Italian navy in the Mediterranean
Italian navy in the Mediterranean

Italy is considering a plan to send its navy into Libyan waters to stop migrants and send them back. Approval for the mission could go before parliament as early as next week.

Italy's center-left government will brief lawmakers about a plan to deploy Italian navy vessels along Libya's shores to stop traffickers sending migrants to Italy, Premier Paolo Gentiloni said Thursday.

A Libyan request to send Italian navy ships to patrol its waters was "a possible turning point" in the migration crisis, said Gentiloni, who convened military chiefs and ministers on Thursday to discuss immigration, security, and Libya.

Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Serraj, who leads the UN-backed unity government in Tripoli, made the request for Italian naval help while in Rome on Wednesday. His visit came after Serraj and the rival government of General Khalifa Hifter met in France and agreed on a ceasefire and possible national elections in the unstable North African country.

Nearly 600,000 boat migrants have arrived in Italy since 2014 after making the dangerous cross-Mediterranean journey in boats.

Sending migrants back

The EU naval mission Operation Sophia, Italian navy and non-governmental organizationsalready pick up migrants in the central Mediterranean, but are not allowed to operate within 12 nautical miles of Libya. Migrants intercepted in international waters are brought Italy for processing.

Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper reported on Thursday that Italy was considering sending a command ship to lead a flotilla of at least five smaller vessels to operate in Libyan waters in cooperation with the Libyan coast guard. Up to 1,000 sailors could be involved in the operation, which would also see the use of planes, helicopters, and drones.

More than 100,000 migrants, mostly from Africa, have arrived on Italy's shores this year

The naval mission could go before the Italian parliament as early as next week, where it is likely to pass as the issue of migration takes on greater importance ahead of national elections next year.

Italy wants to stop migrant boats in Libyan territorial waters and send the migrants back to Libya. Under international law, migrants intercepted in international waters cannot be sent back to Libya if they face potential violence and persecution.

There have been reports of torture, rape, forced labor, beatings and other human rights violations suffered by migrants in Libya, where they can languish indefinitely in camps.

The Italian government recognizes this and wants international organizations like the UN to help migrants return to Libya and ensure proper treatment before repatriation to their home countries.

EU support

Italy has complained of a lack of solidarity from EU countries in dealing with the migrant influx, although Gentiloni on Thursday said he had spoken to several European partners who signaled their support.

"It pleases me to know there is a lot of support in Europe for this new possibility," he said.

EU sources in Brussels told German news agency DPA that the EU mission Operation Sophia may also participate in a mission in Libyan territorial waters.

This might happen "once the appropriate conditions are met, an invitation by the legitimate Libyan authorities has been made and taking into account any applicable UN Security Council Resolution," a European Commission spokesman said.

Senior EU officials and Admiral Enrico Credendino, head of Operation Sophia, are due to meet with Libyan officials in Tripoli on August 1.

Germany's Shulz talks migration in Rome

The Italian premier also met in Rome on Thursday with former European Parliament President Martin Schulz, who is challenging German Chancellor Angela Merkel in national elections as head of the Social Democrats (SPD).

Trailing about 15 points behind Merkel's conservatives in the polls only two months before the German election, Schulz has recently latched onto the migration issue to launch attacks on the chancellor.

Schulz, who called for more solidarity in the EU on the immigration issue, urged European countries to do more to help Italy, especially over sharing the migrant burden. He has recently floated the idea of using Germany's financial clout in a carrot and stick approach to force EU-wide sharing of migrants.

SPD leader Martin Schulz met Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni in Rome

France's Macron wants registration centers in Africa

Italy isn't the only country thinking of taking new steps on the migration issue. French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday floated the idea of creating "hotspot" registration centers in Libya, Chad, and Niger to process migrants in Africa.

The idea is to "to avoid people taking crazy risks when they are not all eligible for asylum," Macron said at a citizenship swearing in ceremony in the city of Orleans.

He warned that there are between 800,000 and one million people in precarious camps looking to make the journey to Europe from Libya, most of whom are economic migrants.

Macron said he hoped other EU countries would buy into the idea, but if not, then France would do it alone.

However, after Macron said the "hotspots" could be established this summer, a presidential official told AFP it would not be possible so soon due to poor security in Libya. "Does that remove the ambition to create this sort of center in Libya? No," the official told AFP.

"The important thing is to ensure the security of people who will work there and of the migrants," the official added.

cw/bk (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

First published: July 27, 2017

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