Italy is to deploy hundreds of soldiers to a desert military base in Niger to confront people-traffickers who are blamed for taking Africans across the Sahara and the Mediterranean.
Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni has said his country would send a “non-combat” military mission to Niger to help stop people smugglers from taking people to the EU. Special forces will be among the 470 troops to be stationed less than 100km south of the Libyan border at Fort Madama, a military outpost built by the French in the 1930s.
Gentiloni said the plan, yet to be approved by the Italian cabinet, will help to “defeat the trafficking of humans as well as terrorism”. The scheme reflects Rome’s view that Libya’s desert frontier is now Europe’s southern border, a gateway for migrants heading across the Mediterranean, which must be sealed.
French president Emmanuel Macron had announced in November that the European Union and African Union would launch “concrete military and policing action” to rescue African migrants enslaved in Libya and arrest human traffickers.
He mooted the idea at the African Union-EU Meeting in the Ivorian city of Abidjan following the global outrage over CNN footage showing African migrants being auctioned.
The furore over the report was thrust to the top of the agenda among the 83 heads of state from the EU and Africa who gathered for the two-day (29-30 November) summit. However, the French plan is yet to be operationalised.
The International Organisation for Migration reported recently that about 170,000 migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea from 1 January to 20 December 2017, with the vast majority arriving in Italy. The number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean this year reached 3,116, down about 40 per cent on last year’s total. The arrivals are also down almost 50 per cent compared to last year.
In 2016, the recorded number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean stood at 4,967, with 359,160 arrivals to Europe.
The EU has been working closely with the government in Tripoli to put pressure on people smugglers and the Libyan coast guard has also been given help to intercept boats.
However, human rights organizations have expressed concerns about the new strategies, saying more migrants are “being returned to nightmarish conditions in Libya”.
Between 700,000 and 1 million migrants are believed to be trapped in the North African country where they’re exposed to grave human rights abuses and live in deeply appalling conditions.