Perhaps one of the least-talked about tragedies of the Libyan civil war and international intervention is the huge refugee crisis that it has engendered.
Italy is one of the most popular destination country for people fleeing the violence; the Italian island of Lampedusa is just a few days journey from Libya via small boat or dingy. Upon arrival, migrants are treated not as refugees seeking relief from a conflict zone, but as illegal immigrants. What’s worse, a new agreement between the governing council in Benghazi and the Italian government raises the prospect that refugees seeking asylum will be forced back to Libya.
In the name of the fight against ‘illegal immigration’, and the fear of creating a ‘pull factor’, the European states risk denying refugees and asylum seekers the protection and humane treatment to which they are entitled, and condemning them to a situation of limbo that increases their suffering. As an illustration of this irresponsible and inhumane policy, Italy has already renewed, with the National Transitional Council, its previous cooperation agreement with Libya, re-opening the possibility of intercepting and returning ‘boat people’—including asylum seekers and refugees—to a war-torn Libya and an uncertain fate.
The influx of boat people on the Italian coasts does not constitute ‘illegal immigration’, but a flight toward survival, safety and protection. The ‘responsibility to protect’, invoked for the military intervention in Libya, does not stop at Libya’s borders and equally applies to all civilians, including those refugees and migrants who were living, working or transiting through Libya and are direct victims of the conflict.
What makes this all the more disturbing is that Italy is part of the NATO-led coalition fighting in Libya, and as such, bears some responsibility for the conflict. Yet, it would appear that the Italian government is unwilling to live up to their international obligations to prevent the “refoulement” of refugees.
About 18,000 people have fled from Libya to Lampedusa since the fighting began. And about 1,800 people have drowned at sea during the journey. That means for every 10 people that make it, one person dies along the way. Still, refugees seem to be willing to put their lives on the line because conditions in the war zone are just that bad.
Imagine that a family has miraculously made it to Italian shores on an un-seaworthy dingy, only to be intercepted and brought back to the war zone. It is just unconscionable. You can do better, Italy.