More oil, less migrants

Published on Pambazuka News, by Emanuela Paoletti, 2009-12-23.

Since the late 1990s, immigration from Libya to Italy had increased significantly, from less than 5,000 in 2000 to 30,000 in 2008. In May 2009, Gaddafi made his first trip to Italy, which was followed by a second visit on the occasion of the meeting of the G20. Concomitant with these visits, there was a drastic reduction in migration from Libya. From 1 May 2008 to 31 August 2008, 15,000 people arrived to Italy from Libya; in the same period in 2009 only 1,400 have landed on Italian shores. The Italian minister of interior, Roberto Maroni could recently announce, immigration from Libya in 2009 has decreased by 90 per cent compared to 2008. What explains the drastic decrease in ‘illegal’ migration from Libya to Italy?

This reduction partially reflects broader trends across the Mediterranean. According to the European border agency, Frontex, the overall number of migrants via the sea to Europe dropped by 16 per cent, from 24,000 in the first quarter of 2008 to 20,200 over the same period in 2009. One explanation relates to the global economic downturn – but there is another factor: Libya’s selective enforcement of restrictive immigration policies as a means of gaining foreign policy concessions from Italy. The Friendship Agreement of August 2008 marks an important turning point.

On 30 August 2008, in a tent in Benghazi, Silvio Berlusconi and the Libyan leader, Muammar al-Gaddafi, signed a historic agreement, according to which Italy will pay US$5 billion over the next 20 years, ostensibly to compensate Libya for the ‘deep wounds’ of the colonial past. The agreement concluded a tortuous 10-year history of diplomatic exchanges, which included a number of formal and informal cooperative arrangements on a variety of issues, such as migration, culture, colonial issues and joint-business ventures.

However, since 2000, Libyan officials have treated irregular migration as a domestic security issue, justified on the grounds (despite very limited and contentious empirical evidence), that migrants are responsible for increased crime, worsening health and educational standards, and heightened unemployment rates. Accordingly, Libyan authorities have implemented tougher policies against migration at time when this policy would enhance its bargaining position with Europe. For example, in March 2004, Law No. 2 introduced severe penalties for irregular migrants. Undocumented migrants, and agents facilitating their stay, faced at least one year’s imprisonment or a €1,160 fine; and a new unit was created to enforce this law. Notably, these were enacted just before the lifting of the European arms embargo …

… Italy’s and Libya’s migration management policies corroborate Loescher and Monahan’s observation that people’s movements are often used as foreign policy tools: ‘refugees are often used, both symbolically and instrumentally, to pursue foreign-policy objectives’ and ‘can be used to embarrass or destabilise enemy governments.’ This analysis has demonstrated the numerous ways in which migration intertwines with states’ interests and power. On the one hand, receiving states, such as Italy, are actively engaged in carrot-and-stick attempts to influence migration flows by appealing to sending countries’ interests. It then comes at no surprise that the Italian Prime Minister welcomed the Friendship Agreement as a guarantee of ‘more oil and less migrants.’ On the other hand, sending states, such as Libya, have also used migration to expose the vulnerability of the receiving ones, with a view to extracting specific concessions through the wider bargaining mechanisms.

We are thus led to look back at the drastic decline of immigration to Italy in a more critical way. Contradictions apply to different countries and at different levels in the policy-making cycle. This cycle is complex and practices vis-à-vis migration relate to broader social, economic, historical and ideational factors. It is therefore important to go beyond polarising accounts of state practices on migration and beyond the sensationalist and ‘moral outrage’ stance taken, to differing degrees, by the media, politicians and advocacy groups alike. The loss of life of migrants on the sea, at the centre of media accounts and political discourse, needs to be located in the broader appreciation of the inherent political nature of migration. (full text).

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