Italy/Libya: Documents unveil post-Gaddafi cooperation agreement on immigration

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On 18 June 2012, Turin-based newspaper La Stampa published the official record (“processo verbale”) of the meeting between a delegation led by the Italian interior minister Annamaria Cancellieri and the Libyan authorities, including interior minister Fawzi Al-Taher Abdulali, in Tripoli on 3 April 2012, concerning cooperation in stemming flows of so-called “illegal” immigrants into Italy. The Italian “technical” prime minister Mario Monti prepared the ground during his visit in Libya on 21 January 2012, in which “strengthening the privileged relationship in countering illegal immigration” was deemed a priority requiring consolidation through operational measures. This meeting was held to celebrate the success of the 17 February Revolution in Libya, to explore possibilities to widen horizons in “mutual cooperation” for the benefit of these two “friendly peoples” and to realise a “new vision of Libya.” The “Tripoli Declaration” signed by Monti and his counterpart Dr. El-Keib highlighted Libya’s determination to “found a new State based on democracy and on universally recognised human rights principles,” as well as respecting the 12 December 2000 Palermo Convention against transnational organised crime and its additional protocols against the trafficking of persons and smuggling of migrants. Consultations between the two countries’ interior ministers sought to identify ways and means to improve bilateral cooperation in the field of migration, “within an agreed framework and with a spirit of partnership and active solidarity”. The meeting included agreement that outstanding “legally justifiable claims” by Libyan and Italian entities towards the two countries would be settled, that up to 1,500 wounded people would be admitted to Italian hospitals for treatment over a six-month period and that negotiations on visa facilitation for the two countries’ citizens would commence to “strengthen the links between the two peoples”. 

The official record of the meeting between interior ministers details agreements that were reached in the following fields: training; reception centres; border monitoring; voluntary returns and repatriation; setting up a residents’ register; and mechanisms to monitor and coordinate progress (“follow-up mechanisms”).


The ministers were satisfied by the start of training activities in Italian interior ministry facilities for Libyan police officials in various fields concerning security, including border police checks (at land and air borders), detection of counterfeit documents, and navigating naval vessels (patrol boats). Further courses, to be held in both countries to train the Libyan police, are envisaged. To support the Libyan security forces, Italy will set up a false document detection centre in the security attaché’s office in its embassy in Tripoli, as well as a nautical training centre, for which Libya will provide the facilities and training materials. When necessary, each party will invite trainers in the field of “illegal immigration” from the other party to benefit from each other’s experience.

Reception centres

Within the framework of bilateral cooperation, activities that were previously agreed to build a health centre attached to the “reception” centre in Kufrah will resume to provide first aid services to “illegal” migrants who arrive there from the surrounding areas. The Libyan authorities made a commitment to ensure that any materials and technical personnel deployed will arrive in Kufrah in secure conditions. The European Commission will be called upon to ensure resumption of the activities of existing “reception” centres in Libya, for which the Libyan authorities will indicate the needs in each facility.

Border monitoring

Building on the January 2012 Tripoli Declaration that “welcomed the letter of intent signed by the ministers of defence, to establish an electronic integrated border control management system manned and operated completely by the Libyan authorities” (alongside training to “protect oil facilities”), the official record of the March 2012 meeting stressed the “need to urgently verify requirements concerning the control of Libyan borders.” The Italian authorities will be immediately informed, whereas Libya has committed to reinforcing its land and sea borders to counter the departure of migrants from its territory. Italy commits to “immediately enact” its programme to supply Libya with the technical means and equipment that it asked for to improve surveillance of its borders. Activities concerning the project for a border monitoring system in the south of Libya will be resumed, as will the Sah-Med (Sahara and Mediterranean) project, both of which were agreed with support from the European Commission. The two countries will also designate contact points for the real-time exchange of any useful operational information concerning people and organisations involved in smuggling migrants, trafficking human beings and related criminal offences. Efforts will be made to plan activities at sea in each country’s area of competence and in international waters, as is envisaged in bilateral agreements and in accordance with international maritime law. In countering “illegal” migration and during migrants’ stay in reception centres alike, both countries committed to respect human rights.

“Voluntary” returns and repatriation

The official record of the meeting between interior ministers Cancellieri and Al-Taher Abdulali stresses the need to enact the “most suitable procedures” to promote the “voluntary” return of “irregular” migrants and to coordinate migrants’ repatriation to their countries of origin with the International Organization for Migration (IOM). A clause also mentions coordination to ensure the reciprocal return of nationals of the two countries who are residing illegally in their respective territories.

Residents’ register

Activity will resume “to complete the project for a residents’ civil register management system” (anagrafe civile, in Italian).

Mechanisms to monitor and coordinate progress

The actions envisaged to monitor and coordinate progress are wide-ranging, including establishing contacts for information exchange between the two countries’ authorities responsible for security, to tackle individuals and criminal organisations that manage “illegal immigration”. For this purpose, Italy proposes to open a “Friendship Office” for the Italian and Libyan police forces in Bengasi and Misratah, and the Libyan police may do likewise in the future in Italy. The record of the meeting also provides for the establishment of a joint security committee to monitor progress in bilateral cooperation, to meet “periodically”, alternately in Italy and Libya. In acknowledgement of the “Interministerial Conference on Border Security” held on 11 and 12 March in Libya, the two parties will evaluate the possibility of setting up a joint working group on the following issues: voluntary return, repatriation, social and economic reintegration, respect for human rights and to find solutions to counter “illegal immigration”.

The agreement draws criticism

Before journalist Guido Ruotolo of La Stampa released the text of the Tripoli Declaration and the official record of the meeting between the Italian and Libyan interior ministers on 18 June 2012, there had been criticism about agreements being negotiated without the relevant documents being released publicly. Further concerns resulted from the current situation in Libya, the reliability and nature of the new authorities in Libya and the widespread human rights violations that previous agreements in this field with Libya had given rise to, including ongoing problems such as Libya’s failure to sign the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugee Status.

A press release by ASGI [Associazione di Studi Giuridici sull’Immigrazione] on 20 June 2012 called on the Italian government not to “repeat the mistakes of the past”. It stressed that any agreement, understanding or operation agreed or funded by Italy “must be subordinated to effective respect by Libya of the fundamental rights of foreigners”. In these terms, “diplomatic assurances by the Libyan government” are inadequate, unless there is “a new and effective judicial system that complies with international standards in the field of international protection and the rights that apply to foreign workers and their families.”

Among the human rights violations that occurred during cooperation in countering immigration in the past, ASGI mentioned pushing people back by abandoning them in the southern Libyan [desert] border where they were at risk and scores died, contravening the non-refoulement principle, serial returns to countries where would-be refugees were at risk, and the fact that Libya cannot be considered a “safe country” as a result of its failure to sign the 1951 Convention on Refugees that may lead to people being returned to countries where they are at risk. Following the armed conflict that led to regime change and Gaddafi’s extra-judicial execution, “it is still a country in which the protection of fundamental rights appears absent”, a situation that should rule out any financial or technical support from Italy to control ‘irregular’ migration flows towards Italy and Europe. Moreover, in the past, the phrase “controlling migration flows” has translated into “very serious damage done in terms of the violence inflicted upon thousands of human beings who were arrested and deported by the Libyan police.” Human rights violations were also certified by the Grand Chamber of the European Court on Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg in the sentence on the Hirsi et al. vs. Italy case on 23 February 2012, with regards to the collective refoulements enacted under the “push back” policy in 2009 involving the interception of migrants at sea and their immediate return to Libya.

UNHCR expressed concern on 18 June 2012 about respect for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, lamenting the absence of a human rights clause concerning refugees in the agreement, citing incidents including the 2009 “push-back” operations [enacted in 2009] and the Council of Europe’s finding that Italy was indirectly responsible for the death of 63 migrants whose vessel in distress was not rescued as they fled war-torn Libya in March 2011. UNHCR spokeswoman Laura Boldrini added that UNHCR would have expected “more safeguards for asylum seekers” and to have been consulted in the matter, rather than learning “about the content of the agreement from the press.” Similar concerns were expressed regarding asylum seekers by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), adding that it does not consider Libya a safe country and that the EU must develop a policy to guarantee safe passage to refugees:

“JRS offices in Italy and around Europe have long called for EU states to protect the human rights of people fleeing from war and persecution in Libya, as well as in neighbouring countries. Identifying humanitarian channels for the safe passage of asylum seekers to Europe has been an oft-repeated recommendation.”

The criticism voiced by Amnesty International (AI) in its press release dated 18 June 2012 is more explicit, highlighting that: “It appears that also the Italian government believes that there are not any people in need of international protection in Libya” in spite of the “absence of the rule of law, ... foreign citizens languish in jail at the mercy of the militias that run the detention centres and are subjected to ill-treatment, exploitation and forced labour” in present-day Libya. By calling on Libya to prevent departures, “Italy offers to cooperate in endangering the lives of people who are in Libya.” Most importantly, in view of the contents of the agreement, AI’s release notes that centres for foreigners in Kufrah and elsewhere, are neither “health” centres nor “reception” centres:

“Kufrah, on the southern border, the entry point for refugees from the Horn of Africa, has never been a health centre nor even a reception centre but, rather, a very harsh and inhumane detention centre. So-called ‘reception centres’, whose return to operation is called for requesting cooperation from the European Commission have ... functioned as detention centres, veritable places of torture. There are no reception centres in Libya.”

On 19 June 2012, AI also launched an appeal calling for Italy to “set aside agreements with Libya to control immigration.”

Cancellieri addresses criticism

In an interview on 20 June 2012, Cancellieri responded to critics by accusing them of “dishonesty” and “ideological prejudice,” in view of their failure to acknowledge that there are “at least two passages in the text in which explicit reference is made to respect for basic human rights”. She added that the agreement’s contents were illustrated in a press release following its signature, and that she presented it on 16 May 2012 in the Italian Senate’s commission on the safeguard and promotion of human rights. Asked about Libya’s failure to sign the Geneva Convention, Cancellieri replied: “I solemnly announce that we will invite our Libyan friends to sign the Convention on every occasion.” Asked about the situation in detention centres, including reports of torture within them and the impossibility for UNHCR or other humanitarian organisations such as AI to enter them, she replied: “I look forward. I do not believe that the agreements between past governments can be questioned.” The minister added that the governments that are in force must develop “a common agenda” on which to work, while Italy will “continue to support ... its commitment for the respect of human rights and will do everything it can to open a virtuous circle of cooperation, in Libya, between local authorities and international humanitarian agencies.” At least, in answering whether Italy will resort to operations to return migrants intercepted at sea to Libya, Cancellieri conceded that “Italy will respect the European Court of Justice’s sentence [it was in fact the ECtHR],” indicating that her government does not intend to do so in view of work that is underway to enable Libya to improve control over its borders and to prevent departures from its shores.

Final remarks

As the title of Guido Ruotolo’s article that accompanied publication of the Tripoli Declaration and the official record of the meeting between interior ministers Cancellieri and Al-Taher Abdulali noted, it appears that cooperation will follow the trail beaten when Gaddafi was in charge. It should also be noted that most migrants who arrive in Italy from Libya are not Libyan citizens, thus references to “returns” largely concern migrants who crossed Libya as a transit country en route to Italy, reminiscent of the readmission of third country nationals who have suffered human rights violations in the north African country over the last few years. Moreover, the fact that so-called “voluntary” returns are rarely voluntary and often imposed through pressure in detention, with the IOM as an intermediary, is not addressed. Likewise, if the cooperation between “local authorities and international humanitarian organisation” that is augured refers to the IOM, this is hardly indicative of an improvement in view of the IOM’s role as a facilitator of repatriations. With regards to people arriving in Lampedusa and returns to Libya, Rutvica Andrijesevic noted in 2006 how the IOM acts as a contractor that “makes itself complicit in obstructing asylum seekers’ right to asylum” and enacts “voluntary returns” whose description as “voluntary” is misleading.
There are more general, structural and deep-lying causes for concern. The fact that the documents that were unveiled are merely testimonies of a “shared agenda” for future cooperation in line with established diplomatic practice between neighbouring countries should not be allowed to avert discussion of some key issues:

a) Libya has just experienced a civil war, and there are few indications of the nature of the new authorities that have taken over power, or the degree of control they have over the country, where cases of violence by militias continue. It appears that Italy and the EU have merely waited for a new regime to become established in order to continue cooperation along similar lines to those followed when colonel Gaddafi led the country, without any prior scrutiny of the shortcomings of past cooperation. In particular, there has not been an assessment of the problems that this cooperation has given rise to, or of mistaken assumptions that may have guided the policy of “cooperation in stemming migration flows.” Likewise, assistance in setting up a residents’ civil register is a step in the direction of increasing state authorities’ control over the population in line with practices in several European countries. While it could prove useful for policy planning and management by the emerging authorities, in the wrong hands, it can prove a tool for extensive social control and repression.

b) Cooperation in this field has led to widespread human rights abuses. This does not just apply to Italy and Libya, as Spanish-Moroccan or Greek-Turkish cooperation in this field has likewise resulted in deaths and the widespread ill-treatment of migrants, as well as fostering racism in countries beyond the EU’s borders. The relationship between Italy and Libya has a number of specificities that could have been expected to prompt a radical re-think and a degree of soul-searching. The death of thousands of people, repatriations to countries where migrants and refugees were at risk (such as Sudan, Syria, Egypt and Eritrea), deportations that abandon migrants in the desert border region, widespread abuses, inhumane conditions and revolts put down through violence in detention centres and support for the repressive infrastructure of a regime that Italy would turn against after it proved impossible to maintain the friendly relationship sealed by a treaty between the Berlusconi and Gaddafi governments in 2008, did not suffice for Cancellieri to deem that “agreements between past governments can be questioned”. Moreover, as detention centres for foreigners have proved important in lowering human rights standards in countries within the EU, it seems optimistic, if not dishonest, to suggest that the situation would be any better in Libya. The latest in a long list of tragedies in such facilities that raise important questions comes from the French overseas territory of La Mayotte in the Indian Ocean, where a two-month-old infant died in detention on 16 August 2012. The latest report on violence against detainees in Libyan detention centres comes from the Habeshia Agency, whose director Father Mussie Zerai reported on 24 August 2012 that three detainees in the detention centre that hosts Eritrean and Somali asylum seekers in Homs, to the east of Tripoli, were shot dead in response to protests over living conditions in the centre.

c) The EU and Italy are imposing tight border control regimes abroad in order to enact free movement within the EU. In doing so, they are attempting to cut off largely unregulated and age-old migration flows that are acknowledged as beneficial for the countries concerned, just like freedom of movement was introduced by EU countries for their own benefit. Effectively, the EU is paying countries to impose policies that are detrimental for them and to establish anti-immigration apparatuses that foster racism and lower human rights standards, at a huge expense.

d) Both countries have far more pressing needs. Libya has just undergone a very destructive civil war, leaving it with lots of work to do in rebuilding the damage done and developing new forms of government, legal and other infrastructures to replace Gaddafi’s dictatorial regime. Italy is in the midst of an economic crisis that has led to the emergence of an unelected “technical” government that is imposing a “blood and tears” agenda of cuts to public services, public sector wages and pensions while it raises taxes and poverty and unemployment are on the rise.


“La lotta ai clandestini riparte da Gheddafi”, Ruotolo, La Stampa, 18.6.12.

“Processo verbale della riunione tra il ministro dell’interno della Repubblica Italiana ed il Ministro dell’interno della Libia”, Tripoli, 3 April 2012. [1st pdf]

“Meeting summary”, of the meeting between prime ministers Mario Monti and Dr. El Keib, 21 January 2012. [2nd pdf]

“Tripoli Declaration”, arising from the above meeting, 21 January 2012. [3rd pdf]

“Con la Libia, vigileremo sul rispetto dei diritti umani”, interview with Annamaria Cancellieri, La Stampa, 20 June 2012.

Audizione del ministro Anna Maria Cancellieri, Senato, Commissione Straordinaria per la Tutela e la Promozione dei Diritti Umani, 16 May 2012,

“UNHCR chides Italy over immigration deal with Libya”, ANSA, 18.6.12,

“L'Italia deve mettere da parte gli accordi con la Libia sul controllo dell'immigrazione”, appeal by Amnesty International, 19.6.2012,

“L'accordo Italia - Libia in materia di immigrazione mette a rischio i diritti umani”, Amnesty International, 18.6.12,

“Déces d’un nourrisson au CRA de Mayotte: l’Etat doit mettre fin au placement de mineurs au centre de rétention”, La Cimade, 21.8.12.

“Balancing Rights and Responsibilities on Asylum at the EU’s Southern Border of Italy and Libya”, Rutvica Andrijasevic, Compas (Centre on Migration Policy and Society), Working Paper no. 27, University of Oxford, 2006, available at:

“Un massacro di richiedenti asilo nel centro di detenzione di Hums a est di Tripoli”, Agenzia Habeshia, 24.8.12,

“Libya: Rule of Law or Rule of Militias?”, Amnesty International, July 2012, Index MDE 19/012/2012,

Previous Statewatch coverage

“The EU’s self-interested response to unrest in north Africa: the meaning of treaties and readmission agreements between Italy and north African states”, Statewatch, vol. 21 no. 3, also available at:

“Italy/Libya: Refugee day and the agreement with Libya: let’s not repeat the mistakes of the past”, press statement by ASGI, 20.6.2012, Statewatch news online, June 2012,

“Libya/Italy: Machine gun attack on Italian fishing boat by Libyan coast guards: what happens during patrols against “illegal” immigration?”, Statewatch news online, October 2010,

“Italy: The internal and external fronts: security package and returns”, Statewatch, vol. 19 no. 3, July-September 2009, also available at:

“Italy/Libya: Submission on May refoulements to Libya to the European Commission and UN Human Rights Commissioner”, Statewatch news online, July 2009,

“European Commission technical mission to Libya: exporting Fortress Europe, Statewatch,

European Commission Report, doc. 7753/05, “Technical Mission to Libya on illegal immigration, 27 November-6 December 2004”,

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