The MoU, signed in February 2017 by Italy and the UN-recognised Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj, set out a framework for the two countries to work together in “development cooperation, countering illegal migration, human trafficking and smuggling and reinforcing security at the Libya-Italy border”.
Despite calls from human rights groups to revoke it, the newly installed Italian government signalled it has no intention of changing course in the way it deals with its Libyan partners.
The deal committed Italy to provide training and resources to the Libyan coastguard as well as finance migrant centres, alongside the European Union, where an estimated 4,500 people are currently in detention.
Thousands more are held in “unofficial” detention centres under the control of armed groups, suffering what the UN called in 2018 “unimaginable horrors” from the moment they enter the country.
This includes rape, torture, arbitrary detention, slavery, forced labour and extortion at the hands of traffickers, smugglers, armed groups and state officials, it has been reported.
Conditions have deteriorated since renegade Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive to capture Tripoli in April. Migrant detention centres have been targeted in the fighting.
The Italian government claims the deal – signed by the centre-left government that preceded the now-defunct Five Star Movement-League coalition – has helped curb migrant arrivals.
Italy’s Foreign Affairs Minister Luigi di Maio promised to improve the agreement – which renews every three years but can be modified at any time – “with special attention to migrant centres and conditions”.
“Reducing Italian assistance could result in the activities of the Libyan coastguard grinding to a halt, leading to an increase in the number of people leaving and conditions of migrants in the centres worsening,” di Maio said.
At least 36,000 people have been intercepted by the Libyan coastguard and returned to Libya since the agreement was signed, UNHCR figures show.
According to the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), that is almost one in two people since departures began to drop in July 2017.
In an open letter to the Italian government this week, 21 Italian and international organisations, including Amnesty International, Oxfam, Medecins du Monde and Save the Children, said the deal should be immediately revoked, detention centres evacuated, Italy and the EU should make sure effective search-and-rescue efforts are in place in the central Mediterranean and the work of NGOs is not hindered.
“Widespread corruption, complicity and infiltration at the institutional level of individuals who are subject to sanctions by the UN Security Council for crimes against humanity, rule out that conditions exist to renew the agreement with the Tripoli government, which is held hostage by and working in tandem with militias, human traffickers and local mafias,” the letter reads.
“Italy and the European Union should be aware that they are implementing collective pushbacks of people who are fleeing war and persecution as well as financing a concentration camp system in Libya. All this has striking parallels with the darkest moments in the history of the 20th century.”
Matteo Villa, a migration researcher at ISPI, points out that the agreement is not legally binding and simply enshrines some pre-existing policies, such as a collaboration with the Libyan coastguard, which started in 2016, and an informal pact with armed groups to prevent departures.
“The government is divided, but the reality is that there is no interest in modifying these practices,” Villa told Al Jazeera.
The government pledged to increase humanitarian corridors for vulnerable people out of Libya as well as improve UNHCR’s presence, which currently only has sporadic access to detention centres. It also aims to step up “voluntary” returns and open hotspots in Libya to identify, register and fingerprint asylum seekers.
The last approach was discarded in the past as politically unviable and something that would not necessarily lead to an improvement in human rights conditions.
Since the UNHCR began evacuating people in need of international protection from Libya in late 2017, only 4,000 have departed, mostly to nearby Niger. About 800 were resettled in Italy and 300 were taken to an emergency transit centre in Romania.
“Italy is the only country to operate resettlements directly from Libya, without waiting for evacuations to Niger, which would then result in resettlement to Europe,” Villa said before adding that 13 countries have pledged more than 6,000 resettlement places but “resettlement from Niger has been at a standstill for months”.