2009: The Age of Refoulemant

On May 6, 2009 the Italian Coast Guard was alerted to a group of boats containing about 75 migrants coming from Libya.

©Roberto Gimmi Fotomontaggio di Silvio Berlusconi con alle spalle un quadro di Gheddafi

Former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi with a portrait of the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi behind him. Photo: Roberto Gimmi

They hitched up tow ropes and pulled them back to Tripoli, where they were detained. This was the era of the Friendship Pact singed between Libya and Italy on August 30, 2008.

The idea was that both countries would jointly fight terrorism, organized crime, drug trafficking and illegal immigration.  There were benefits to both sides. Berlusconi and Gaddafi had made a pact that on the surface benefited both countries but would trigger a global outcry.

The business deal overshadowed the fairly minor problem of illegal immigration. Gas pipelines, construction deals, in all Italy would invest €5 billion in Libya and the payback would be that the regime would take back its huddled masses.

To provide Libya with the ships needed to stop the flow of migrants, Italy donated  three 26 meter “Bigliani” class coast guard cutters and three very similar, 50 knot,  V.5000 class patrol boats. Eight days later three of the Italian patrol boats were sent to Misrata. The Coast Guard boats would have Italian and and Libyan crews working together, even stationing Libyan officers on Lampedusa. The “shiprider” concept was that the relevant national security officials on board had the authority to deal with things like smuggling, illegal migration and poaching by using their own legal framework. In the case of Libya, this had vast opportunity for abuse.

This was by no means the first such collaboration. In 2004 and 2005 migrants who landed on Lampedusa were forcibly returned to Libya

In 2004, Italy had over half a million, mostly undocumented aliens. Despite temporary push back Migrants still arrived in increasingly large numbers. In 2006, 22,000 migrants reached Italy from North Africa. In 2007, 19,900 migrants were successful, in 2008 the numbers or boat migrants jumped to 36,000. Italy was going to get tough

In 2008 Frontex’s Operation Hera in the area of Spain pushed  5,969 migrants back to Africa. The explanation was that Mauritanian and Senegalese officers were in charge and they were operating in international waters. The Libyan tactics included shooting at the engines carrying the migrants until the boat stopped.“This means that our accord with Libya is working excellently: it works, and the results are there to be seen”.

In the late summer of 2008, of Italian Minister of the Interior, Roberto Maroni insisted that the new approach worked.  “Repulsion, is the same as saying taking the irregular migrants back to their place of departure. Repatriation means sending them back to their countries of origin, with all the bureaucracy that involves,” said Maroni as he claimed a 92% reduction in irregular migrant arrivals.

The EU border patrol mission did not engage in pushbacks but benefited from the get tough agreement. In April. 2010 the joint four year Frontex operation called Operation Nautilus ended and became Operation Chronos, a program to focus on “returning illegal immigrants to their country of origin “. In a prepared statement they estimated that “only 3,300 illegal immigrants reached Malta and Lampedusa last year, less than half the number registered in the previous year” Frontex distanced itself from the joint Libyan/Italian agreement.lkka Laitenen, head of Frontex insisted that “Frontex had no authority to scrutinise such matters.”

The total number of boat migrants who successfully reached Italy was a mere 9,573 people. The pushback and tough policing had worked. But only temporarily and only in the Central Mediterranean, refugees simply moved to the Western crossing into Spain.

In September of 2010, a Libyan patrol boat with Italian Guardia di Finanza officers and support crew aboard shot at an o Italian fishing trawler which they suspected was smuggling migrants. The bullet riddled fishing boat turned out to be just fishing about 30 miles off the coast of Libya. Libya apologized but it was clear the reckless approach to fighting migration had escalated too far.  

In 2011, when the revolution began in Libya the number of migrants skyrocketed back to 61,000. In February of 2012, Italy was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for this policy in 2009.

UNHCR Chart of Migrant Arrivals.

UNHCR Chart of Migrant Arrivals.


Refoulemant is the term for the forced return of people and vessels without properly determining the risk of abuse or torture or affording them their UN-mandated right to ask for asylum.

The odd sounding term is literally the French word for “backwash”. More clinically, it means, the “return of a refugee to his country of origin”, was legislated against in the 1951 Refugee Convention and again in the 1954 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees.  It is considered the cornerstone of human rights jurisprudence as it relates to refugees.

Human rights lawyers in Europe, mindful of the last great war, had fought hard to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers could find safe harbour, when fleeing persecution or war.  Libya under Gaddafi was not the ideal place to return desperate people seeking the safety of Europe, but together Italy and Libya pulled the people back.

Back then about 75% of the migrants who arrived by sea applied for asylum and half of those requests were granted. It was clear that the people aboard these boats were in need of shelter and safety.

According to the Libyan Coast Guard, they were supposed to receive brand new ships like, the Italian built P350lar patrol boat in 2010. A Libyan Coast Guard spokesman in a May 15, 2015 interview with the Financial Times estimates they lost thirty boats, or 70% of their ship capability during NATO strikes, leaving small tugs and Sillinger rigid inflatables to do their work. In addition to the four 32 meter patrol ships, Italy has promised, a training program involving 87 Libyan Coast Guard members but no visas were issued.

But the honeymoon between Berloscuni and Gaddafi ended in March 2011 when Italy allowed NATO aircraft to use Italy to bomb Libya. Gaddafi was so angry at his betrayal that he threatened to turn Lampedusa into a “inferno by infiltrating refugees with armed fighters”.

Half a decade later that has failed to happen, Gaddafi is dead and Berlusconi is no longer in power, in more ways than one.

In 2014 IOM estimates  2014 over 3,200 migrants died at sea trying to reach Italy,  85,000 people were rescued by the Italian Navy, 35,000 by the Italian Coast Guard and 40,000 by 237 commercial ships. Estimates for 2015, with 110,000 migrants rescued only half way through the year show that the number will likely increase.