There’s a tragically ironic subtext to Europe’s refugee crisis, which is becoming increasingly problematic as the war in Syria rages and Libya struggles to bounce back.
And now that the refugee influx has intensified, Italy can no longer count on a key ally who helped stem the flow in the past: Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who died in 2011 after being ousted by a NATO-backed revolution.
“The EU has never wanted to take those people in,” Anand Menon, professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College, told Business Insider. “The only difference is that before we were paying Gaddafi, so we didn’t have to deal with them.”
Menon added that the EU’s recent announcement that it would start cracking down on the deportation of people who do not qualify for asylum was a “clearly politically motivated” move in line with Europe’s longstanding foreign policies.
In 2009, Silvio Berlusconi, then Italy’s prime minister, and Gaddafi signed an agreement that Italy would pay Libya $5 billion over 25 years as a repayment for its occupation of Libya in the first half of the 20th century.
What Italy got out of the deal, besides strengthening its energy ties with the African country, was clear: Libya would crack down on the migrants trying to cross into Europe.
- BI Graphics
A year later, Humans Rights Watch (HRW) published a report blasting Italy for the deal and its treatment of the people trying to reach its shores. The report said that conditions in migrants’ detention camps across Libya “generally qualify as inhuman and degrading” and that migrants and refugees often experienced “brutal treatment.”
Meanwhile, the HRW report said, Italy blocked people from entering the country without any regard for whether they would qualify as refugees.
The agreement falls apart
Shortly after the beginning of the Libyan civil war in February 2011, Italy suspended the “friendship deal” it had with Libya, as the agreement included a nonaggression clause. That meant Italy would not allow its territory to be used as base for any military action against the African country.
A few weeks later, as Gaddafi desperately tried to hold on to power, he told French media, “There are millions of blacks who could come to the Mediterranean to cross to France and Italy, and Libya plays a role in security in the Mediterranean.”
- REUTERS/Marina Militare/Handout via Reuters
The Italian government managed to renew the agreement with the Libyan National Transitional Council in April 2012, even though the European Court of Human Rights found just a few months earlier that Italy had violated migrants’ rights by sending them back to Libya.
But Libya has continued its descent into chaos since the deal was renewed, and it seems clear Italy may no longer be able to count on the country to help keep out the influx of refugees.
“I am not aware of any concrete cooperation projects [between Italy and Libya] beyond 2013,”Matteo de Bellis, aresearcher for Amnesty International on the European Union team, told Business Insider.
The ongoing turmoil in Libya and the fact the Italian coast guard has been rescuing migrants at sea rather than sending them back suggests that at least some tenets of the agreement are not implemented anymore.
‘Europe’s answers so far have not been good enough’
For months, Italy has been at the forefront of the refugee crisis in Europe and, along with Greece, has been pressing Northern European countries to help amid waves of refugees, many of them fleeing the Syrian regime’s barrel bombs.
As Europe faces its worse migration crisis since World War II, the response shows one crucial vulnerability at the heart of the union: The countries have not been able after months of struggling to decide on one common response.
- REUTERS/Yves Herman
Germany’s leading party and its Bavarian counterparts recently agreed tocreate transit zonesthrough which asylum seekers would need to go before entering the country. Those with virtually no chance of gaining asylum will have to go back. And the UK appeals court just backed a “deport first, appeal later” policy.
But the only two coordinated responses the EU has issued on the matter so far have been a resettlement of 160,000 refugees – 710,000 have entered the bloc so far this year – and an announcement that it will step up the deportation of people who do not qualify for asylum.
“This is a very political move,” Menon told Business Insider.
“Leaders can now go home and will get brownie points. They can say ‘look at what I’ve done – we will be sending some home.'”
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Indeed, Italy has been highly critical of Europe’s response. Addressing the Italian parliament on Wednesday, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said the European Union had to reassess its response to the refugee crisis.
“On the issue of migration, Italy was right, and the rest of Europe was not … From the first day, we have said it was time to change EU policy on these issues,” Renzi said.
He emphasized that the crisis “should not be underestimated.”
“Let me be clear, Europe’s answers so far have not been good enough,” Renzi added.
In June, Italy had already asked the European Union to set up processing camps in Libya as the country struggled to deal with the unending wave of migrants coming in from Africa. Renzi also said that if Europe failed to act, Italy had a mysterious plan B ready.
“But it would first and foremost hurt Europe,” Renzi said, according to AFP.
Business Insider reached out to the Italian government for comment and will update this post with any comment we receive.