On October 4, Italian newspaper L’Avvenire revealed that the Italian government was working closely with Abd al-Rahman “Bija” Milad, the head of Libya’s infamous Zawiyah coastguard, to stem the flow of refugees from the porous Libyan coast.
Bija is a character well-known to human rights groups and United Nations workers. A June 2017 UN Security Council report identified him as someone heavily involved in “smuggling activities” and “the sinking of migrant boats using firearms”.
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Italy clearly knew about Bija’s unlawful exploits long before the UN made its findings public as its own defence ministry had released a report on May 10 of the same year explaining how Bija had been “controlling the smuggling business from the west of Tripoli to the border with Tunisia since 2015”.
Nevertheless, only one day after the publication of the report, Bija took part in the discussions that followed the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between Rome and Tripoli to combat “illegal immigration [and] human trafficking”.
The meetings between the Libyan delegation (including the infamous smuggler) and Italian officials were held in the Cara di Mineo refugee camp in the Sicilian city of Catania, where some refugees trafficked by Bija recognised him when he entered and started shouting “Libyan Mafia!”
L’Avvenire‘s revelations caused much outrage among the Italian public. But for anyone who has closely followed Italian anti-immigration and economic policies towards Libya over the past decade, Rome’s cooperation with a Libyan criminal was hardly surprising.
Kissing Gaddafi’s hand
Italy’s attempts to outsource border control to Libya go back to the time when Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi was still in power.
In August 2008, the Italian government led by Silvio Berlusconi signed a “Friendship Treaty” with Libya, granting it $5bn to stop migrant boats from leaving the Libyan coast. The idea was to have the Libyan government manage the refugee crisis. This outsourcing of responsibility, however, led to many refugees and migrants facing serious human rights violations, including torture.
A year later, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni boasted that there had been a dramatic decrease in the number of refugees reaching Italian shores. Official numbers from that period, however, did not corroborate Maroni’s claims.
The agreement further cemented the special relationship between Tripoli and Rome and allowed for business between the two countries to flourish.
In June 2009, Gaddafi came to Italy on an official visit. He was received by Berlusconi and other Italian officials with much fanfare. The Italian president invited Gaddafi back to Italy to attend the G8 summit which was held in the country the following month. In 2010, at the Arab League summit in Sirte, Berlusconi was filmed kissing Gaddafi’s hand.
Italy’s love affair with Gaddafi, however, was short-lived. In 2011, the Italian government readily joined the international coalition which backed the uprising against the Libyan leader and bombed his forces.
Gaddafi clearly did not expect the move: “I am so shocked, I feel betrayed, I don’t even know what to say to Berlusconi,” he said in an interview with the Italian daily Il Giornale.
But for Italian politicians, the relationship with Libya was never guided by trust, honour or friendship; it was always business only. And in 2011, Italy, like other Western countries, calculated that it did not need Gaddafi in order to get what it wanted from Libya.
ENI’s militia operations in Libya
After Italy and its NATO allies intervened in Libya in 2011 to topple Gaddafi’s regime, it descended into chaos. A complex conflict is now raging in the North African country, one that involves not only various militias and rival governments but also, increasingly, detrimental foreign influence.
This, however, has not stopped Italy (and other European countries) from pursuing its business interests in Libya.
In July 2018, Italy’s largest oil and gas company, ENI – which plays a key role in shaping Italian foreign policy – entered into a joint venture agreement with the Libyan National Oil Corporation to create the Mellitah Oil and Gas Company (MOG).
According to several media investigations, Libyan armed groups were reportedly paid to secure the Mellitah oil complex in the Zawiya district, in western Libya. These hired guns included a militia headed by Ahmad Oumar al-Dabbashi, who was blacklisted in 2018 by the UN for being a “significant leader in illicit activities related to the trafficking of migrants”.
In hiring these criminal militias to guard its facilities, ENI was merely continuing what appears to be an acceptable official policy on Libya – one which blatantly disregards human rights and basic international legal obligations.
In the meantime, it profits from Libyan oil and ensures its steady supply to the Italian market. Italy remains Libya’s top export destination.
In the absence of a central authority that can exercise full control over Libyan territory, the country has also become a major transit hub for migrants and refugees from across the African continent and the Middle East.
An array of armed groups and people-smuggling networks are preying on these desperate people. Many have been bought and sold in modern-day slave markets, held for ransom, used as forced labour or sexually exploited. Others have perished in the waters of the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe in unsafe rubber dinghies.
The 2017 Memorandum of Understanding, signed by Italy and the Libyan government in Tripoli, resulted in the creation of several detention centres for refugees and migrants on Libyan territory, which are financed by the Italian government and operated by Libyans. Conditions in these centres were described by a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in January 2019 as “inhumane”.
Visiting several such camps in Tripoli, Misrata and Zuwara in July 2018, HRW researchers documented “severe overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, poor quality food and water that has led to malnutrition, lack of adequate healthcare and disturbing accounts of violence by guards, including beatings, whippings, and use of electric shocks.”
A June 2018 report published by the Italian weekly newspaper, L’Espresso, corroborated HRW’s observations and detailed the “systematic torture of migrants in Libya”, including beatings with sticks and hammers, electrocutions, burning, slashing, etc.
It is clear now that for more than a decade Italy has pursued the same policies of curbing migration at any cost and striking lucrative business deals without any regard for the suffering of migrants and refugees. It has repeatedly dealt with both governments and non-state actors that have a track record of severe human rights violations.
Currently, the domestic debate in Italy focuses only on the asylum seekers who manage to reach its shores. It is time that it turns its attention to the tens of thousands of migrants and refugees kept in hellish detention centres in Libya, thanks to that 2017 Memorandum of Understanding. It is also time that public scrutiny extends to the business deals the Italian government and some companies have pursued with individuals and groups with dubious backgrounds.
The Italian government may think that it has found a legal loophole by outsourcing its anti-immigration policies to Libyan militias who operate outside international jurisdictions and pay no heed to humanitarian law. However, given that Libya’s inhumane migration policies are, at least in part, designed and funded by the Italian authorities, they should be held accountable for the human rights abuses that are taking place in the North African country.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.