Oil and migration, French-Italian interests in the post-Gaddafi era
Translation of interview with Sara Prestianni, a member of Migreurop network (4.10.11)

Billets d'Afrique (BDA): What is the state of play of France and Italy's trade relations with post-Gaddafi Lybia?

Sara Prestianni:
Today is about how to negotiate military support to the National Transitional Council (NTC). Talks are underway as to how resources will be shared after the war, even though the NTC considers the responsibility of signing agreements will be that of an elected government in the future. However, as reported in an article in the French daily Libération (1st September 2011), the NTC has promised to give France 35% of Libyan oil as a way to thank it for its military leadership in support of the rebels. The company Total, which is already exploiting 15% of the oil in Libya, denied that such an agreement had been signed and tried to cool down the rumour by saying that no drilling would be possible before two years.

In fact, it is the Italian company ENI which ranks first in terms of hydro-fuel production in Libya (28%). ENI and Total announced in late September that the drilling operation would resume. While it is important for ENI to resume drilling operations following the agreement reached with the NTC on 31 August 2011 to confirm its presence in Libya, Total has a long-term perspective and hopes to share a bigger part of the 'oil cake' in the future.

BDA: Regarding migration issues, what is happening between France, Italy and the European Union on one side, and Libya on the other?

France has supported the NTC to serve its economic and geostrategic interests. Its position is very cynical since it refuses, at the same time, to resettle migrants who cannot go back to their country of origin and who should be granted protection, as requested by international organisations such as the UNHCR, the International Human Rights Federation and Amnesty International. France believes that the issue should be solved "locally." This is an irresponsible position considering the latest figures: 696,000 people have fled to neighbour countries since the beginning of the conflict in Libya, including 669,000 to Tunisia, Egypt, Niger, Chad, Algeria and Sudan. The other 27,000 have crossed towards Italy or Malta.

There are now 5,200 migrants blocked in Choucha camp, at the Tunisian-Libyan border, or in the Salum's no man's land, at the Egyptian-Libyan border. The response given by EU states to the call for evacuation of vulnerable people (Somalis, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Sudanese) is meagre: less than 1,000 resettlement places offered, while countries historically considered as host countries such as France, Germany or the United Kingdom offered none.

It should also be remembered that, although the fantasy of an invasion scenario has been touted since the outset of the conflict in Libya, only 26,000 people have arrived from Libyan shores in Lampedusa between May and August 2011. Meanwhile, more than 2,000 people are reported to have died at sea, without even counting those who will never be found.

The EU turned a deaf ear to calls for support and NATO has preferred ignoring vessels in distress, thereby breaching the fundamental principles of maritime law (RFI radio, 10 May 2011). As for Gaddafi, he is responsible for having made these migrants leave on old and unsafe boats deprived of any navigation system, in the hope of embarrassing the EU which was supporting the NTC.

BDA: What is the responsibility of the NTC and its position on migration?

Since September 2011, arrivals to Lampedusa from Libya have stopped. This coincides with the rebels taking Tripoli and confirms that it was Gaddafi who was orchestrating departures from there (many reported stories also confirm this). However, it is to be feared that the NTC may adopt the same policy as Gaddafi had before the war. An Italian newspaper revealed that, on 17 June 2011, the NTC and Italy had signed a secret agreement. This is illegal because neither the Italian Parliament nor any other legitimate Libyan body ratified it. The agreement foresees two phases in line with Italian-Libyan relations in the 2000s: the management of migration flows by Libya, and the advancement of Italian economic and oil interests in exchange for Italy's support of the NTC. This agreement aims at ensuring "the joint management of migration flows" and, like in the past, Libya accepts taking people back who left its shores irregularly for Italy. In the short term, there is a risk that those who arrived in Italy and claimed asylum may be rejected and sent back to Libya.

In the end, it is questionable whether anything changed since the end of Gaddafi's era. With the NTC, Libya turns out to be a county shattered to pieces, headed by the same public officials as those employed by the former regime who apply the same methods as before. It is to be feared that practices and mentalities as regards immigration issues will not change overnight. To rebuild the country foreign manpower will be required: like before, these people will be easily exploited and used as a threat against Europe. Moreover, Libya remains a strategic transit hub for hundreds of migrants from the Horn of Africa in search of protection in Europe.

BDA - On the Tunisian side, the migration policy adopted by the transitional government is unclear. What are the key elements?

SP: With the revolution and the subsequent decrease in tourism, unemployment rose in the past months, which led to people leaving the country. Crossing the borders was easier, especially during the first months of 2011, because of fewer border controls by the Tunisian police. First, the High Transitional Authority created a power balance with Italy. An agreement was signed under which people who arrived in Italy before 5 April 2011 would get a residence permit while those arriving after that date would be repatriated (two flights of 30 people per week). Then the Italian government began to take punitive action against migrants, extending the maximum period of detention to 18 months. It tried to send migrants back directly, through making the Tunisian Consulate in Sicilia assess and confirm their Tunisian nationality. The Italian government used a riot in Lampedusa detention centre on 20 September as an opportunity to re-negotiate with its Tunisian counterpart so as to accelerate expulsion procedures to 500 persons a week. In the lead up to the Tunisian elections scheduled for early November, in Italy we see a sanctions-based policy and in Tunisia a weak government with a tiny margin of negotiation which has accepted the rules imposed by Italy, although the economic situation remains very difficult.

BDA: What conclusions can be drawn on the role of the European Union?

The European Union turned a blind eye to Tunisian migrants or those arriving from Libyan coasts; Italy was left, in the frontline, to deal with the issue. Considering the Italian government coalition, which includes one xenophobic party, it was sure that Italy would deal firmly with this menial chore. In fact, although Italy is operating through FRONTEX, the Italian fraud squad and border guards are the only one to be deployed in the field. FRONTEX limits its action to financial support. The European Union refused completely to honour its duty to protect vulnerable persons arriving from Tunisian or Libyan coasts, as required by the Directives on asylum and temporary protection issues in the case of people coming from Libya during the war.

Sara Prestianni was interviewed by Juliette Poirson

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