The Tide Turns: Italy Brings Force to Bear in the Med


[ This is the first of my weekly reports covering the migrant crisis in the central Mediterranean and international intervention in Libya. It is an exception in that it will cover the last two weeks in order to provide more background and establish the broader narrative. ]

The last months in the Mediterranean have been among the most dramatic since the migrant crisis started in 2014. Over a matter of weeks the seemingly unstoppable exodus from Libya has been reduced to less than half its volume. This article will chronicle events from August 2, 2017, when Italy ordered the NGOs picking up migrants off the coast of Libya to sign a code of conduct, to August 15, by which time most of the NGOs had ceased operations and Italian naval ships had entered Libyan waters.

When Italy proposed its NGO code of conduct on August 2, which NGOs argued threatened their neutrality and diminished the efficacy of their operations, only three of the eight operating in the Med signed it. These were Save the Children, MOAS and Proactiva Open Arms. The other five, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Sea-Watch, Sea-Eye, Jugend Rettet and SOS Mediterranee refused. If it was an attempt to call Italy’s bluff – understandable since Italy had been complaining about NGOs for years without doing anything – they miscalculated.

Italy moved quickly and on August 2 impounded the Iuventa, a small ship manned by the volunteers of the German NGO Jugend Rettet. The Iuventa had refused to sign the code and found itself boarded and sequestered by Italian authorities. An interesting article published by the Huffington Post (unfortunately only in Italian) explains the crew’s globalist ideology that involves social-engineering and the abolition of European nations’ ethnic identities.

The official motivations for the sequester vacillated between a regular search and suspicions of people smuggling, but the main objective was for the Italians to show they weren’t messing around. Their confidence renewed after squashing one of the smallest NGOs in the game, the Italians went after NGO Proactiva Open Arms, which runs the search-and-rescue ship Golfo Azzurro. On August 6, Italy denied the Golfo Azzurro entry to dock and disembark its migrants, forcing the ship to turn back to Malta where it was also denied entry. Three days of wild gesticulation followed until the Golfo Azzurro was allowed to dock in Sicily, but not without having spent some uncomfortable nights at sea and providing a useful reminder (of which there can never be too many) that Malta has been unwilling to take in any seaborne migrants during the crisis despite being a far closer “safe port” to Libya than any Italian one.

While it was harassing the NGOs, Italy simultaneously authorized a naval mission to Libya with the mission of assisting Libya’s array of coast guards/pirates in stopping migrants from setting out to sea. This caused a general hullabaloo about Libyan sovereignty and the danger of Italians re-colonizing the desert, and even attracted some impolite bomb threats from Libya’s de facto ruler of the eastern part of the country, Khalifa Haftar. But much to their credit, the Italians stuck it out and the ship remains docked at Tripoli.

Over the last few weeks the Libyan coast guard has stopped far more migrants than it used to. Over 800 were stopped and returned to Libya on August 6. The number of migrants making it into the arms of NGOs and Italian navy ships was in July was half the amount of the previous month, and so far August hasn’t seen much more than 2,000. In part, this is because the Libyans have been shooting in the air above the NGO ships straddling Libyan territorial waters, causing three of the larger NGOs – Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Save the Children and SeaEye – to call off their operations. Meanwhile, Italian prosecutors also said they were investigating MSF for picking up migrants near the Libyan coast when there was no immediate threat to their safety – an accusation that, if true, could carry charges of people smuggling.

“In general, we do not reject (NGO) presence, but we demand from them more cooperation with the state of Libya … they should show more respect to the Libyan sovereignty,” coastguard spokesman Ayoub Qassem told Reuters on Sunday, in a fit of nationalistic fervor.

Although I’ve not been able to find an actual Libyan saying it, on August 13 Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said Libya was ready to establish a search and rescue area beyond their national territorial waters. The sudden Libyan passion for delineating maritime boundaries is no doubt influenced by the Italians, who have decided to act decisively and, brushing the NGOs aside, needed assurance that the sea wouldn’t immediately fill up with migrants’ dead bodies.

And despite my sometimes flippant tone, there’s no denying that serious consideration must be given to the fate of the migrants who are turned back to Libya where, by all accounts, only suffering awaits them. There is a strong moral argument the countries that led the overthrow of Gaddafi through air raids and naval bombardment – mainly France, the UK and the US – must do something to stabilize Libya.

Of course, since the above countries washed their hands of Libya after launching their bombs in 2011, it is doubtful they will be of any help now. But their moral obligations must be pointed out anyway. In addition to my hollow rhetoric, Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said on August 8 that the UN had to get involved in Libya, which was about as resonant as a tree falling in the woods.

But things are changing fast and Italy’s die has been cast. Migrant arrivals are down, an Italian navy ship in Libya is making warlords’ trigger fingers itch, and NGO boats are being harassed and leaving the scene. The Italians are no doubt patting themselves on the back and enjoying this interlude in which migrants have stopped coming and Libyans haven’t started fighting. Is it the eye of the storm?

Italy’s distant hope is that with migrants unable to set sail, they won’t be drowning at sea and consequently fewer will travel to Libya in the first place, slowly defusing the situation.

But Libyan warlords are dependent on migrant smuggling and so far international players have done little to stop them. Nobody knows how to upset the balance without risking a full-scale war. Yet as more migrants remain in Libya and less income falls into the hands of smugglers and their patrons, it is possible that the economic readjustment will prompt someone to pull a trigger.

The claim that African migration to Europe is an unstoppable epochal phenomenon was bolstered on August 10 when a shocking video emerged of migrants landing on a beach in Spain like drunken Navy Seals. Spain saw four times its usual amount of migrant arrivals in July just as they diminished in Italy.

In lighter news, the C-Star, a boat run by young anti-immigrant Europeans with a vastly exaggerated sense of self-importance, has been having engine troubles off the coast of Libya. One of the NGO ships they despise offered to give them a hand but they declined, claiming that they had stopped in an optimal position from which to shout at migrants with their megaphone.

Until next week,



WRITE TO ME about any factual inaccuracies or gross generalizations/misrepresentations – I will correct them. As for my opinions, they are incorrigible.


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