Photo source: Flickr user piervincenzocanale
Photo source: Flickr user piervincenzocanale
Migration Agreements between Italy and North Africa: Domestic Imperatives versus International Norms
Abandoned ship used by migrants in Lampedusa, Italy

The upheavals which spread across North Africa in 2011 changed the political map of the region. With the downfall of longstanding rulers, the European Union has sought to re-launch a policy dialogue informed by an awareness of human rights issues and to support the process of democratic transition in its Mediterranean neighbors. In this context, dialogue with third countries on migration unearths deep-seated contradictions in the EU’s normative agenda and its aspirations towards neighboring countries.[1] The analysis of migration policies in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring offers an insightful case study on the multifaceted nature of the contending priorities and motivation of the European normative stance vis-à-vis the North African countries. In this short analysis, I consider the Italian bilateral agreements on the issue of migration co-signed with Tunisia, Libya and Egypt in 2011 and 2012.

Recent developments in the domain of EU-Mediterranean cooperation have already received extensive attention both in both academic and policy circles.[2] Scholars and practitioners have analyzed the extent to which ongoing multilateral exchanges in the area of migration serve to enhance democratization and the promotion of the rule of law. In what follows I review the bilateral agreements between Italy and North African countries with a view to examining the reasons behind the persistent privileging of border security over the human rights agenda as regards both the content of these agreements and the actual measures implemented. Two explanations are put forward: (1) the predominance of domestic considerations over international human rights obligations[3] and (2) the routinization and standardization of pre-existing values and practices of decision making, and inherent resistance to potential new ones.[4]

This analysis is divided into two sections. First, I review in turn the bilateral agreements on migration which Italy has drawn up with Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. Secondly, I compare the three cases and consider elements of continuity and discontinuity in comparison with past practice. In so doing I focus on domestic oriented mindsets and the entrenchment of established approaches to operationalization.

Empirical analysis: Italian agreements with Tunisia, Libya and Egypt

Relations between Italy and Libya have long been framed by the issue of migration. This has been a subject of discussion in bilateral meetings between the two countries since at least the late 1990s. It is notable that under governments led by both the center-right and center-left political coalitions Italy has sought to seal agreements with Libya to bring irregular migration under control, together with trafficking and terrorism. On February 26, 2011, the Friendship Treaty signed between Italy and Libya on August 31, 2008 was suspended by the Italian government,[5] and on April 4, 2011, Italy recognized Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC). Despite changes in the political spectrum, the objectives of both countries in the area of migration have remained unaltered. On June 17, 2011, the Italian government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Transitional Council. This one-and-a-half-page document focuses on measures to reduce “illegal migration,” and in it Italy and the NTC commit to exchange information on migration flows and engage in mutual assistance to combat irregular migration, including the repatriation of “illegal immigrants.”[6]

With the gradual normalization of the situation in Libya, bilateral engagements have been consolidated further. Between December 12 and 14, 2011, an Italian ministerial mission met with a delegation of the Libyan government in Rome.[7] The two parties confirmed their willingness to restore bilateral cooperation, with particular reference to vocational training, the Sahara Med "multi-purpose centre” project in Kufra, the establishment of a joint maritime patrol, and DNA identification techniques. In addition, the possibility was discussed of setting up a so-called “office of friendship” between the police of the two countries in Benghazi and Misratah. Another issue treated was the reorganization of Libya’s civil police forces. Subsequently, the Italian Department of Public Safety convened a number of specialized training sessions. For example, on March 12, 2012, 24 representatives of the Libyan police attended a course on forensic analysis in Rome.[8]

Two other events marked the consolidation of Italian-Libyan agreements on migration in 2012. During a meeting on January 21, 2012, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and his Libyan counterpart Abdurrahim El-Keib further discussed the possibility of collaboration on an electronic integrated border control management system to be manned and operated by the Libyan authorities.[9] On this occasion, the two parties signed the “Declaration of Tripoli,” which reportedly encompasses the main provisions of the treaty signed previously by Berlusconi.[10] In a follow-up visit on April 3, 2012, the Italian Minister of the Interior, Annamaria Cancellieri, signed the so-called “Processo Verbale” on migration control. The text was eventually published by the Italian newspaper La Stampa in June 2012.[11]

This agreement entails training programs for the Libyan police, and the establishment of centers for nautical training, the detection of false documents, and the detention of migrants. Furthermore, Italy committed to build a health center in Kufra and to request the European Commission’s financial contribution to cover the re-establishment of other reception centers in Libya.[12] Importantly, training was targeted to the police in order to ensure control over Libya’s coastal borders, to facilitate the voluntary return of migrants to their countries of origin in cooperation with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the establishment of a system of data management solutions for civil registration.[13]

As part of these efforts, Italy undertook to provide the necessary technical support to strengthen Libya’s capacity to control its southern border. In the same vein, the two countries committed to re-launch the activities of the “Sah-Med” project with the support of the European Commission.[14] Following an inter- ministerial conference on border security, held in Libya on March 11–12, 2012, the two countries planned to establish a joint working group, with jurisdiction over issues related to voluntary return, expulsions, social, and economic integration, and respect for the human rights of migrants, and to explore further solutions to the problem of “illegal” immigration.[15]

Similar trends are to be found in Italian-Tunisian relations. The engagement between Italy and Tunisia dates back to the late 1990s. On August 6, 1998 Italy and Tunisia signed a readmission and police cooperation agreement in which Italy committed to provide Tunisia with technical, operational and financial support, as well as preferential treatment with regard to immigration quotas.[16] On December 13, 2003 a further police cooperation agreement was signed.[17] This entailed training the Tunisian police to reinforce control of the maritime border with Italy through technical assistance and closer cooperation between the two countries.[18] Successive agreements over the years allowed the two countries to further consolidate their collaboration on migration and specifically on readmission and police cooperation.[19] Unsurprisingly, re-engagement following the demise of Ben Ali has left the manner and content of this bilateral collaboration unchanged.

In the midst of an escalating influx of irregular migrants from Tunisia, on April 5, 2011 Italy and Tunisia signed an “exchange of notes.”[20] This accord, whose precise contents remain undisclosed at the time of writing, set concrete measures to prevent irregular arrivals in Italy and to repatriate Tunisian nationals arriving in the country.[21] Over 20,000 Tunisian migrants who landed in Italy between January 1 and April 5, 2011 were granted temporary protection status[22] and, in principle, free circulation within the Schengen area.[23] Conversely, Tunisians arriving in Italy after April 5, 2011 would be returned to Tunisia.[24] To most Italian politicians, the immediate decrease in migrants from Tunisia to Italy since the agreement came into force constituted evidence of its success.[25] As the Italian Minister of the Interior declared on May 31, “the agreement with Tunisia works. In fact since April the number of arrivals from Tunisia has decreased.”[26]

Discussions continued in 2012. On March 22, 2012, the Italian Minister of the Interior, Annamaria Cancellieri, stated that the negotiations with Tunisia to reach an agreement on the fight against irregular migration were at an advanced stage and an agreement was soon to be signed.[27] In September, the two countries met again to discuss maritime incidents.[28] On December 1, 2012, the Interior Minister, Annamaria Cancellieri, accompanied by the Chief of Police, Antonio Manganelli, and the Minister of the Interior of the Republic of Tunisia, Ali Laarayedh, formally handed over to the Tunisian authorities two patrol boats to be used for the control of migration flows in the Mediterranean.[29] It can thus be argued that both before and after the crisis, Italy’s continuing objective has been to reduce irregular migration from Tunisia. Likewise, Tunisia’s pre-existing commitment towards the prevention of irregular migration has been maintained in the post-Ben Ali era.

Italian-Egyptian negotiations in the field of migration also display significant continuity before and after the revolution. An early agreement on police cooperation, organized crime and terrorism was sealed on June 18, 2000. Subsequently the two countries reached an agreement on employment on November 29, 2005 and on January 9, 2007 the Cooperation Agreement on readmission was signed in Rome. December 22, 2009 saw the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding, also intended to contain irregular migration.[30] On May 5, 2010, Roberto Maroni, the then Minister of the Interior, accompanied by the Chief of Police, Antonio Manganelli, met his Egyptian counterpart Habib Ibrahim El Adly in Cairo to discuss security matters. On the occasion Italy handed over to Egyptian authorities two boats to control territorial waters and counteract the departure of irregular migrants.[31]

With the fall of the Mubarak regime, Italy continued diplomatic dialogue with the temporary military rulers on a wide range of issues, including migration. On May 17, 2011, Italy and Egypt signed a Memorandum of Understanding on migration and employment.[32] The accord was intended to support activities in the area of vocational training and envisions the creation of a Coordination Office in Cairo for the selection of would-be migrants to Italy.[33] Egypt’s interim government committed to respect the agreement signed by the two countries in 2009 on irregular migration and youth employability through ad hoc training activities.[34] Accordingly, between January and September 2011, Italy repatriated Egyptian nationals who had reached Italy irregularly.[35] In 2011 alone, 1,662 Egyptian nationals were repatriated.[36] As the Italian Interior Minister put it, “the repatriation of Egyptian nationals landing on Italian shores is a process taking place 24 hours a day: those arriving are repatriated immediately.”[37]

Continuity and change

This brief empirical excursus into the bilateral relations between Italy and three countries of North Africa demonstrates numerous elements of continuity pointing to the dominance of domestic interests over human rights considerations. As the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) observed in the case of the agreements signed with Tunisia and Egypt, nationals from these countries who irregularly enter Italy are processed quickly. The fact that once identified by their consulates these migrants are often returned within 48 hours to their respective countries, and are often held in ad hoc or temporary facilities that are not systematically accessible, raises human rights concerns.[38] Arguably, these trends point to the persistent centrality of security priorities. According to OHCHR, this applies specifically in the case of Libya:

This new political framework however, contains very little concrete information on strengthening Libya’s normative framework and institutional capacities regarding the human rights of migrants. Moreover, I have learnt of increased bilateral cooperation between Italian and Libyan authorities regarding search and rescue operations, including the provision of logistical and technical support to Libyan coast guards. Whilst increased search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean is undoubtedly of paramount importance, I have observed that there appears to be a strong focus on strengthening the capacities of the Libyan authorities to intercept migrants hoping to reach Europe, on both their territory and in their territorial waters, and return them to Libya.[39]

A similar concern is raised by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH):

It is very worrying that, although the European political establishment is well aware of the situation of insecurity faced by migrants and asylum seekers in Libya and the serious violations of their human rights, the objective of controlling migration continues to outweigh all other considerations.[40]

In other words, the re-engagement between Italy and North Africa since 2011 shows the continuation of a trend whereby border control is prioritized over a more comprehensive human rights policy framework. The sweeping changes in the political landscape brought by the Arab Spring are at odds with the persistent prominence of domestically driven security considerations. Existing coordination mechanisms confirm the institutionalization of security-driven policies. On the one hand, the content of the agreements and the measures implemented by non-EU countries are in tension with the priorities enshrined in international human rights norms.[41] On the other hand, the crystallization of the security paradigm exposes once again the contentiousness of domestic interests. The subtle reinforcement of what Cassarino calls the “hierarchy of priorities”[42] biased towards border and security is linked to the need of politicians to appease populist demands and quench deepening anti-migrant sentiments. Fear-mongering on the themes of migration and on alleged invasions from North Africa to Italy is part and parcel of electoral and party dynamics.[43]

Another explanation for the consistent commitment of both Italy and its counterparts to a security-oriented approach lies in the standardization of language, expectations and behaviors which have the effect of presenting migration policy as a domain “beyond public debate.”[44] These are understood as instances of “de-politicization.” As Bellanova and Duez observe, procedures and standard practices in diplomatic exchanges between states hinge on “artifacts and technologies, designed and built as cornerstones of European Internal Security and generally assumed as politics-free.”[45] Related to this is the sustained and ongoing “operationalization” of policies focused on preventing and deterring irregular arrivals and tightening border controls, which stems from the leeway granted to national law enforcement authorities to claim expertise and to take ad hoc initiatives in the domain of migration policy.[46]

The continuing willingness and capacity of countries on both sides of the Mediterranean to enforce controls on the entry, exit, and readmission of third country nationals lays bare the trade-off between the democratic nature of the North African process of political transition since 2011 and the relative effectiveness of migration policies in North Africa over the same period.[47] The treatment of migrants has now become a national concern in some Maghreb countries, in particular where civil society has been developing as regards migration. Yet Northern African continue display an unremitting resolve to ensure security by steeping controls at their borders and deporting unwanted foreign nationals.[48]

In turn the complex developments in North Africa display continuing mechanisms of governance. These can be understood as unresolved contradictions between on the one hand routinized and pragmatic cooperation, states’ domestic obligations and liabilities and, on the other hand, the EU’s normative imperatives, related expectations and operational leeway. 


[1] N. Tocci, The European Union as a Normative Foreign Policy Actor (2008), http://aei.pitt.edu/7582/1/Wd281.pdf.

[2] J.P. Cassarino, “Reversing the Hierarchy of Priorities in EU-Mediterranean Relations,” in J. Peters, The European Union And The Arab Spring Promoting Democracy and Human Rights in the Middle East (Boulder: Lexington Books, 2012); F. Pastore, “The politics of migration control and international protection in the Central Mediterranean,” Remarks centered on Italy-Libya relations, Presentation given at the Consultation on “Europeanization and externalization of border control and migrant detention in Italy and the EU” - Firenze, MPC-EUI, October 3, 2012.

[3] P. Evans, H. Jacobson, and R. Putnam, “Double-Edged Diplomacy: International Bargaining and Domestic Politics,” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 88, No. 4. (Dec., 1994), pp. 1038–1039.

[4] S. Wolff and G. Mmounier, “A Kaleidoscopic View on the External Dimension of Justice and Home Affairs”, in European Foreign Affairs Review 17, Special Issue (2012), pp. 143–162.

[5] Camera dei Deputati, Atti Di Controllo E Di Indirizzo, Allegato B Ai Resoconti — Seduta Del Ottobre 24, 2011, http://www.camera.it/_dati/leg16/lavori/stenografici/sed540/BINTERO.pdf.

[7] “Libia-Italia, riattivato Trattato amicizia
Jalil incontra Monti e Napolitano,” La Repubblica, December 15, 2011, http://www.repubblica.it/esteri/2011/12/15/news/libia-italia_riattivato_trattato_amicizia-26656348/.

[8] Senato della Repubblica, Legislatura 16 Risposta ad interrogazione scritta n° 4-06711 Risposta all'interrogazione n. 4-06711 Fascicolo n.171 (2012), http://www.senato.it/japp/bgt/showdoc/frame.jsp?tipodoc=Sindispr&leg=16&id=667145.

[9] International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Libya, the hounding of migrants must stop, (2012), p. 35, http://www.fidh.org/Libya-The-hounding-of-migrants-12255.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Libya, the hounding of migrants must stop,”La Stampa, http://www.fidh.org/Libya-The-hounding-of-migrants-12255.

[13] Senato della Repubblica, Legislatura 16 Risposta ad interrogazione scritta n° 4-06711 Risposta all'interrogazione n. 4-06711 Fascicolo n.171 (2012), http://www.senato.it/japp/bgt/showdoc/frame.jsp?tipodoc=Sindispr&leg=16&id=667145.

[14] Libya, the hounding of migrants must stop, (2012), p. 36, http://www.fidh.org/Libya-The-hounding-of-migrants-12255.

[15] Ibid.

[16] P. Cuttitta, The Case of the Italian Southern Sea Borders: Cooperation across the Mediterranean? Documents CIDOB, Migrations (2009).

[17] Ibid., p. 51.

[18] J.P. Cassarino, Accordo Italia-Tunisia, per che fare? (2011), http://www.affarinternazionali.it/articolo.asp?ID=1722.

[19] M. Tazzioli, Cronologia degli accordi Italia-Tunisia (2011), http://www.storiemigranti.org/spip.php?article1004.

[20] “Berlusconi verso Tunisi, i motivi del viaggio”, Il Secolo (2011), Available online at: http://www.ilsecoloxix.it/p/italia/2011/04/03/AOsTOmJ-berlusconi_viaggio_tunisi.shtml?hl.

[21] Senato della Repubblica, Mercoledì 23 marzo 2011 - 525ª seduta pubblica (pomeridiana) (2011), http://www.senato.it/lavori/21415/152713/306224/316407/sintesiseduta.htm; Senato della Repubblica, Mercoledì 23 marzo 2011 - 525ª seduta pubblica (pomeridiana) (2011), p. vi, http://www.senato.it/lavori/21415/152713/306224/316407/sintesiseduta.htm.

[22] European Parliament, Member States' answers to migration flows and their impact on Schengen, Parliamentary questions (2011), <http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=OQ&reference=O-2011-000094&format=XML&language=EN.

[23] Y. Pascouau, Schengen area under pressure: controversial responses and worrying signs (2011), p. 1, http://www.epc.eu/documents/uploads/pub_1270_schengen_area_under_pressure_-_controversial_responses_and_worrying_signs.pdf.

[24] Ministero dell’Interno, Il decreto rimpatri è legge, Il provvedimento è stato approvato al Senato senza modifiche (2011), http://www.interno.it/mininterno/export/sites/default/it/sezioni/sala_stampa/notizie/2100_500_ministro/0000085_2011_8_2_approvazione_decreto_rimpatri.html_96129660.html.

[25] Senato della Repubblica, Giovedì 7 aprile 2011 - 536ª  seduta pubblica (antimeridiana (2011), p. 18, http://www.senato.it/lavori/21415/152713/306224/318847/sintesiseduta.htm.

[26] Camera dei Deputati, Resoconto stenografico della Comitato parlamentare di controllo sull'attuazione dell'Accordo di Schengen, di vigilanza sull'attività di Europol, di controllo e vigilanza in materia di immigrazione (May 31, 2011), http://www.camera.it/_dati/leg16/lavori/bollet/chiscobollt.asp?content=/_dati/leg16/lavori/bollet/framedin.asp?percboll=/_dati/leg16/lavori/bollet/201105/0531/html/30/.

[27] “Italia-Tunisia. Cancellieri: ‘Presto accordo su immigrazione,’” Stranieri in Italia (March 22, 2012),  http://www.stranieriinitalia.it/attualita-italia-tunisia._cancellieri_presto_accordo_su_immigrazione_14873.html.

[29] Ministero dell’Interno, Comunicati Stampa, Ministero dell'Interno, 30.11.2012, Il ministro Cancellieri, accompagnato dal capo della Polizia Manganelli, partecipa domani ad Adria (Ro) alla cerimonia di consegna di due motovedette alle autorità tunisine (2012), http://www.interno.gov.it/mininterno/export/sites/default/it/sezioni/sala_stampa/comunicati/comunicati_2012/2012_11_30_cancellieri_consegna_motovedette.html?back=%2Ftools%2Fsearch%2Findex.html%3Faction%3Dsearch%26matchesPerPage%3D10%26displayPages%3D10%26index%3DProgetto+Online%26sort%3D%26searchRoots%3D%252Fit%252F%26text%3Dtunisia%26start%3D%26end%3D%26type%3Dcomunicato-stampa.

[30] F. Vassallo Paleologo, Nuovi aspetti della detenzione amministrativa dentro e fuori i CIE, Available (2012), http://www.asgi.it/home_asgi.php?n=2403&l=it.

[31] Polizia di Stato, Immigrazione clandestina: accordo di cooperazione con l'Egitto, (2010),  http://www.poliziadistato.it/articolo/19012/.

[32] Ministero degli Esteri, Egitto: Frattini, sosteniamo il processo democratico (2011), http://www.esteri.it/MAE/IT/Sala_Stampa/ArchivioNotizie/Approfondimenti/2011/05/20110517_fratdem.htm.

[33] Italia-Egitto: siglato memorandum su immigrazione e lavoro,”  Il Sole 24 Ore (May 17, 2011), http://archivio-radiocor.ilsole24ore.com/articolo-935183/italia-egitto-siglato-memorandum/.

[34] Camera dei Deputati, Atti Di Controllo E Di Indirizzo, Allegato B Ai Resoconti — Seduta Del 24 Ottobre 2011, p. 8, http://www.camera.it/_dati/leg16/lavori/stenografici/sed540/BINTERO.pdf.

[35] Ministero dell’Interno, Completato il piano straordinario dei rimpatri definito da Maroni a Tunisi, Complessivamente sono tornati nel loro Paese 3.385 tunisini, gli ultimi 50 sono partiti da Palermo (2011), http://www.interno.it/mininterno/export/sites/default/it/sezioni/sala_stampa/notizie/immigrazione/0000067_2011_10_07_pianorimpatricompleto.html_1562036126.html.

[36] Senato della Repubblica, Legislatura 16 Risposta ad interrogazione scritta n° 4-06711 Risposta all'interrogazione n. 4-06711 Fascicolo n.171 (2012), http://www.senato.it/japp/bgt/showdoc/frame.jsp?tipodoc=Sindispr&leg=16&id=667145.

[37] Camera dei Deputati, Atti Di Controllo E Di Indirizzo, Allegato B Ai Resoconti — Seduta Del 24 Ottobre 2011, p. 8, http://www.camera.it/_dati/leg16/lavori/stenografici/sed540/BINTERO.pdf.

[38] Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants concludes his third country visit in his regional study on the human rights of migrants at the borders of the European Union: Italy (2012), http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=12640&LangID=E.

[39] Ibid.

[40] International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) (2012), Libya, the hounding of migrants must stop, (2012), p. 34, http://www.fidh.org/Libya-The-hounding-of-migrants-12255.

[41] J.P. Cassarino, “Reversing the Hierarchy of Priorities in EU-Mediterranean Relations,” in J. Peters, The European Union And The Arab Spring Promoting Democracy and Human Rights in the Middle East (Boulder: Lexington Books, 2012).

[42] Ibid., p. 8.

[43] H. De Haas, The myth of invasion, Irregular migration from West Africa to the Maghreb and the European Union, IMI Research Report (October 2007).

[44] S. Wolff and G. Mmounier, G., “A Kaleidoscopic View on the External Dimension of Justice and Home Affairs,” European Foreign Affairs Review 17, Special Issue (2012), pp. 143–162.

[45] Bellanova and Duez quoted in S. Wolff and G.  Mmounier, “A Kaleidoscopic View on the External Dimension of Justice and Home Affairs,” European Foreign Affairs Review 17, Special Issue (2012), p. 157.

[46] Ibid., p. 158.

[47] F. Pastore, The politics of migration control and international protection in the Central Mediterranean, Remarks centered on Italy-Libya relations, Presentation given at the Consultation on “Europeanization and externalization of border control and migrant detention in Italy and the EU” - Firenze, MPC-EUI (October 3, 2012).

[48] D. Perrin, Shifting the Criminalisation of Migrants to the Southern Side of the Mediterranean, Presentation given at the Conference on “The Management of the External Borders of the EU and its Impact on the Human Rights of Migrants -A Consultation of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants” (October 3, 2012).

 

[...] border control is prioritized over a more comprehensive human rights policy framework.