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Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Rome, 2 February 2021 – Four years to the day Libya and Italy signed their agreement to stem the flow of migrants from one to the other, the record is more saddening than ever, pointing to a failure of Italian and EU politics. Public funds are still going only on stopping people arriving in our country, resulting in human rights being trampled on, continuous deaths at sea and no medium- to long-term solution for safe, legal channels to Italy and the rest of Europe. So, today ASGI, EMERGENCY, Médecins Sans Frontières, Mediterranea, Oxfam and Sea-Watch are raising the alarm. They are making an urgent appeal to the Italian parliament to revoke its bilateral agreements immediately and resume state-run search and rescue in the central Mediterranean.

‘Since signing the agreement, Italy, absolutely in keeping with the EU’s approach of outsourcing border controls, has spent a record 785 million euros stopping the flow of migrants from Libya and funding Italian and EU naval expeditions,’ say the organisations making the appeal. ‘A good deal of that money – more than 210 million euros – has been spent within Libya, but unfortunately all it has done is further destabilise the country and drive the people traffickers into another line of work, as prison guards. Libya cannot be described as a safe place to send people stopped at sea. It is a country where violence and brutality are an everyday reality for thousands of migrants and refugees.’

Libya: anything but a safe haven

As international institutions like the United Nations and the European Commission well know, Libya can in no sense be called a safe place to land people rescued at sea. It is an unstable country that cannot guarantee respect for basic rights. Migrants and refugees regularly run the risk of exploitation, violence, torture and other serious violations of human rights, all of them well documented. And yet Italy and the EU are still sending more and more money to the Libyan Coast Guard, who in the last four years have caught 50,000 people – 12,000 of them in 2020 – and brought them back to the country by force.

Many of these people are held without charge in state detention centres; their number hovers between 2000 and 2500. Less well known, however, is the number of inmates in clandestine prisons, where conditions are even worse and access is barred to the UN and other humanitarian bodies. But detention without charge is just one small link in the devastating chain of violence that thousands of migrants and refugees in Libya are wrapped in. Murder, kidnapping and mistreatment with a view to extortion are the daily threats pushing people out to sea on dangerous journeys, there being no safer way to seek refuge in Europe.

Mission accomplished: no one saved in the central Mediterranean

The six organisations also denounce the 540 million euros Italy has spent since 2017 on naval expeditions in the Mediterranean, the main aim of which was not to rescue people. In that time, according to data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), almost 6500 people have died in the central Mediterranean in their bid to reach Europe, while every successive Italian government has blocked the efforts of humanitarian boats and failed to provide an alternative. Even the recent changes to immigration legislation leave untouched the principle that rescue at sea is criminal, as introduced by the second ‘Security’ decree.

In 2020 Italy stopped six humanitarian boats on administrative grounds, on the basis of spurious accusations. This left no form of rescue in the Mediterranean and meant reports of craft in danger went unheeded, and thereby played its part in 780 people dying and 12,000 being sent back over the year, as documented by IOM.

The EU’s response to the humanitarian crisis in the central Mediterranean has been limited to monitoring from the air by Frontex, EUNAVFOR MED Sophia and now Irini, all of whom often make it easier for the Libyans to bring people back. Independent monitoring from the air, albeit disjointed and hindered even when it can be done, spotted 82 groups in danger at sea in 2020, totalling almost 5000 people, each of them proof of the authorities’ constant failure to help in time or at all.

No news from Italy on promised amendments to the agreement

Finally the organisations stress that – despite the dismal failure of the years-long agreement in the public’s eyes – we still know nothing of the Libyans’ proposal for amending the agreement, as announced on 26 June 2020 and which the Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi di Maio said leant ‘towards Italy’s desire for full respect for human rights’.

Neither has the outcome of the meeting held on 2 July 2020 by the inter-ministerial committee from Italy and Libya been made public. We do not know if there have been other meetings, nor of any concrete results of the negotiations that were supposed to bring a decisive change to the contents of the agreement.

Appeal to parliament

Bearing in mind the current political crisis, the organisations are asking parliament to set up an inquiry into the actual impact of the money spent in Libya and on people stranded in the Mediterranean, and to come up with a document requiring the government:

  • to revoke the Italy–Libya agreement and make any future bilateral agreement dependent on Libya making its way out of its political crisis and making reforms to its judicial system, abolishing detention without charge and setting up adequate measures for assisting and protecting migrants and refugees;
  • not to renew military operations in Libya and to insist that detention centres in the country be closed;
  • to encourage the EU to approve an evacuation plan from Libya for the most vulnerable and most at risk of violence, mistreatment and serious abuse;
  • to propose that an EU naval expedition be organised with the specific aim of rescuing people at sea;
  • to encourage the EU to approve an automatic mechanism for landing people immediately and then spreading them along the southern coast of Europe, according to the principle of shared responsibility between member states for asylum and immigration;
  • to encourage that Libya’s search and rescue zone be revoked, as its only point was to stop and illegally bring people back to Libya;
  • to recognise the role of humanitarian organisations in saving human lives at sea, putting an end to their criminalisation and releasing any boats of theirs that are still impounded.

Oxfam Italy Press Office:
David Mattesini – 349.4417723 –

Doctors Without Borders Press Office:
Maurizio Debanne, 348 8547115,;

Sea-Watch Press Office:
Tiziana Cauli, 347 1527201,;

ASGI – Associazione per gli Studi Giuridici sull’Immigrazione Press Office:
Silvia Canciani, 3894988460,;

Mediterranea Saving Humans Press Office
Laura Iazzetti, 3491541741,;

EMERGENCY Press Office:
Sabina Galandrini 349 9733454,;