Italy’s Failed Migration Fix Has Led to Chaos in Libya
Despite pushing policies that are politically naive and disastrous for human rights in North Africa, Italian politicians keep getting promoted in Brussels.
ROME—Over three days in May 2017, the Italian secret service—masquerading as a humanitarian nongovernmental organization—summoned to Rome two dozen delegates from the southern edge of the Sahara desert. The pretext was to promote a peace deal for their war-torn region; the real goal was to bring them on board with an Italian plan to curb migration.
The details of the meetings, published here for the first time, expose the pitfalls of a foreign policy that conflates peace and development with migration control. This was just one piece of a wider set of European initiatives with similar features, now widely regarded as a failure by analysts and policymakers. In Libya, they contributed to igniting a humanitarian catastrophe.
Yet those who devised and stood behind these policies, such as former European Union foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini and Italy’s former Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, have been promoted to lofty positions in the European Union and the United Nations.
The Tuareg, the Tebu, and the Awlad Suleiman—the groups represented at the summit—are the gatekeepers of the desert crossed by those hoping to reach the Libyan coast to embark on a sea journey to Europe.
Nearly half a million people traveled along that route between 2014 and 2017. In response, the EU and Italy embarked on a series of projects to secure the borders of Libya. On the coast, these brought results, and the number of sea arrivals to Italy dropped to just a few thousand in 2019.
Migration, however, was never much of a concern for the inhabitants of the Sahara. For the most part, they move freely across borders, and their economies depend heavily on the transit of people and goods.
Italy’s attempt to co-opt them to handle migration flows on its behalf won the reprimand of a Tuareg representative, Moulay Iqdeedi Amaa Quineedi: “Migration cannot be tackled with walls, even a great wall like China’s wouldn’t stop people from migrating,” he said in response to a request to open centers in the desert to repatriate migrants on their way to the Libyan coast.
The end of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s four-decade rule in Libya left no effective state authority in the country. The 2011 uprisings in Libya, and the subsequent NATO intervention, triggered a string of bloody intercommunal conflicts and insurgencies. More than 1,000 miles of desert border separating Libya from its southern neighbors of Niger, Chad, and Sudan was left unguarded.
The fight soon became entangled with the civil war between the internationally recognized Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and the self-styled commander of the Libyan National Army, Khalifa Haftar.
What was meant to be “A dialogue on peace, development, security and human rights in the trans-border regions of Libya, Chad, and Niger,” according to the government’s agenda, became a failed attempt to co-opt some of the poorest people on the planet in a fight against migration from which they had little to gain.
The interior ministers of the three countries attended the gathering, as well as one vice president of the GNA—hardly a typical NGO summit.
The summit was ostensibly organized by the Ara Pacis Initiative, a group that claims to be an “international not for profit organization based in Rome, dedicated to the human dimension of peace.” Its peculiar inspiration, according to its website, is the altar of peace built in Rome by emperor Augustus. The founder and sole active member of Ara Pacis is Maria Nicoletta Gaida, an Italian American former actress with little background in the humanitarian sector.
I had approached Gaida while researching a story on the humanitarian situation in southern Libya, and she invited me to attend what she anticipated would be a landmark event that could bring stability and development to that suffering region.
On the afternoon of May 21, 2017, I met Gaida on the lawn of a renaissance mansion surrounded by 150 hectares of private forests on the outskirts of the Italian capital. I had arrived early, and she was busy dealing with a small crisis: Some of the guests still had not boarded their flights due to visa issues.
Despite warnings that the meetings would take place behind closed doors, nobody stopped me from entering the plenary session the following morning. As the delegates took their seats, Gaida stood aside to let a man in military fatigues, with a ponytail hanging from his close-cropped gray hair, stand in the center of the room. Staffers ensured that nobody took his picture.
He stood in the middle of the lounge of the family house of Giovanni Battista Lancellotti, a private citizen, heir to a line of princes and cardinals, who lent it for the occasion.
The mysterious man with the ponytail started off with an offer meant to capture the goodwill of his audience: “We will ask for Italy’s commitment to immediately establish cultural identity centers for the trans-border tribes,” he said.
Italy would staff these centers with teachers “that will keep alive the history and the culture of these great people.” He also promised health clinics connected via webcam to Italian hospitals. “These are small things,” he said, “for the seed from which the plant grows is always small.”
He went on for 20 minutes praising peace, the will of God, and the wisdom of the tribes’ leaders. The Libyans attending looked increasingly puzzled as the interpreter translated his words into Arabic. Then the man got down to business: “After peace,” he said, “comes security and development.” The delegates should “deal with the issue of immigration and terrorism through border control mechanisms based on the optimization of reception centers that already exist in your countries.”
For each of these centers, “Italy and the European Union would pay a stipend to 50 security officials and 50 assistants.” The towns that agreed to host this infrastructure would be gifted with local development initiatives.
The man was clearly not an NGO type. In fact, he spoke confidently on behalf of the Italian government: “My minister is ready to support any of your requests,” he said at one point. In return, he asked for the tribes’ backing in curbing migration: That would “give him the strength to go to Europe and defeat our enemies,” he said, without clarifying who those enemies might be.
While this effort to lock the entry channel to Libya unfolded, the same strategy was applied to the escape route. As part of Europe’s border security plan, Libya had to be provided with an efficient coast guard. The migrants contained by this new maritime force would have to be placed in facilities along the coast, possibly handled by humanitarian agencies.
But enacting such a project in the heart of a war zone means dealing with the partners you have at hand. In Libya, there are a multitude of armed groups in competition with one another and with the government itself.
At roughly the same time as the meeting near Rome, the Italian intelligence services reportedly brokered a multimillion-euro payment to Libyan militias involved in trafficking to enlist them as a coast guard force, a claim that Italy denies.
Ten days earlier, a Libyan human trafficker sanctioned by the U.N. had participated in a supposed study trip to Sicily on the handling of migrant centers, the Italian newspaper Avvenire revealed. The visit was organized by the U.N.’s own migration agency, the International Organization for Migration, in collaboration with Italy’s government. The International Organization for Migration manages one key pillar of the EU’s migration policy in Libya, namely the so-called voluntary repatriation of stranded migrants.
Europe always insisted that migrants be treated in accordance with human rights by the dubious partners it enlisted to keep them away from its shores. Mogherini has repeatedly pointed to the involvement of U.N. agencies, lavishly funded by Europe, to rebuff criticism of the EU effort to keep migrants stuck in a war zone. While providing a useful shield for European policies, these agencies have repeatedly proved useless when it comes to defending the human rights of migrants in Libya. Indeed, the Associated Press revealed last month that the EU’s humanitarian spending has often been diverted to militias and traffickers—sometimes with the knowledge of U.N. officials.
At the Ara Pacis summit, the mysterious Italian official toed the line: “The main instrument to deal with migration,” he warned his audience, “should not be violence, but voluntary return, psychologically and financially assisted by Italy and Europe.”
“You have an opportunity,” he concluded. “We are just a tool, we don’t have ends of our own. Use us!”
When he proposed to get to work straight away on a draft resolution prepared by Italy, one delegate, Alsunousi Masoud Zayd of the Awlad Suleiman tribe, jumped up to demand the right to reply. “I would like to say a word on the idea of opening cultural centers presented by the general,” he said.
The man he addressed as “the general” was in fact a colonel, I later found out. He was not any colonel: Sergio De Caprio, known by the public as Capitano Ultimo, became a legend in Italy after arresting the godfather of the Sicilian mafia Totò Riina in 1993. His exploits inspired novels and a TV series.
In 2016 and 2017, he was transferred to the secret service. While his anti-mafia record is legendary, his foreign-policy credentials are unknown. His appointment affirmed the Italian government’s belief that migration is essentially a criminal problem, and that smuggling rings can be fought in the same way as mafia organizations.
De Caprio’s proposals did not impress Alsunousi. “The social components of southern Libya are many more than just Awlad Suleiman, Tebu, and Tuaregs,” he argued. Moreover, he said, “their representatives know their identity and history well and are perfectly able to preserve their traditions.”
“Rather than cultural centers,” he said, “let’s open factories, so that the youth can have a hope, an alternative to joining criminal gangs.”
As for migrant detention centers, he did “not even remotely accept any mention” of them. If Italy wanted to get serious about securing thousands of miles of desert border, he said, it should finance a proper Libyan border force. His Tuareg colleague, Quineedi, reinforced the message:
“There is a lot of talk of collaboration with the militias that protect the oil fields of Ghat, and also Eni is interested,” he said, referring to the Italian energy firm that operates in the oil fields in partnership with the Libyan state oil company. “But I have been with them and the thing is: They have nothing to eat but dry bread.”
Although the south of the Sahara is rich in oil, gold, and uranium, local populations suffer abject poverty. The Saharan delegates laid out their priorities: Negotiating peace was their main aim—and supposedly the reason they had flown all the way to Rome.
They saw Italy as having a European mandate to mediate peace in Libya by virtue of its old colonial ties. But still the war raged on; about 140 people had been slaughtered that very week in an attack against a southern airbase controlled by the Libyan National Army, a fact that De Caprio had failed to mention.
Moreover, if a border force was what Europe really wanted, the tribes could welcome military equipment. The United Arab Emirates, the Tuareg leader reminded De Caprio, had lent their helicopters and pilots for border patrol after just one meeting, and this was already their fifth visit to Italy.
The sort of aid offered by Italy did nothing to address their issues, the delegates argued. “Unfortunately a lot of money is put aside to deal with migration,” Quineedi lamented, “but it ends up being stolen by those who should realize the projects.”
Quineedi highlighted a point that several studies have since put into focus: There is no accountability for Europe’s multibillion-euro spending spree on projects to curb migration. In vast regions such as southern Libya that are inaccessible to diplomatic missions, let alone humanitarian agencies, officials are able to pocket the money for themselves. Migration spending thus ends up fostering corruption, rather than development.
Migration, the Tuareg representative concluded, was simply not their problem: “The solution is up to Europe: You have democracy and human rights. We are ready to work with you, but we want [development] potential.” Yet, when the Libyans sought ambitious development projects they were offered handicraft workshops instead.
The talks with the Saharan leaders went on into the night. At the end, a vapid document was signed that touched on all the points sponsored by Italy—but none of the objections of the Saharan peoples.
The following morning, Italy’s then-interior minister, Marco Minniti, in the presence of a representative of the EU’s diplomatic corps, closed the summit by celebrating it as a success. The governments of Libya, Niger, and Chad reiterated in a press release a generic commitment to border security and to the maintenance of “reception centers for irregular migrants.”
Fast-forward to 2020. Humanitarian catastrophe looms over the wider Sahara region as Islamist insurgencies in the bordering Sahel region displace 4.2 million people. The Libyan war has escalated into an international conflict. Haftar, backed mainly by the UAE, Russia, and, ambiguously, France, has won over southern Libya and now threatens the capital. Thousands of mercenaries from Sudan and Chad are reported to be flowing into Libya to join his army. In Tripoli, the fragile GNA government of Fayez al-Sarraj is defended by an assortment of mostly autonomous militias with the crucial support of Turkey.
The offensive against the capital has killed 2,000 people since April and displaced 150,000, according to the U.N. envoy to Libya. In the south, nine children and two women were killed in a drone strike this past December. The civil war thwarted any pledge for peace among the Sahara’s peoples.
Stranded amid this violence are thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers, trapped in a web of official and clandestine detention centers where they are subject to all sort of abuse. The parties in the Libyan conflict store weapons “in close proximity” to migrant detention centers, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, so these become a target of the bombings. Airstrikes on the Tajoura detention center in western Libya killed at least 53 people in July 2019.
In retrospect, the headline used by Ara Pacis to summarize the results of the 2017 summit would sound comical, if it weren’t tragic: “We’ll turn the Sahara from a desert of blood into a garden of peace.”
Amid this chaos, Italian foreign policy in Libya has fallen into irrelevance after Italy suffered a series of international snubs in yet another attempt to promote a peace deal for the seemingly never-ending civil war. More broadly, Europe has now been sidelined by actors such as Turkey, Russia, and the UAE.
Italy and Europe’s credibility has been severely undermined by their single-minded pursuit of migration control when dealing with Libya and other African countries. Putting their domestic agenda—one that remained constant despite the changes in Italy’s government—above any other consideration, they proved unable to address partners’ criticisms and concerns in any meaningful way. Cloaking this petty policy in a feigned concern for human rights only added insult to injury.
Now, facing the disastrous results of its own policies, Europe has even called on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to improve humanitarian standards for migrants and refugees. UNHCR officials, for their part, now admit that no safe shelter exists for them in Libya.
At least 36,000 people have been returned to Libya as they attempted to leave the country since 2017 by a Libyan coast guard that Europe funded and equipped. Unsurprisingly, given the way they were recruited, coast guard officers have been found to be involved in such crimes as detaining and extorting ransoms from migrants, whipping shipwreck survivors, shooting migrants, sinking their dinghies, and ignoring distress calls. Europe’s official partner, the GNA in Tripoli, seems to have no control over the situation.
The risks of the European policy in Libya have been clear for years. The internationally recognized government, Claudia Gazzini, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, wrote in 2017 “risks becoming a mere placeholder, used by the EU or some of its member states to pursue a European—rather than Libyan—agenda, such as curbing migration.” She warned that state-building efforts were undermined by the policy of “co-opt[ing] armed groups involved in human trafficking.”
At the same time, the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders noted that EU interventions in Libya were “entrenching the role of militias and armed groups that in effect run detention centers,” thus turning the interception and detention of migrants into “a lucrative business.” In a 2017 study that is not available online, Doctors Without Borders deemed Libya’s detention system “beyond repair”
Italy is more responsible than any other EU country for shaping European policies in Libya.
Mario Giro was an official in the Italian foreign ministry while these policies were being conceived and pursued. He prides himself of being “the only member of the government who opposed them.”
“I warned that we were putting ourselves in the hands of traffickers,” he said in a telephone conversation with Foreign Policy.
From 2013 to 2018, Giro served first as undersecretary of foreign affairs, then as vice foreign minister, in a series of coalition governments led by the left-of-center Democratic Party. For the first half of his term in office, he supported Italian and European initiatives aimed at rebuilding the Libyan state: “That was still a hope in 2016,” he said. “But, after that, foreign policy was ditched in favor of migration policy, with the results we are seeing.”
In December 2016, Paolo Gentiloni, who has now ascended to the prestigious office of EU commissioner for economic affairs, became prime minister. He took the unusual step of keeping for himself the role of overseeing the country’s intelligence service, and he appointed Minniti, who took a hard line on migration, as interior minister. The latter took charge of the Libyan dossier, reframing it as an Italian internal security issue.
One of Minniti’s first initiatives, Giro said, was “hijacking” peace negotiations in the south of the country to redirect them toward migration control. For several years the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic organization of which Giro is a prominent member, had been mediating peace among the Saharan peoples. The association is involved in several conflict resolution initiatives around the world and has been credited with ending a bloody civil war in Mozambique in 1992.
“We as Sant’Egidio had invited these personalities [the Saharan delegates] to undergo a peace process among themselves,” said Giro, who has worked on peace negotiations as a member of Sant’Egidio. “Then, since they were coming to Rome, they were diverted to the interior ministry, through the secret service and with the help of Ara Pacis.”
The policies that arose in part from the Ara Pacis summit, according to Giro, were a complete failure. They sprung from Europe’s “migration obsession … a sickness that has infected all 28 EU countries” and is nowhere near being cured.
In her concluding remarks at the 2017 summit, Ara Pacis’s chief, Gaida, asked for the backing of her guests to help them turn the group’s approach—based on linking development to cutting migration and treating it like organized crime and terrorism—into a model for the EU. In that, at least, she can claim success.
When Foreign Policy approached her for comment, Gaida denied that migrant centers were ever discussed at the Ara Pacis meeting. She insisted that the summit was a good faith effort to take into consideration “the needs and aspirations of tribal leaders on the borders.” She also questioned the media’s right to publish details regarding the presence of De Caprio at the meeting: “I’m telling you that you can’t. And if you do we’ll just deny that it happened,” she said.
European leaders have not only failed to learn lessons from their mistakes; they are also proudly rewarding the architects of failed ideas. Mogherini’s tenure as EU foreign-policy chief will be remembered for its unprecedented callousness toward the plight of migrants and refugees; she now co-chairs a newly formed U.N. High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement.
Gentiloni oversaw a government and a secret service that didn’t hesitate to deal with ruthless militias in their attempt to cut migration numbers, eroding the already fragile base of the GNA government they claimed to support; when challenged, he proudly defended Italy’s pivotal role in “disrupting the [business] model of human traffickers.”
“It is thanks to our initiative that a light is being shone on the unacceptable conditions of refugees held in Libya,” he said to the Italian Parliament at the end of his first year in office, glossing over the fact that so many of them were stuck there as a direct result of his policies. He is now one the most prominent members of the new European Commission.
Even the new head of the European Commission, former German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, has absorbed the logic of Italy’s failed migration policies. She paid her respects to the 17,000 migrants who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in the past five years with a caveat: “We must save, but saving alone is not enough. We must reduce irregular migration, we must fight smugglers and traffickers—it is organized crime.”
Little has changed when it comes to policy. Indeed, the Italy-Libya agreement on migration signed in 2017 under the Gentiloni-Minniti government will be automatically renewed on Feb. 2 without any changes given that Italy’s current government promised to renegotiate it, but hasn’t.
Giro, the dissenting Italian official, warned that politicians in Rome and Brussels must learn from their failures before it’s too late. “If we continue like this, the situation will worsen,” he somberly predicted. “Do you realize what it would mean if Libya fell into Turkish and Russian hands, at the expense of Europe? We would lose everything.”
What would we lose? I asked him.
“Everything! Control over migration, political control, economic control, the oil. … Eventually, we would lose it all.”