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African migrants rescued by the humanitarian organization SOS Meditaraneé in March 2017. The aim of the controversial deal is to reduce the number of sub-Saharan migrants that make it to the coast of Libya / Photo: SOS Meditaraneé

Italy signs agreement with Libyan tribes to push back African migrants

Italy announced on Sunday that it had reached an accord with dozens of tribes from southern Libya aimed at securing the country’s southern border and slowing the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean toward Europe. Experts, however, doubt how effective the patrol will be, reports Avi Davis.

Sixty tribal leaders from groups including the Tuareg, the Toubou and Awlad Sulaiman signed the accord in Rome. The agreement followed 72 hours of secret talks with Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti and a representative from the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli.

“A Libyan border patrol unit will be operational to monitor Libya’s southern border of 5,000 kilometres (3,100 miles),” Minniti was quoted as saying in Italian newspaper La Stampa. “Securing Libya’s southern border means securing Europe’s southern border.”

In Europe, Italy has been the country of first arrival for the highest number of migrants since the beginning of 2016, with 181,436 arriving last year, according to the International Organization for Migration. It is the only European country that saw increased migration during 2016. The majority of the migrants come from sub-Saharan Africa. Human smugglers help them cross Libya, before launching them on boats into the Mediterranean. Italy is already involved in training and equipping the Libyan coastguard to cut down on deadly migrant crossings of the Mediterranean.

An area dominated by tribes

The border patrol initiative is part of a larger accord brokered by Italy, aimed at bringing peace to southern Libya. Rival tribes and ethnic groups have dominated the area since Muammar Gaddafi was ousted in 2011, and the UN-backed government has little influence there. Rome hopes that by uniting, the tribes will have a better chance of combating crime, human trafficking and terrorism in the area.

“Any peace agreement between the tribes is positive, because tribes are the foundation of Libyan society,” Roumiana Ougartchinska, author of “Pour la peau de Khadafi” (“For the Skin of Gaddafi”) told InfoMigrants.

Libyan tribal leaders and Italian officials signing the agreement in Rome on 30 March / Photo: ANSA


‘No guarantees that this will work’

“There are no guarantees that this will work, and there is no system in place to make it sustainable,” Mohamed Eljarh of the Atlantic Council told InfoMigrants.

Eljarh, who is based in Tobruk, Libya, explained that without a stable national government in Tripoli, Italy feels that dealing with local leaders is the most effective strategy. But bypassing the National Accord government may have a negative effect on migration, rather than helping it.

“If people [from the tribes involved in the deal] don’t get paid, they will look for other sources of revenue, and they may look to benefit from the same activities that they are trying to stop now,” Eljarh said. “Migration is already becoming a family and tribal business in southern Libya, where living conditions are deteriorating.”

‘Italy will fund … the illegal flow of migrants’

Alessandro Pagano Dritto, author of the blog Between Libya and Italy, agreed.

“The risk is that Italy will fund the same people who control the illegal flow of migrants,” he told InfoMigrants.

Dealing directly with local tribes may also contribute to the country’s overall instability and insecurity, Eljarh warned.

“It should be a Libyan authority that is doing the outreach at the local level,” he said. “Italy is not thinking about the repercussions this could have on the ability to create a unified government.”

But for now, few details have been released about how the border patrol will operate: who will participate, how many people will be involved, whether Italy will provide financial backing, and how the 5,000 kilometer-border will be patrolled.

The experts contacted by InfoMigrants agreed that without a clear plan, the border patrol initiative has little chance of making a lasting impact on migration.

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