Twelve patrol vessels will join four Italian boats already gifted to Libya's coastguard and will be crewed by EU-trained sailors
The Italian parliament has approved a plan to donate 12 patrol ships to the Libya coastguard to use to stop migrants reaching Europe.
The decision was formally approved on Monday night, with 382 votes in favour and only 11 votes against, after a heated debate in the lower house of parliament. Opposition MPs voiced concerns that the move could cause migrants to face greater abuse and exploitation if forced to return to the North African country.
Italy's new populist government has taken a hard line on migration, attracting criticism for refusing to let charity rescue boats dock in Italian ports.
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Riccardo Fabiani, geopolitical analyst at Energy Aspects, a research consultancy, told Middle East Eye: "This government seems to believe that, given the mandate it has received from voters, its best bet is to double down on the same controversial policies introduced before.
"Rome has therefore decided to ignore the consequences, in terms of human rights, of its decisions."
According to Amnesty International, the cooperation between EU governments and Libyan immigration authorities, including the coastguard, has contributed to the “appalling conditions” that migrants are facing in the North African country.
The rights group released a report in December criticising EU countries. The report, titled “Libya’s dark web of collusion”, singled out Italy for implementing a “series of measures aimed at closing off the migratory route through Libya and across the central Mediterranean, with little care for the consequences for those trapped within Libya’s lawless borders.”
In August last year, MEE revealed that armed groups were receiving payoffs to stop boats leaving Libya.
"EU countries should not feign shock or outrage when the human cost of these deals is laid bare," the report said.
While the number of people heading to Italy from Libya has fallen, the number of deaths at sea on the migratory routes from Libya in July this year was more than double what it was in July 2017.
The death toll this year alone has surpassed 1,000 people.
'Extra-judicial killings, slavery, torture, rape, human trafficking and starvation are only some of the abuses reportedly inflicted on migrants in both official and informal detention centres'
- Zeid al-Hussein, UN High commissioner for Human rights
As Italy and the Libyan coastguard have cracked down on Mediterranean crossings, the number of migrants held in detention centres in Libya has swollen to almost double in recent months, according to the UN migration agency.
Over 9,000 people are being held in centres in Libya, with thousands more detained in unofficial setups managed by smugglers, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
"Rome now is in the best position to work on its plan: strengthen the GNA's border control/coastguard capacity, rely on local militias to curb migration and work on a long-term diplomatic plan that does not include any immediate prospect for elections," Fabiani said, referring to UN-backed plans for Libya to move forward with elections this year.
'With the number of migrants to Italy going down... the Italian government feels vindicated in its approach and is more than willing to turn a blind eye to whatever happens to migrants inside Libya'
- Riccardo Fabiani, analyst
Last month, Spanish rescue group Proactiva Open Arms accused Libya’s coastguard of abandoning three people in the Mediterranean. The group said that it found one woman alive amongst the wreckage of a boat some 90 miles off the coast of Libya. The group also found a woman and a toddler dead, posting images of the scene on their Twitter page.
Whilst the group accused the Libyan coastguard of failing to help the three people, the coastguard said: “All disasters happening in the sea are caused by human traffickers who are only interested in profit.”
The head of the rescue group, Oscar Camps, put the blame for the deaths on the Italian government’s cooperation with Libyan authorities.
“The blame for this crime falls on Matteo Salvini’s policies”, Camps said, referring to Italy’s interior minister, who is also head of the League, the anti-immigration party that forms the Italian government alongside the Five Star Movement.
Migrants stuck in Libya face the risk of being trafficked or forced into labour due to the absence of law enforcement in the country. Libya has been mired in a continuous state of war since of the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 amid the revolution that arose during the Arab Spring.
CNN released footage in November of a live auction in Libya, where Sub-Saharan African youths were presented to North African buyers as potential farmhands and sold for as little as $400.
Even before that, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad al-Hussein on 11 September denounced “horrific abuses migrants face after being intercepted and returned to Libya”.
“Extra-judicial killings, slavery, torture, rape, human trafficking and starvation are only some of the abuses reportedly inflicted on migrants in both official and informal detention centres,” he added.
Amnesty’s then Europe Director, John Dalhuisen, said: “European governments have not just been fully aware of these abuses; by actively supporting the Libyan authorities in stopping sea crossings and containing people in Libya, they are complicit in these crimes.”
European governments have provided technical support to the Libyan Department for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM), which runs the detention centres. Refugees and migrants are in most cases arbitrarily and indefinitely held in these facilities, where they are exposed to torture and other serious human rights violations, according to Amnesty.
EU countries have also provided training and equipment such as boats, to the Libyan Coast Guard, enabling them to intercept people at sea, including in international waters, it added.