Italy’s immigration deal with Libya sparks uproar

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Human rights groups have expressed outrage at an Italian agreement to send immigrants back to Libya without screening them for asylum claims, tarnishing Muammar Gaddafi’s “historic” visit to Italy, which ends on 12 June.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi personally welcomed Gaddafi on Wednesday during his first visit to Italy, staged as an historic closure of a “painful chapter” in the two countries’ past. 

In the meantime, hundreds of people demonstrated in a Rome square to draw attention to what they described as Libya’s poor human rights record. 

On the business side, Italy agreed to pay Libya a $5 billion reparations deal over its 1911-43 colonial rule. But in fact, most of the money is Italian investment committed over 20 years, and no transfer of sums will take place. Libya is also pumping petrodollars into major Italian companies like UniCredit and Eni, as well as supplying a quarter of Italy’s oil imports. 

Under a ‘Treaty of Friendship’, the two countries agreed to cooperate in fighting illegal immigration. The pact allows Italy’s coastguard to swiftly deport boatloads of illegal immigrants back to Libyan shores, skipping procedures for filing potential asylum applications. 

Human right groups claim the agreement violates Italy’s international human right obligations by dumping migrants and asylum seekers on Libya. Italy stands accused of handing over immigrants to Libya, which is not party to the United Nations Refugee Convention and has no asylum system. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the visit was a celebration of the “dirty deal” on immigration. According to HRW, Libya has a “dismal record of abuse and mistreatment of migrants caught trying to flee the country by boat, and cannot seriously be regarded as a partner in any scheme that claims to protect refugees”. 

The centre-left Democratic Party, the anti-corruption ‘Italy of Values’ party and the Radical Party opposed the visit and lambasted the immigration deals. In a recent interview with EURACTIV, former EU commissioner and Radical Party leader Emma Bonino said that under Berlusconi’s tenure, there was a “total lack of respect for the rule of law” in fields such as the media, the justice system and immigration (EURACTIV 03/06/09). 

Background

Muammar Gaddafi has ruled Libya since taking power in 1969 in a military coup. He is the world's longest-serving head of state. 

In theory, Gaddafi holds no official position in his 'government by the masses', or 'Jamahiriya'. But in practice, he governs with an iron fist, as basic civil liberties are non-existent and opposition is not tolerated. 

Libya endured economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation as a result of terrorist attacks in the 1980s, which were believed to have been commissioned by Triopli. These included the 1988 bombing of a US jumbo jet, which crashed in the town of Lockerbie in Scotland, and the explosion of a French airliner above the Sahara desert in 1989. 

However, the oil-rich country managed to attract Western investors and gradually re-negotiated its return to the international community, notably by paying huge compensation to the families of the victims of the bombed airplanes. It also abandoned its weapons of mass destruction programme. 

In 2004, British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Libya, ending a long period of diplomatic isolation. In 2007, French President Nicolas Sarkozy helped end the seven-year long ordeal of six foreign medical workers, sentenced to death in Libya over accusations of deliberately infecting 426 Bengazi children with HIV. In 2008, then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Libya. 

Further Reading

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