A journey of refugees: From Libya to Italy

June 7, 2021

By Kirsten Mosey

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 42 Issue 2 Summer 2021

In the 21st century, Italy has responded in radically different ways to the many migrants and refugees who have sought shelter on its shores. In 2013-2014, Italy launched the Mare Nostrum rescue operation, which saved more than 130,000 lives at sea. However, for much of the period, Italy has tried to prevent migrants from reaching its shores and has even returned them to unsafe and life-threatening situations. Valuable insights into the current treatment of migrants, particularly in the wider European context, can be achieved by examining recent interactions between Italy and Libya. Indeed, this particular case highlights a necessary reframing of responses to migration at a global level.


In 2011, Arab Spring protests in Libya turned violent and quickly grew into a civil war. A variation of that war has persisted, with thousands killed each year.

Prior to the war, Libya drew migrants from the rest of Africa—people seeking jobs created by a booming oil industry or wanting to join family. As Libya descended into instability and violence, life became precarious for them. With repatriation either unsafe or impossible, many turned to Europe to provide a safe haven.

In recent years, many migrants from outside Libya have also traveled through Libya on their way to Europe, even though they risk a terrible fate in Libya’s detention centres. In some ways, accountability gaps and instability created by war have opened the doors for this unregulated migration.

The life of migrants in Libya is unremittingly bleak. According to Amnesty International’s 2020 in-depth report on migrant conditions in Libya, abuse runs rampant. Every person interviewed reported multiple instances of kidnapping for ransom, torture, rape, and imprisonment.

When the Libyan Coast Guard carries out search-and-rescue (SAR) operations, it returns any asylum-seekers rescued at sea to Libya. But the national government is not in control of the entire country and local militias also carry out many SAR operations. So, migrants who are taken from the rescued boats could be detained in official or unofficial centres, in government- or militia-controlled territory. In any of these cases, resisting detainment can be fatal, as was the case in July 2020, when three Sudanese teenagers were killed by militia members.

The life of migrants in Libya is unremittingly bleak. According to Amnesty International’s 2020 in-depth report on migrant conditions in Libya, abuse runs rampant. Every person interviewed reported multiple instances of kidnapping for ransom, torture, rape, and imprisonment.

Some migrants and refugees are transferred from official to unofficial detention centres, such as the infamous “Tobacco Factory” in Tripoli. Thousands of migrants have gone missing from these unofficial centres. Others—more than 5,000 in 2020—are unlawfully deported. Some are caught in the conflict between warring parties, as in the May 2020 shooting of 200 migrants that left 30 dead. Migrants who can’t afford to pay ransom or smuggling fees often stay in Libya for years. For none of them is Libya a safe haven.


In recent years, Italy has been overwhelmed by the number of refugees and migrants. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, since 2014, nearly 700,000 asylum-seekers have successfully crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. Even before then, Italy had sought to limit the number of migrants who landed on its territory, many of whom crossed the Mediterranean from Libya.

In 2008, Italy and Libya signed a friendship treaty—a multi-billion-euro deal in which Italy promised to pay reparations for colonizing Libya in exchange for cooperation on migration control. In effect, Libya agreed to the return of migrants who reached Italy from Libya.

A 2012 decision by the European Court of Human Rights in the case Hirsi Jamaa and Others v. Italy determined that conduct carried out under this agreement, such as Italian boats pushing Libyan craft back to Libya, violated international obligations not to return individuals to countries where their human rights were at risk, also known as the principle of non-refoulement. As it happens, Italy had suspended the friendship treaty in early 2011 as violence increased in Libya.

In 2016, Italy began building up the physical capabilities of the Libyan Coast Guard, providing speedboats, training, personnel, and funds. Then, in 2017, the UN-recognized Government of National Accord in Libya submitted an application to establish its own SAR region in the Mediterranean. The SAR designation requires that migrants and refugees be returned to a place of safety.

The EU and Italy fully endorsed the Libyan SAR, even after the application had to be withdrawn and resubmitted for not meeting minimum safety requirements, and despite arguments by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that Libya, with a well-documented history of the abuse and disappearance of migrants and refugees, could not be considered a place of safety.

The Italian Coast Guard then committed to significantly reducing their fleet’s presence in the Mediterranean, citing concerns that they would be interfering with Libya’s sovereign SAR region.

In 2018, Italy and Libya reactivated the friendship treaty.

Recently, Italy has criminalized the actions that NGOs like Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children have taken to rescue migrants from the Mediterranean. In March of this year, Italy charged more than 20 individuals running these rescue operations with human smuggling.

In these and other ways, Italy has been able to avoid technically violating the principle of non-refoulement. But, by not ensuring that asylum-seekers crossing the Mediterranean are admitted to a protected location, Italy has effectively shifted its responsibility to untrustworthy and sometimes illegitimate forces. As we have shown, the result is that returned migrants are exposed to high levels of danger and abuse.

Italy’s actions reflect poorly on the entire European Union. The EU’s failure to deliver a unified and compassionate approach to migration has cost lives and further burdened hundreds of thousands of the world’s most vulnerable humans. Moreover, this policy failure has put undue pressure on a select few member states that have been the first point of contact for many migrants.

While we might have expected the COVID-19 pandemic to shut down migration across the Mediterranean, the reality is that sea arrivals in Italy increased threefold—from 11,471 in 2019 to 34,154 in 2020.


Refugees and migrants are being viewed by many Europeans as burdens to be offloaded as quickly as possible. What would change if they were seen, first, as fellow humans deserving of respect, dignity, and a safe home? If they were not seen as drains on resources but as assets in the fight to defeat the pandemic and to rebuild a better Europe?

Surely, it is time for the EU to implement basic rights for all asylum-seekers arriving in Europe. The New Pact on Migration and Asylum and the Global Compact on Refugees could inspire European reform.

Needed immediately are an orderly disembarkation system, compensation for countries of first arrival, and participation by all member states in an equitable system that distributes claimants.

Documented abuses in Libya’s detention centres and the validity of Libya’s SAR region must be investigated and the abuse stopped, whenever possible.

Ultimately, migrants who cross the Mediterranean from north Africa and end up in Italy and Greece are not the responsibility of Italy and Greece alone. They are not even the sole responsibility of the European Union. Refugees and migrants are the responsibility of us all. Surely, it is past time for countries such as Canada to assist in finding permanent, sustainable homes for all those who seek a life of peace and safety.

Photo: Boat People at Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea by Vito Manzari is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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