Human Smuggling and Libya’s Political End Game

Migrant boat crossings in the Mediterranean usually peak around July and August but the number of boats dropped dramatically in 2017. This comes largely as a result of a migration-focused unilateral intervention by Italy, which needed to show results to a frustrated electorate that has borne a lot of Europe’s migrant burden.

Italy needed to make tangible progress or risk a populist right-wing upheaval. Returning asylum seekers directly to Libya was not an option after it was declared unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights in 2012. The task was passed on to Libyan partners instead.

The February 2017 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Italy and Libya’s UN-sanctioned Government of National Accord (GNA) was an important turning point. Rome pledged training, equipment and investment to help the Tripoli government improve border security and combat the smuggling of people. It engaged local government in smuggling hubs, promising investment in return for help with migration control.

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