Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani (left) attends a ceremony for the handing over of a patrol boat to Libyan authorities on February 6, 2023 | Giuseppe Lami/ANSA
Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani (left) attends a ceremony for the handing over of a patrol boat to Libyan authorities on February 6, 2023 | Giuseppe Lami/ANSA

The Italian government has handed over a search and rescue boat to Libya's foreign minister in northeastern Italy. The cooperation between the EU and Libya is highly controversial due to migrants' inhuman treatment in Libya.

The handover of a S-LCG 300 search and rescue vessel took place on Monday (February 6) at the Vittoria shipyard in the Rovigo province south of Venice in Italy's northeast.

Taking part in the event were Italy's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, Libya's Foreign Minister Najla Elmangoush and the EU Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Olivér Varhelyi.

The handing over of the vessel was part of the EU project 'Support to Integrated Border and Migration Management in Libya' (SIBMMIL).

200-person capacity

The search and rescue (SAR) vessel, a twin of which is currently used by the Italian coast guard, was built out of wood and aluminum and is reportedly unsinkable and capable of self-righting itself. It's around 20 meters long and 6 meters wide, and is able to carry up to 200 people.

The boat was designed and built by a company based in Veneto, one of Italy's 20 regions, as part of a public bidding worth more than €10 million. In June 2022, as part of the same bidding process, the Vittoria shipyard signed a contract with the Italian coast guard and Interior Ministry for three of the ten optional units for a value of about €8 million each. The other two vessels are to be delivered later this year.

In 2017, Italy signed a memorandum with Libya for cooperation with the Libyan coast guard that included the provision of four patrol vessels. Under the deal, the Libyan coast guard is able to intercept migrant boats at sea and return them to Libya. In 2017, moreover, a series of accords were signed between Libya and the EU. This week's handing over of the SAR vessel was part of those accords.

In February 2022, several human rights organizations publicly denounced the agreements and urged the EU to rethink its approach.

Aid agencies have raised concerns over grave human rights abuses against refugees in Libya, citing reports of forced labor and torture. This agreement was renewed for another three years in February 2020, so would be due to come to an end early in 2023. It is widely predicted however that the incoming Italian government is likely to renew the agreement in November this year.

Read more: Migrants tortured on Libya-Sicily route, 5 arrested

Italian FM: vessel will 'counter human trafficking'

The delivery of the patrol boat is a commitment to "strengthening Libyan activities against human trafficking," Italy's Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said.

In order to save lives in the Mediterranean, he added, "actions against human trafficking and the rescue of humans are decisive." He also talked about Italy playing a bigger "role in the world" and becoming "stronger on the African continent." Furthermore, he stressed that border control is "a priority.

In regard to Libya, he said the Mediterranean country is a "strategic country for curbing clandestine migration" amid a large number of irregular migrant arrivals from Libya to Italy.

Last year, more than 100,000 migrants arrived irregularly on Italian shores via the Central Mediterranean route from northern African countries like Libya. A total of 1,385 people died or went missing in 2022, according to UN migration agency IOM.

'Strengthening collaboration'

Libya's Foreign Minister Najla Elmangoush, meanwhile thanked the Italian government for "strengthening collaboration" between the two countries. "We will continue with technical meetings to counter human trafficking," she added.

In regard to migration policy, she remarked that it needed a "multidisciplinary approach with many strategies in order to understand how to make the southern border of the Mediterranean safer." She also said that "wide-ranging" as well as "short, medium and long-term" solutions were needed.

The Italian government wants to stop migrants from setting off from the coasts of North Africa, and has recently stepped up diplomatic efforts to cooperate with the main countries of departure, Libya and Tunisia, as well as Egypt.

Also read: Rescuers bring 105 migrants ashore in Italy


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