The Mediterranean Red Prawn War Signals Italy’s Lost Leverage in Libya
Italian fishermen are being kidnapped off the coast of Libya—and Rome is too caught up in EU migration politics to help.
MAZARA DEL VALLO, Italy—When Domenico Asaro heard that some Sicilian fishermen had been kidnapped off the Libyan coast at the beginning of September, he wasn’t surprised. As a fisherman himself from Mazara del Vallo, a seaside town on the southwestern coast of Sicily, home to Italy’s largest fishing fleet, Asaro is aware of the dangers of the job. “In the 40 years I’ve worked as a fisherman, I’ve heard of over 100 attacks by Libyan authorities against my colleagues,” Asaro said as he walked through Mazara’s port beside dozens of docked fishing vessels. “We all feel that both Italy and the EU have failed to protect us.”
In the latest incident, Libyan militias stopped and seized two Italian fishing vessels operating 35 miles off the coast of Benghazi, a port city in eastern Libya that is currently controlled by General Khalifa Haftar. Since then, the 18 crew members, who were accused of invading Libya’s waters, have been held inside detention facilities in Benghazi, while Italy and Libya continue to negotiate their release.
The 180-mile stretch of the Mediterranean sea that separates Sicily from Libya has been a diplomatic battleground in Italian-Libyan relations for years—especially since 2011, when a civil war divided Libya into two factions: the United Nations-recognized government of Tripoli, now led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and eastern Libya, ruled by Haftar, a military warlord. Ever since Libya’s regional fragmentation, the European Union has failed to form a unilateral diplomatic approach to the country. That, combined with Europe’s growing worries over migration, has allowed Libya to quietly claim a bigger portion of the Mediterranean: a controversial move that has put the lives and livelihoods of Italian fishermen at greater risk for almost a decade.
The maritime dispute dates back to the 1970s, when Libya began using force to protect its self-proclaimed fishing waters off the Gulf of Sidra from foreign fishing vessels, 12 miles from its coast. But it worsened in 2005, when then-Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi unilaterally extended the country’s waters from 12 to 74 miles offshore. Those claims were always formally rejected by main EU member states, and according to Stefano Marcuzzi, a Libya analyst at the NATO Defense College Foundation in Rome, many maritime law experts still consider them illegitimate. “Territorial waters can be extended up to 74 miles, according to the 1982 Montego Bay Convention, but that refers to oceans,” Marcuzzi said. “The extension of that principle to the closed waters of the Mediterranean basin is debatable.”
Despite this lack of formal recognition, Libyans have continued to treat foreign fishing in that 74-mile stretch as a territorial invasion—and as a theft of their natural resources, to be punished through detention and bail payment. That’s a serious problem for fishermen from Mazara del Vallo who specialize in red prawns, which live 600 meters below sea level and fetch some of the highest prices among crustaceans in Europe. They often have to sail farther south to find the prawns, toward international waters and into that disputed area, where they risk attacks from the Libyan coast guard. Most fishermen will go that far, because they know it’s the only way to make enough money back home.
“Our families’ income has depended on fishing for generations. Despite the risks, we have no choice but to keep sailing these troubled waters, because that’s where red prawns live,” said Asaro, who was among the first Sicilian fishermen to experience detention—and a show trial—in Libya. In 1996, around 50 miles off the coast of the city of Misrata, the Libyan coast guard chased Asaro’s vessel for four hours before they began shooting at his crew, who were then jailed in Libya for six months. He’s since been detained twice more, most recently in 2012, near Benghazi, when he was released after eight days on an 8,000-euro bail he paid out of his own pocket.
According to Distretto della Pesca, a Sicilian cooperative of the local fishing industry, about 40 fishermen have been injured and detained in the past 25 years. More than 50 boats have been seized, and the release of each one has cost up to 50,000 euros, a price usually paid by the fishermen themselves.
The Italian government hasn’t ignored the issue, but since civil war broke out in Libya in 2011, Italy and the EU have lost much of their influence in the country. And the bloc’s migration policies haven’t helped.
When Qaddafi was in power, the kidnappings were mostly a show of force that would resolve with a phone call from former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, with whom he had close ties, said Michela Mercuri, a professor of Mediterranean geopolitics at Italy’s School of Diplomacy. But the country has lost the influence it had under Qaddafi’s rule. “[N]ow the situation is different because, since 2011 and the migration crisis, Italy lost its relevance in Libya, and the new leaders know they can advance bigger demands because they have larger bargaining powers,” Mercuri said.
In the case of the 18 fishermen captured in September, Haftar has asked Rome not simply to pay bail, but to release four Libyan soccer players, who have been detained in Sicily since immigration prosecutors in Catania sentenced them to 30 years in jail for human trafficking. (Meanwhile, friends and relatives of prisoners on both sides of the Mediterranean have staged protests to pressure both governments to accelerate their release. But with a second coronavirus wave becoming Italy’s most pressing priority, the negotiations have been placed on the back burner.)
The EU’s policies haven’t helped the fishermen’s position. The EU has kept prioritizing migration containment by signing agreements with Libya’s coast guard, which is part of Tripoli’s navy, over proper nation-building and regional-stabilization policies—with mixed results. And in the meantime, non-EU powers have begun to exert more political leverage in the country. “It’s other players that now have a greater influence among Libyan factions. Not by chance, Rome has tried to pressure Haftar to free the fishermen via his backers: Russia, Egypt, and the UAE,” Marcuzzi said.
The EU’s inability to see Libya outside the lens of migration has also allowed the country to take control of a bigger portion of the Mediterranean. In June 2018, the International Maritime Organization assigned Libyan a search-and-rescue zone to manage migration fluxes, extending about 100 miles off the coast, which Libyans have begun to consider their own territory. The EU is even deputizing Libyan authorities under Sarraj to stop migrants from leaving Libyan waters, giving them further power beyond the country’s coast. “The larger stretch of sea falls into this definition, the more this is a Libyan—and not European—responsibility,” Marcuzzi said.
However, allowing Libyans to assert larger maritime sovereignty has allowed them the opportunity to advance claims over natural resources, such as in the fishing dispute, and given them a base for potential military and trade movements deeper in the Mediterranean Sea.
The migrant crisis has led Italy to support Sarraj’s government in Tripoli and, according to the fishermen, has even pushed it to tolerate Libya’s right to restrict access to fishing near its coasts. Since Rome and Tripoli signed an EU-backed agreement in 2017 to curb migrant flows across the Mediterranean, vessels from the EU have been barred from operating in the 74 miles off the Libyan coast, and Italy has been helping to train and equip the Libyan coast guard—one of the groups that has been detaining its own fishermen.
Mazara del Vallo’s fishermen, who are attentive observers of the sea, have a unique perspective on the shifting geopolitical arrangements. Even though venturing toward Libya was always risky, they say that a lot has changed since the EU began forging ties with Libyans to contain migration.
“Before 2011, the Italian navy supported us. Now as soon as we are 50 miles from the Libyan coasts, they also tell us to leave. It seems as if they prefer to leave us with a smaller piece of sea to fish rather than irritating Libyans, who could then retaliate through migration deals,” said Roberto Figuccia, another fisherman from Mazara del Vallo who’s been captured by the Libyan coast guard and detained in Libya twice, in 2015 and 2018.
Figuccia and his colleagues are demanding that the Italian government use some of the resources it has set aside to manage migrant flows to also protect its own citizens and economic interests, by providing a few Italian coast guard vessels to escort them and help them work in a safer environment.
So far, the Italian government’s inability to negotiate a fishing agreement with Libya has led Italian captains to forge their own ties with Haftar. For instance, after three consecutive attacks on fishermen, in September 2019 the Italian National Federation of Fishing Companies announced a deal with Haftar’s Libyan National Army. The agreement, however, was suspended a few days later due to backlash from Tripoli.
Rome’s inaction has also contributed to brewing anti-EU sentiments in the fishing industry, where Rome and Brussels are now seen as accomplices of the illegitimate arrests. “If the Mediterranean has become a battleground, it is not only because of migrants,” said Asaro, who recently ran—and lost—in local elections with the Lega party, which is known for its far-right and anti-EU rhetoric. He believes that Lega, unlike Italy’s other political parties, would stand up for Italian citizens’ rights over EU agreements. “I no longer feel as a European citizen. The EU has left us alone.”
Stefania D’Ignoti is an independent reporter based between Italy and the Middle East. She covers conflict and migration, and her work has appeared in a number of publications, including the Guardian, Time, the Economist and Al Jazeera English. Twitter: @stef_dgn