Brutalist
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Europe is Making a Lot of Shady Deals in Libya


Europe has succeeded in choking off the immigrant stream from Libya. Yet human trafficking has hardly ceased. The Libyan militias use it as political security, just as Khadhafi did.

If you cannot defeat an enemy, then make him your friend. With this folksy wisdom in mind, Italy has apparently succeeded in massively reducing the immigrant stream from the Libyan coast. In the middle of July, the number of arrivals on Italy’s coast took a nosedive. Where, up to then, 5,000 boat refugees per day were arriving on European soil, afterwards it was only a few hundred. If the reports from foreign correspondents in Libya are to be believed, Italy out-leveraged the traffickers with their own corrupt methods. Rome simply paid the local militias more than the traffickers.

Five Million Euros a Month

The Libyan unity government in Tripoli already receives many millions from the EU to counter illegal immigration. However, as two security officers in Sabratha reported to the AP, the Italian payments flowed directly to the local militias of the influential Dabashi clan. Members of the Italian secret service had handled the transaction without government participation. “The traffickers of yesterday are today’s foes of trafficking.”

These tales are compatible with the report of the journalist Francesca Mannocchi for Middle East Eye. According to that, the militias received five million euros to prevent the immigrants from getting into a boat for at least a month. A spokesman for the Dabashi militia described the agreement to the AP as a “ceasefire.” If his brigade receives no more support from Europe, trafficking will be back.

A Mafia System

The Dabashis are one of the most influential clans west of Tripoli. They are said to be involved in not only human trafficking, but petroleum smuggling. It is fortuitous that their militia members are guarding the Meliitah refinery between Sabratha and Zuara, which is a subsidiary of the Italian energy company, Eni. So the fox is guarding the henhouse. And as a recent UN report shows, this is not an exception, but SOP in Libya. Accordingly, the head of the so-called “guards of petroleum infrastructure” in Zawiya are involved in the smuggling of the black gold. One of his business partners is the commandment of the local coast guard, Abd al-Rahman Milad, who decides what ships may launch into the sea, and ruthlessly wields his authority to cash in. No matter whether the boats carry people or oil.

From Libya, the petroleum goes to Malta, Greece, Turkey or Italy itself. The Libyan militias, it is said, are helped in this dark enterprise by the Sicilian Mafia. Critics therefore warn against enlisting these militias in the fight against immigration and strengthening them through generous payments. “This brings good results for the moment, but in the long run, it leads to even greater chaos. It is a Mafia system,” says the investigative reporter Nancy Porsia, who has been reporting from Tripoli for a long time. Now she is waiting in Tunis for an entry visa. It is not clear if she will get one. Libyan authorities apparently do not appreciate anyone peering behind their facade.

Missing Alternatives

This strategy is also risky, because the militias and their smuggling business are not especially popular among the general populace. When 600 refugees drowned in the water off Zuwara in August 2015, public resistance to the smugglers took shape, and they were driven out of town. Perhaps for this reason too, Italy is pursuing a broader course of action. Because there is no functioning central government, Rome is negotiating with over a dozen Libyan mayors, whose cities are located either on the coast or in the south of the country. The Italian government promises them economic and humanitarian help, if they stop the smugglers’ activities. So, for instance, the university hospital in Sabratha has already received eleven tons of medical supplies.

Whoever criticizes the EU and Italy for their methods must also consider the alternatives. After Khadhafi’s fall, in 2011, Europe and the USA tried very patiently to integrate the often Islamic militias in the west of Libya into a new state. And did this even after the militias had driven out the newly elected parliament in 2014, thus contributing to the splitting of the country. The hope persisted that the new Libya should rise from below rather than by diktat from above.

As a counter to that in the east of Libya, Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates built up Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, who intends to reunite the quarreling clans and tribes with an iron hand. New hope flickered after the formation of the unity government of Fayez al-Sarai. But it, too, could not bridge the gap between east and west, nor bring the militias in and around Tripoli under control. In this power vacuum, there is no other option but to cooperate with the powerful militias to quickly control the burgeoning trafficking in human beings. The only alternative would be a military intervention with all its attendant risks.

The Traffickers — Khadhafi’s Watch Dogs

After Khadhafi’s fall, the smuggling networks grew to enormous proportions, driven above all by the numerous Syrian refugees. They had already existed during the dictator’s time. But they were controlled by his regime instead of countless warlords. Like the militias today, Khadhafi used the emigrants as political pressure. The dictator repeatedly thundered that he was the only one who could save Europe from becoming black. In 2009, he reached an understanding with the Italian government of Silvio Berlusconi similar to today’s with Morocco and Turkey. Rome promised to invest $200 million in Libyan infrastructure. And the Italians produced new ships for Libya’s coast guard. In return, boat refugees discovered on the Mediterranean were returned to Libya. Human Rights Watch at the time spoke of a “shady deal” and criticized the abuse of emigrants in Libyan prisons.

So the story repeats itself. Except that Europe is not buying the favor of a great dictator in Libya, but of many small clans, tribes and warlords.

Local Powers as Partners

Mayors of Libyan harbor cities are to see that no more immigrant boats leave Libya for Italy. They are the central partners in the Italian strategy to prevent undesirable immigration. The Italian Minister of the interior Marco Minniti explained that this week at a public event in Pesaro on the Adriatic coast.

Cooperation with Libyan mayors is not just about police pursuit of the traffickers, but also about economic re-building. In cities like Sabratha, human trafficking is presently the most important economic activity. Alternative means of gainful employment are needed. Fourteen Libyan mayors have already proposed master plans for the economic renewal of their cries — they are ready for their task.

According to the Ministry of the Interior, the deal with the mayors is simple. “I say to you that, if they help us against human smuggling and control of the immigrant stream from central Africa, we will support them with constructing a new economy in their territories.” At the immigration summit in Paris on Monday, the Italian proposal was welcome. Minniti also had a cost proposal for the EU: six billion euros for closing off the immigration via the Mediterranean — the same as the Balkan route.

Minniti’s strategy is innovative and original. In Libya, the central government is not really functional, so he is turning to the local authorities in the coastal cities, who have some control over their territories.

With this, the Italian is reaching back into the history of his own land. Municipal republics shaped its history for centuries. Only in the 19th century did the Italian national state emerge as a political and territorial unit. But the power of the cities is firmly entrenched in Italian thought to this day.

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