The Italian government says it will donate 12 patrol boats to enhance the operational capabilities of the Libyan Coast Guard as it battles to deal with the migrant crisis.
Italian media outlet AKI quoted Interior Minister Matteo Salvini saying the patrol boats would help Libya stem the flow of illegal immigrants to Europe. The donation would also enable the Libyan forces to secure their own coastline without the help of EU naval forces.
The delivery was approved during a recent cabinet meeting and includes ten patrol boats and two larger vessels, Premier Giuseppe Conte said on Tuesday. The Italian government will also take responsibility for the maintenance of the 12 boats until the end of the year and offer training to the Libyan coastguard and naval authorities, IANS/AKI reported. Another 17 boats will follow.
Italian transport minister Danilo Toninelli said the aid package is worth 2.5 million euros and includes the 12 boats and funds for the training of Libyan sailors.
“We are aware that this is not enough and that we must work to stabilize the situation, strengthen the rule of law and the protection of people’s dignity in the territory of the emerging Libyan state,” he said.
Salvini last week said the Italian government will soon provide new means to enable the Libyan coast guard to widen coastal patrols and stop the launching of boats laden with illegal migrant boats. Italy already operates the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in the Libyan capital Tripoli.
Run jointly with Libyan forces, the centre is used to coordinate the identification, location and interception of human smuggling boats. It also provides basic maintenance services for patrol boats in addition to supporting search and rescue operations at sea.
On Tuesday, 21 trainees from the Libyan Coast Guard travelled to Italy to undergo training on boat maintenance and operation. This is the third group to be sent to Italy.
The Libyan Coast Guard service says it cannot stop the flow of illegal immigrants through the Mediterranean to Europe because it has only three operational patrol boats, which are often forced to stay at port due to lack of fuel.
LCG spokesman Colonel AyoubKassem said altogether, the service has four patrol boats that were loaned from Italy in 2010. Of these, one has broken down leaving three to conduct sea patrols to stop migrants and rescue stranded boats.
He said apart from token support, the Libyan navy has been largely abandoned by the United States and its European Union partners since the end of the Western-backed revolution that toppled long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011.
He said Libya’s EU partners in particular have failed the coast guard by making promises they never fulfilled. Due to lack of equipment, the service operates under difficult conditions that include conducting migrant search and rescue operations using unseaworthy, old boats which are not designed for the purpose.
“We do not get any support, either from inside the country or from overseas. With the exception of training, which was not a priority, we have only got crumbs. No technical, material or financial support.
“Only promises. Words. Token support. But despite everything, we continue to do our duty because if we left, 1 000 migrants would reach European shores today, and another 10,000 would want to follow tomorrow,” Col Kassem said.
Apart from the lack of equipment and hazardous working conditions, Libyan Coast Guard servicemen are demoralised and demotivated by poor salaries.
Italy’s new populist government is making efforts to halt the trafficking of migrants from Italy, with a number of initiatives underway. On 5 July Salvini said Italian security forces would be sent to a military outpost in Ghat, Libya, to help Libyan police stop migrants crossing the desert. Salvini also said the international arms embargo on Libya should be dropped, as it is ignored by weapons and migrant traffickers.
“My aim is not to have even one boat come here,” he told reporters on Thursday after talks with Libyan Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeg. “The goal is for people who have the right to come to Italy, to come here by plane, preferably in first class.”
More than 640,000 migrants have landed on Italian shores since 2014. Although the numbers have fallen dramatically in the past year, Salvini has pushed migration to the top of the political agenda, helping propel his party into government.
He said one of his priorities was to see the lifting of the arms embargo on Libya, which was introduced in 2011 as the country descended into turmoil following the downfall of its long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi.
“People smugglers and arms smugglers obviously ignore it and arm themselves as they wish, while the only ones who are blocked are the legitimate authorities,” he said, adding that two Libyan naval boats were stuck in an Italian port because of sanctions.
Maiteeg echoed the call. “We do not accept that people say Libya is not helping with immigration but at the same time keep in place an embargo that is hindering us.”
Salvini issued instructions on Thursday to Italian commissions responsible for processing migrants’ requests for permission to stay, telling them to be careful not to issue too many permits on the grounds of humanitarian protection.
He noted that these had increased by 28 percent so far this year. “I have personally asked for speed and attention in welcoming those who are really fleeing from war, but also that those who don’t have the right to stay should be blocked,” he said in a tweet, writing the last word in capital letters.
Salvini visited Libya last month soon after taking office and said he would visit the country again shortly, as well as other North African states.
“If we don’t block the flows from the south, it is a problem for everyone, so I hope next Thursday to awaken Europe’s conscience on the need to intervene urgently,” he said, referring to a scheduled meeting of EU interior ministers. “The situation is dangerous.”
A recent group of new migrants to Italy had been expelled, he said, with the government setting aside more resources for mass deportations. But he said he wanted humanitarian corridors to be made available for genuine asylum seekers.
“I have always said I am in favour of humanitarian corridors and will continue to be so. I want a regulated, safe and sound immigration process for those who have a right to come to Italy.”