reconnaissance, surveillance and sharing intelligence.” Sounds easy. The problem is deciding what happens if Italian Navy ships intercept migrant ships in Libyan waters. By law, they should return the migrants to Libya, but under international and European law, an EU state can’t return a person to a place where they may been mistreated/tortured. Human Rights Watch has documented horrendous treatment of migrants in Libya, including credible reports of slave trade markets. So, does the Italian Navy not rescue migrants in trouble or does it simply hand them back to Libya? Neither option seems good. Life is complicated these days.

See Stratfor article “Italy: Answering Libya’s Call for Help,” 31 July 2017, at https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/italy-answering-libyan-call-help, and Human Rights Watch, “Italy: Navy Support for Libya May Endanger Migrants,” 2 August 2017, at https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/08/02/italy-navy-support-libya-may-endanger-migrants.

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