In the migration crisis, the Italian government is taking the lead in cooperation on a larger scale with countries bordering the Mediterranean – that’s the signal that Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni wanted to send on Sunday. Almost single-handedly, Rome organized a conference attended by 13 heads of state and government and heads of major international organizations such as the UNHCR refugee agency and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Contrary to what was partially announced, however, the heads of government of Greece, Spain and France stayed away, but the EU leadership was represented.
Present at one-hour “work sessions” at Itamaraty, Farnesina, almost all the riparian states of the southern Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, also the states of the Sahel zone and the Horn of Africa, in short: all those states where people come from, more numerous than ever on the perilous crossing from the Mediterranean to Europe. This year, more than 85,000 arrived in Italy via this route, compared to 34,000 in all of 2022.
Meloni emphasized in the evening that they want to try together to control “illegal migration” and combat human trafficking, but that this requires intense economic cooperation with the countries where the refugees come from or where they are waiting for the chance to find their way to Europe. Italy wants to act as a bridge across the Mediterranean. The building of partnerships and projects in areas such as agriculture, infrastructure and health were discussed. Other conferences are planned.
So far, Italy and the EU have failed to detain the refugees. More recently, under pressure from Melonis, the EU concluded an agreement specifically with Tunisia, which provides for financial aid if Tunisia, in return, prevents refugees from crossing into Europe. Meloni and his foreign minister, Antonio Tajani, have repeatedly been to various African countries to negotiate similar things there.
Migrants run out of water in temperatures well above 40 degrees
However, Libya and Tunisia are already ruthlessly implementing the new strategy. Libyan border officials again observed on Friday a group of migrants abandoned by Tunisian authorities in the desert between the two countries. National Guard patrols followed the sub-Saharan people to prevent them from returning to the towns of Sfax and Zarzis. A migrant travel ban was issued in the two coastal towns last week. However, West African students legally living in Tunisia also complain of increasing discrimination against all black people in the country.
Migrants brought in by bus from Sfax go without water and food in temperatures well above 40 degrees. A photo taken by a Libyan army officer of a mother found dead of thirst with her 12-year-old daughter at the Tunisian border sparked outrage on social media.
Emergency barracks set up by aid organizations in schools in the towns of Tataouine and Gen Guardene will be closed again after public protests. “We are constantly on the move,” says Kabao Melgri of SZ in Sfax. The 34-year-old Guinean migrant says he lost his passport and all his belongings when an angry mob attacked him. “I came back to Sfax from the border, now I’m hiding and trying to get a place on a boat to Europe.”
Although the Tunisian authorities announced that all migrants living illegally in the country would be returned home, this has barely happened so far. So-called repatriations are usually carried out by United Nations bodies responsible for refugees and migrant workers; however, these remain largely in the background for the moment.
“It’s better to take a boat to Europe,” local UNHCR officials said.
Because many private aid organizations rely on large UN organizations for their work on the ground, they rarely criticize their work – this is also true in Libya. But those affected report that UN organizations are not really helping. And the low number of migrants being repatriated and the continued inhumane conditions in Libyan prisons bear this out. What’s more: “You’d better take a boat to Europe,” said the local UNHCR team, they report, “We can’t protect you from militias and smugglers.”
Libya’s various rulers are already partners with the EU in combating “illegal migration”. Militia leader Khalifa Haftar is the Roman government’s interlocutor, although his army is accused of several war crimes during the attack on Tripoli. Haftar officials are also known to have launched boats carrying Egyptian migrants from Tobruk and other port cities. The difficult economic situation in Egypt leads experts to expect the number of people fleeing to Europe to increase dramatically again soon.