Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version
Wikimedia Commons

Immigration from Libya to Italy in 2009 has decreased by 90 per cent, compared to 2008. In this week’s Pambazuka News, Emanuela Paoletti looks at explanations for the dramatic decline in “illegal” migration between the two countries, in particular ‘Libya’s selective enforcement of restrictive immigration policies as a means of gaining foreign policy concessions from Italy.’

Since the late 1990s, immigration from Libya to Italy had increased significantly, from less than 5,000 in 2000 to 30,000 in 2008. In May 2009, Gaddafi made his first trip to Italy, which was followed by a second visit on the occasion of the meeting of the G20. Concomitant with these visits, there was a drastic reduction in migration from Libya. From 1 May 2008 to 31 August 2008, 15,000 people arrived to Italy from Libya; in the same period in 2009 only 1,400 have landed on Italian shores. The Italian minister of interior, Roberto Maroni could recently announce, immigration from Libya in 2009 has decreased by 90 per cent compared to 2008. What explains the drastic decrease in ‘illegal’ migration from Libya to Italy?

This reduction partially reflects broader trends across the Mediterranean. According to the European border agency, Frontex, the overall number of migrants via the sea to Europe dropped by 16 per cent, from 24,000 in the first quarter of 2008 to 20,200 over the same period in 2009. One explanation relates to the global economic downturn – but there is another factor: Libya’s selective enforcement of restrictive immigration policies as a means of gaining foreign policy concessions from Italy. The Friendship Agreement of August 2008 marks an important turning point.

On 30 August 2008, in a tent in Benghazi, Silvio Berlusconi and the Libyan leader, Muammar al-Gaddafi, signed a historic agreement, according to which Italy will pay US$5 billion over the next 20 years, ostensibly to compensate Libya for the ‘deep wounds’ of the colonial past. The agreement concluded a tortuous 10-year history of diplomatic exchanges, which included a number of formal and informal cooperative arrangements on a variety of issues, such as migration, culture, colonial issues and joint-business ventures.

However, since 2000, Libyan officials have treated irregular migration as a domestic security issue, justified on the grounds (despite very limited and contentious empirical evidence), that migrants are responsible for increased crime, worsening health and educational standards, and heightened unemployment rates. Accordingly, Libyan authorities have implemented tougher policies against migration at time when this policy would enhance its bargaining position with Europe. For example, in March 2004, Law No. 2 introduced severe penalties for irregular migrants. Undocumented migrants, and agents facilitating their stay, faced at least one year’s imprisonment or a €1,160 fine; and a new unit was created to enforce this law. Notably, these were enacted just before the lifting of the European arms embargo.

Other examples of Libya’s ‘restrictionism’ are worth mentioning. On 16 January 2008, Jana, a Libyan news agency, reported a governmental decision that ‘all foreigners illegally residing in Libya’ would be rounded up ‘for immediate deportation.’ According to the same source, Libyan officials had agreed ‘to take several stringent measures to ensure the implementation of legislation and decisions concerning foreigners' entry and departure in Libya, and regulations employing non-nationals.’ Housing authorities were instructed to destroy makeshift shelters on the outskirts of Tripoli and in other coastal cities. There has also been an increasing pace of deportation of migrants from Libya to third countries. Anecdotal information indicates that some of these are put on planes, buses and others are simply thrown across the border.

On the one hand, immigration had become perceived as ‘out of control’ and thus as a central domestic politic issue. On the other hand, Libya had to convince Italy and Europe that it was serious about migration. Thus Libya’s commitment to tackle migration is partly related to the broader and deepening relations with the EU. On 23 July 2007, the memorandum of understanding jointly signed by Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner and European Affairs Secretary El Obeidi provided for the possibility of a new framework agreement between the two parties. The bilateral negotiations were officially launched on 12-13 November 2008. As a Libyan senior official pointed out to me, in agreeing to collaborate on migration, Libya would be able to make a stronger case on the need for further international assistance on a number of fronts.

These developments notwithstanding, up to the beginning of 2009, migration from Libya to Italy continued unabated. The reason why since 2009 arrivals to Lampedusa have suddenly decreased is partially related to the Friendship Agreement signed in August 2008. Libya had long made its cooperation on migration dependent on the settlement of the colonial past. Hence, once Italy had formally apologised and, more importantly, committed to pay the colonial reparations, Libya had somehow to honour the ‘special and privileged’ relation it had long promised. One clear and ‘easy’ way to do so was by acquiescing to Italy’s requests to reduce migration across the Mediterranean. This give-and-take bargaining partially explains why since 2009 Libya has implemented harsher migration policies.

Italy has not been disappointed. In 2009 Libya has introduced fines against undocumented foreign workers. In order to enter Libya, foreigners must now pay 150 Libyan Dinars and in order to obtain a residence permit 500 Libyan Dinars per person. As a result of these fines, in 2009, large numbers of foreigners have left the country. Many irregular migrants have also been detained. In August 2009 the Ambassador of Nigeria to Libya told the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) that 2,700 irregular migrants were kept in various deportation camps in Libya. There are also reports indicating that Nigerians are being executed for violating immigration laws in Libya. Other sources indicate that 20 migrants from Somalia were killed in a prison in Benghazi during an attempted jailbreak on 11 August 2009. This is also confirmed by recent reports on Libya produced by Human Rights Watch (HRW). While the latest report published in December 2009 states that ‘the past five years have witnessed an overall improvement in the human rights situation,’ HRW also laments persistent abuse against migrants by police and by guards in Libya.

Another example of a reversal of Libya’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Italy has been its position on ‘push backs’. In May 2009 Italy began returning boats carrying migrants arriving from Libya that had been intercepted in either international or national waters. Where previously push-backs were considered an infringement of Libya’s sovereign power and migrants were not allowed to return to its shores, Libya now has accepted boats with undocumented foreign nationals who had departed from Libya.

Hence the combination of the push-backs with harsher migration policies implemented in Libya helps us answer the question as to why Lampedusa now is nearly empty. This however raises a further question: Does the sudden decrease of migration to Italy mark a new phase in the Italo-Libyan relations? To what extent are these developments really unprecedented? A brief look at the broader historical picture shows that they are not. Migration management has often affected, and has been affected by, other foreign policy issues.

By promising and delivering special aid programmes to neighbouring countries, Italy succeeded in either initiating or deepening cooperation on migration policies. Aid and development programmes have been granted by Italy as both an inducement and a reward for the efforts made by third countries to tighten border controls and fight irregular migration. The principle of conditional development cooperation was turned into law in Italy in September 2002 with the passage of Law 189/2002. In other words, development aid has been linked to migration ‘as a containment tool’, targeting some of the areas that put the strongest migratory pressure on Italy.

Libya is not the only country that Italy has used the carrot and stick approach to reducing migration from North Africa. As Paolo Cuttitta has documented, the combination of readmission agreements and annual quotas of immigrants has provided Italy with a ‘diplomatic weapon’ with Egypt and Tunisia as well. By increasing or cutting down the quotas from Egypt and Tunisia, Italy has sought to either reward or punish these countries for their conduct with regard to migration control.

Libya has done the same with other African states. In the 1990s Gaddafi was busy fostering relations with African countries and promoting his role as a regional leader. In 1998, the Libyan leader announced publicly the abandonment of Pan-Arabism in favour of Pan-Africanism. His slogan ‘Africa for Africans’ became the theme of his speeches and foreign policy rhetoric. To further substantiate his role as the ‘artisan de la paix’ and ‘sage africain’, on 9 September 1999, in Sirte, Gaddafi presented his grand vision of a ‘United States of Africa’, with a single army, currency and powerful leadership. On the same occasion, Gaddafi expressed Libya’s intention of welcoming migrants of African origin, while continuing to accept also Arab migrants. The abolition of frontiers, and the free circulation of people, as responses to the economic exploitation of Africa by the Western world, were the key tenets of the African project proclaimed by the Libyan leader. African passport-holders were allowed to enter Libya without visas for three months, and enjoyed easier access to residency and work permits than did other foreigners.

The reaction of the Libyan public to the migration that followed, however, gave short shrift to this idealism. In 1995, one third of the Sudanese population in Libya, around 70,000 people, was forcibly conducted to the border after relations between Tripoli and Khartoum deteriorated. As CNN reported, the expulsions appeared to be motivated by ‘Libyan suspicion that the Sudanese government was involved in clashes with Muslim militants in Libya’. The same fate befell 10,000 Mauritanians when Libya wanted to condemn the rapprochement between Israel and Mauritania. Libya also closed its embassy in Mauritania and imposed economic sanctions on the country. During 1995 alone, of the 335,000 foreigners who left the country, 200,000 had been expelled.

Italy’s and Libya’s migration management policies corroborate Loescher and Monahan’s observation that people’s movements are often used as foreign policy tools: ‘refugees are often used, both symbolically and instrumentally, to pursue foreign-policy objectives’ and ‘can be used to embarrass or destabilise enemy governments.’ This analysis has demonstrated the numerous ways in which migration intertwines with states’ interests and power. On the one hand, receiving states, such as Italy, are actively engaged in carrot-and-stick attempts to influence migration flows by appealing to sending countries’ interests. It then comes at no surprise that the Italian Prime Minister welcomed the Friendship Agreement as a guarantee of ‘more oil and less migrants.’ On the other hand, sending states, such as Libya, have also used migration to expose the vulnerability of the receiving ones, with a view to extracting specific concessions through the wider bargaining mechanisms.

We are thus led to look back at the drastic decline of immigration to Italy in a more critical way. Contradictions apply to different countries and at different levels in the policy-making cycle. This cycle is complex and practices vis-à-vis migration relate to broader social, economic, historical and ideational factors. It is therefore important to go beyond polarising accounts of state practices on migration and beyond the sensationalist and ‘moral outrage’ stance taken, to differing degrees, by the media, politicians and advocacy groups alike. The loss of life of migrants on the sea, at the centre of media accounts and political discourse, needs to be located in the broader appreciation of the inherent political nature of migration.


* Dr Emanuela Paoletti is a junior research fellow at Somerville College, Oxford.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.