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The controversial Italian approach towards migration flows from Libya: from pullbacks to the support of humanitarian corridors

Author: Beatrice Goretti (2021)

Beatrice Goretti holds a master’s degree in Human Rights and Multi-level Governance from the University of Padova. This In Focus article is an excerpt from her master thesis discussed, in November 2020, under the supervision of Prof. Pietro De Perini.


The number of people in need of protection as a consequence of internal conflicts, wars, climate change, poverty and unstable political situations brought to a sharp increase in migration flows over the last few years. Therefore, a large number of people on the move tried and are still trying to reach Europe, attracted by the idea of a safe and welcoming place, where they can find protection. The huge increase in migration flows, with a peak of 1 million people entered in 2015, has been a stiff test for the functioning of the European Union, which rendered the safeguard of fortress Europe a priority in the political agenda. Indeed, this led to a process of externalisation of borders and their control, achieved working in cooperation with countries of origin and transit, as an attempt to address the root causes of migration and prevent arrivals, balanced by few legal pathways to enter the European Union. 

Depending on the country of origin, migrants usually undertake different migratory routes, part of which is the Central Mediterranean one, with Libya representing the main transit country and departure point for Europe and Italy in particular. Indeed, there are currently 45,000 asylum seekers and 650,000 migrants in the country, reason why it increasingly became a key actor for the management of migration flows in the Mediterranean, leading the EU Member States to implement policies of externalisation so as to outsource migration control and management. Although a vast number of policies addressing migration flows from Libya are carried out at the EU level, these are supported by further bilateral agreements, as is the case of the 2017 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Italy and Libya, that resulted fundamental to obtain practical improvements.

European Externalization policy and the creation of the Libyan Search and Rescue zone

Specifically, Italian outsourcing policy focused on the reconstruction of the Libyan Coast Guard through the deployment of assistance and training, in the perspective of enabling Libyan authorities to autonomously conduct search and rescue (SAR) activities, taking control of its own SAR zone, officially achieved in 2018. The reliance on the sole Libyan Coast Guard, though, systematically involves migrants’ disembarkation in Libya, impeding people from leaving the country and going to feed a cycle of abuses. Due to its unstable political situation, the criminalisation of migrants and the consequent presence of detention centres, Libya has developed perfect conditions for smugglers and traffickers to operate. Indeed, the possibility to detain people arbitrarily and for an indefinite time, with no legal remedies to oppose it, permits those in charge to exploit migrants with no consequences, given the lack of the rule of law. For these reasons, human rights violations and abuses can be carried out and utilised as a method to extract profit, rendering migrants victims of enforced disappearance, torture, extortion, forced labour, sexual violence, arbitrary detention and ill-treatment.

Moreover, the recognition of Libyan SAR zone permitted Europe and Italy to reduce search and rescue activities. This is in line with the EU’s tendency over the years, as with the end of the Italian Mare Nostrum Operation in 2015, the EU and its Member States have progressively reduced the performance of SAR activities by their institutional actors. Instead, the EU increasingly relied on Libyan interventions, diminishing the likelihood to encounter boats in distress and being bound to rescue and disembark them in Europe. In line with the MoU intent, interceptions at the hands of the Libyan Coast Guard contributed to a clear reduction in arrivals of almost 80% between 2017 and 2018.

Legal pathways towards Europe and the current initiatives from Libya

To counterbalance these strict and deadly measures, EU Member States are called to provide complementary safe and legal pathways, defined as Protected Entry Procedures, to which they can participate voluntarily. This last condition, though, jeopardises their efficiency, and it is because of the small States’ commitments that there’s a need to enlarge legal pathways for refugees and asylum seekers, given that notwithstanding the existence of legal routes, the numbers of people admitted through these programmes remain low, around 10%. Despite this, Protected Entry Procedures have been implemented in the Libyan context as well, where since 2017, resettlements and humanitarian evacuations have been carried out by UNHCR in collaboration with the Member States. However, the limited pledges and commitments offered by states only partially balanced European and Italian policies, provoking a minimal change. A further option, Voluntary Humanitarian Returns to the country of origins, promoted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), appeared instead as the most effective program, although its voluntary nature is still arguable as it is offered as an alternative to indefinite detention and abuses going on in Libya.

In general, these are only some of the instruments that the Member States can put in place. Over the last years, new initiatives have been promoted, like the ones of Private Community Sponsorships’ Programmes. Indeed, these allow civil society to contribute to migration management and offer additional legal avenues for migrants, broadening the scope and allowing safe access to those who cannot benefit from other pathways. Until now, in the EU, Private Sponsorship Programmes have been developed by Germany, UK, Italy, France and Belgium, Ireland, Slovakia and Poland. In this regard, they have been according to three different kinds: family reunification schemes, pilot-models promoted by single-states, such as resettlement-based scheme, and the project of humanitarian corridors.

About the latter, these are a recent innovation programme, which foresees the cooperation between national authorities and third-sector organisations for the admission of vulnerable people through the system of humanitarian visas, privately funding the scheme and the integration process. Moreover, the main criteria for eligibility are usually based on vulnerability grounds, so to provide protection to those people who do not qualify for asylum but, according to the circumstances, they are still in need of protection.

The emerging instrument of Humanitarian Corridors and the project of European ones from Libya

In particular, Humanitarian Corridors were created by Italian faith-based organisations such as the Community of Sant’Egidio, the Italian Federation of the Evangelical Churches, the Waldensian and Methodist Churches, which promoted a unique fully bottom-up project financed with the 8x1000 funds. Firstly, introduced in Italy in 2015, they were then realised by France and Belgium in 2017, as well as by San Marino and the Principality of Andorra, an extension which has been considered as a positive factor in the perspective of the improvement of the system.

On this basis, Italian NGOs, specifically the Community of Sant’Egidio and the Italian Federation of the Evangelical Churches, relying on the support of a wide network of organisations across Europe, proposed to expand the mechanism of Humanitarian Corridors to a wider group of European countries and to create a flexible system applicable to different legal frameworks. This would be grounded on art. 25 of the Visa Code and promoted by Community Sponsorships Programs, representing a proposal for implementing the legal alternatives so highly requested by EU institutions, capable of offering a durable solution in regard to a part of the current migration flows into Europe. Specifically, the initiative has been firstly presented during a meeting organised by the Italian Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy on the 8th and 9th October 2019 to the Italian government, where representatives of ecumenical organisations and international churches from 15 countries met to discuss the project. The outcome of the meeting has been proposed to the European Parliament in December 2019 and refers to a specific case: the transfer, over two-years, of 50.000 vulnerable migrants and refugees out of Libya and the neighbouring countries through Humanitarian Corridors.

Their implementation from Libya would provide the beneficiaries with protection against the risk of refoulement and would remove potential victims from a context of violence and abuses, offering a long-term solution in another society where migrants can become autonomous and integrated. Specifically, the decision to intervene in the Libyan context responds to the need of UNHCR to receive support, as by its own admission, it can offer only limited solutions to migrants, given Member States’ small commitment in offering places. In this regard, the program aims to promote a shared responsibility among a coalition of willing partners, based on the idea that “the larger the coalition, the smaller the burden”.

The realisation of European Humanitarian Corridors from Libya though is not automatic and, as affirmed by Mrs. Del Negro and Impagliazzo, Presidents of the proponents’ associations: “Italy should be the leader of the programme, by opening another corridor from Libya for at least 2,500 people a year. Our institutions have already started relations with some NGOs working in Libya to effectively implement this project, which starts in Italy but is addressed to the European countries and institutions”. In this regard, a draft for the realisation of humanitarian corridors from Libya to Italy had been conferred to the government by the Italian Federation of the Evangelical Churches, the Community of Sant’Egidio and Doctors Without Borders. Due to some changes introduced by the Italian government, it has been agreed to reach compromises to the proposed European project and the conditions imposed, creating a hybrid system between humanitarian evacuations and humanitarian corridors, whose beneficiaries will be selected by UNHCR and only from Libya.

Unfortunately, humanitarian evacuations are characterised by limited time and do not allow to undertake a sufficient assessment of the individual situation or expectations. This will render void the best practice of pre-departure orientation, usually carried out by the NGOs, and jeopardise the integration and activation rate of beneficiaries once in the country of arrival. Moreover, as beneficiaries of the project would be based on UNHCR’s lists, they will take into account only refugees and will offer them a second chance, instead of providing an alternative to those who do not strictly possess these criteria, which means vulnerable people.


Although the conditions imposed by the Italian government could actually jeopardise the success of the project in terms of proper humanitarian corridors, if realised, the initiative would allow 5.000 migrants and asylum-seekers to reach Italy, preventing further abuses as well as the risks related to the crossing. In addition, if considered as the leading initiative of a greater European project, it could seriously provoke a change in the Libyan context. Moreover, as the overall number of migrants in the country is much higher than this, the Italian government is called to intervene in further areas related to migration and migrants in Libya.

Indeed, while providing additional means to leave the country, Italian authorities should call on Libya not only to address detention centres’ management, conditions in there, the abuses and the tortures, but also to put an end to the practice of indefinite detention itself, decriminalising migrants’ status and realising an asylum system in the country, through the ratification of the 1951 Geneva Convention and related Protocol. To obtain this, Italy should render the Memorandum of Understanding with Libya conditional to the respect of human rights, pushing for a greater change in the migration management in the country while at the same time implementing SAR activities in the Mediterranean and suspending any cooperation activity with Libyan authorities that contribute to the practice of pullbacks.

The project of Humanitarian Corridors from Libya could, in fact, represent a great opportunity for Italy which, if realised, could push for further changes and approaches towards migration management, increasing safeguards and protection not only for those who will take part in the project but also to the ones who will remain in the country.

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