By Alessandra Bocchi.
Tunis, 8 March 2017:
The Italian government is looking to seal a deal with Niger that it hopes will dramatically cut back migration from sub-Saharan Africa through Libya and from there across the Mediterranean to Italy and elsewhere in Europe.
“After the deal with Libya, the Italian government is now focusing on reaching a deal with Niger – the southern neighbouring country of Libya, and the main transit country for migrants coming from the Horn of Africa,” said Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano at a meeting yesterday in Turin.
In fact, the overwhelming bulk of all migrants crossing the Sahara into Libya pass through Niger, with the central Nigerien town of Agadez now the main migrant portal into Libya.
The Libya deal to which Alfano was referring is the controversial one with the Libyan Presidency Council in early February which included the deportation of migrants from Italy back into Libya. It received almost unanimous criticism, both within Libya and from international organisations – by Libyans because it makes Libya responsible for the transit trade, and by international groups for its failure to address humanitarian concerns within Libya.
Alfano said yesterday that if a deal could be reached with Niger, Italy would then help Libya with removing migrants from it. However, he did not clarify how that would be done.
In a related development, he told the Italian parliament today that Italy fully supported the EU’s naval operation Sophia under which it could enter Libyan territorial waters to stop human trafficking.
Libyans of all sides of the divide have, however, have widely rejected the notion of the EU vessels entering its territorial waters without permission.
The issue is a sensitive one. In January, when the San Giorgio, an Italian navel vessel currently operating with the EU’s Operation Sophia against human trafficking, docked in Libya to return a number of Libya coast guard cadets who had been training onboard, it was condemned by the Beida-based government of Abdullah Thinni as an illegal intrusion into Libyan waters.