Italy reopened its embassy in Libya -- and it could be central to the future of the migrant crisis

LONDON — The Italian embassy in Libya reopened on Monday — and an expert has told us that it could be central to the future of the European migrant crisis.

The Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti announced the decision on Monday. The embassy closed in 2015 along with all other Western embassies as the North African country descended into a state of violence.

The fall of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 created a power vacuum that violent militias and ISIS tried to take advantage of.

It is no coincidence that Italy’s embassy was the last to close and is the first to re-open. In 2016, Italy saw a record number of migrant arrivals from North Africa, the main country through which African migrants converge to reach Europe. It is a flow the country is desperately trying to stem.

“The link between Libya and migration has been there, at least for Italy, since the early 2000s. The surge of migrations in 2013 put a new spotlight on the issue as the numbers grew from an average of 30-40,000 per year to 150-180,000 per year,” Mattia Toaldo, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Business Insider over email.

In 2008, then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi signed an agreement with Gaddafi stipulating that Italy would pay Libya $5 billion over 25 years as a repayment for its occupation of Libya in the first half of the 20th century. In return, the African agreed to help stem the flow of migrants to Europe.

“Since the collapse and the division of the Libyan central government in the summer of 2014, Italians suffered from the lack of interlocutors in Tripoli,” Toaldo explained. “This is why the opening of the embassy was so important.”

Libya’s Foreign Minister Mohamad Taher Siala said he had agreed with Minniti to once again launch joint initiatives to fight illegal immigration and oil smuggling, AFP reports. “We have agreed to build new relations of cooperation on the basis of the friendship treaty signed in 2008,” Siala said.

A wider strategy of ‘migration compacts’

Although Libya is key to Italy’s fight against migration from Africa, it is “part of a wider strategic of ‘migration compacts’,” that then Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi established last year, Toaldo explains.

Those compacts are “a series of agreements between the EU and countries of origin in Africa in which the EU would give money and equipment in exchange for containment of migrations and accepting the forced return of their migrants. Niger is the centrepiece of this strategy.”

And Italy is not the only country in Europe striking deals with African countries in an effort to stem migration. Germany has started to put in motion a plan that will see the German government give over €200 million to some African countries — Nigeria, Niger, and Mali among others — in order to fight the causes of the mass migration from the continent.

But, Libya will become even more central to the European migrant crisis in 2017. “It already was in the second half of 2016,” Toaldo points out, as Italy became the main entry point to Europe for migrants.

Some 181,000 migrants arrived in Italy last year from North Africa, the highest number ever recorded and 20% more than last year, according to Frontex. And while migration from the Middle East already represented a huge challenge for the EU — migration from Africa risks becoming an even bigger one.

“The flow from Syria and Iraq is somewhat contingent while that from Africa is structural. Some European citizens support welcoming refugees from Syria while support for African economic migrants among public opinion is extremely low,” Toaldo said.

The biggest migration of people in Europe since World War II that began in 2015 has been affecting the whole of the EU. It has turned long-time allies against each other and seen the popularity of far-right parties soar across the continent.

Europe’s response to the crisis was not a united one, it let some of its most struggling members bear the brunt of it all. Its solution was a deal with Turkey, that stipulated that the EU would be able to send back some migrants and that Turkey would keep migrants from crossing into Greece in exchange for money and expedited VISA-free travel for Turkish citizens inside the EU.

Now, it seems that Europe is once again going to rely on a deal with another country — one that is in a very fragile state — instead of facing the problem head on.

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