Sea of Troubles

The Italian government’s reluctance to grant safe harbour to refugees

Migrants looking at the Mediterranean Sea after being rescued. Within days of renewed agreements with Libya, on 4 November 2022, the Giorgia Meloni government refused safe port to the ships Humanity 1 and Geo Barents. Samuel Nacar/SOPA Images/Getty Images
31 December, 2022

“I was just a child when I left Mali,” Mamadou said. “I travelled a long way arriving in Libya, but after the fall of Gaddafi, the socio-political situation in the country…” His voice trailed off, as he stirred the remaining sugar at the bottom of his cup. “I ended up in prison. There, my body went through all the torture of the world.” He continued, “One day, the Libyans dumped us on the beach. I had never seen the sea.” From the coast, Mamadou saw the Mediterranean Sea for the first time. “Libyans ordered us to inflate the boat to enter the sea. Those who refused were killed. So, I trusted fate and I crossed the sea.” He boarded the boat with about a hundred people but, seven miles off the Libyan coast, the engine broke down. They remained at sea for seven days and seven nights. He arrived in Italy in 2015. “There were about a hundred people on the boat but only forty people arrived in Italy. I don’t know how I survived. Now I would like to help others and say Libya is hell.”

For most refugees, the journey to Europe by sea is perilous. On 3 October 2013, 368 people died off the coast of Lampedusa, Sicily, in southern Italy—by far the most devastating migrant shipwreck. Since then, more than twenty-nine thousand migrants have died trying to reach Europe. On 2 November 2022, Italy tacitly renewed a memorandum with Libya, to curb the arrivals of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

Humanitarian groups, including Amnesty International Italy, have said the memorandum can create “conditions for the violation of the rights of migrants and refugees.” The pact, signed in 2017, provides for support to the Libyan coast guard through funding and training, for which Italy has already spent at least a hundred and fifty million euros over the past five years. According to a 2021 Amnesty International report titled, “No one will come looking for you,” migrants intercepted and returned to Libyan territory suffer all kinds of abuses, including sexual violence, in Libyan detention centres. For the same year, NGO International Rescue Committee reported that in the first eight months alone, more than twenty-three thousand people had been repatriated to Libya.

Within days of renewed agreements with Libya, on 4 November 2022, the Giorgia Meloni government refused safe port to the ship Humanity 1, run by German charity SOS Humanity, and another ship, Geo Barents, operated by Médecins Sans Frontieres—also known as Doctors Without Borders—carrying 179 and 572 rescued migrants respectively. After the delay and selective disembarkation, a total of 35 and 215 migrants remained on the vessels. The interior minister Matteo Piantedosi called them “residual cargo,” directing the ships to leave Italian territorial waters. The ships remained docked at the Catania pier as the European Commission called on Italy not to commit human rights violations. Throughout the country, there were demonstrations in support of the migrants stranded on the boats, most of whom had fled Libya.