The Italian government recently authorized a navy patrol boat to begin reconnaissance in response to a Libyan request for help in dealing with its persistent migrant smuggling issue. While Italy is undoubtedly enthusiastic to help curb migrants arriving on Italian shores, the circumstances surrounding Libya's request may indicate deeper domestic sovereignty issues as the country deals with immigrant smuggling by sea.
The Italian government will present to its parliamentary Commission on Foreign and Defense Policy a plan on Aug. 1 to send Italian navy ships to Libya, in cooperation with local forces there to protect against migrant smuggling. The Italian government approved the plan during a July 28 meeting, with plans for the mission to start within a week. Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said the plan was based on a July 23 request by letter from U.N.-recognized Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj asking for technical support from Italy by sending ships into Libyan territorial waters.
Only days later, on July 28, al-Sarraj denied that he had requested Italian ships enter Libyan waters, saying that Libyan sovereignty was a red line that could not be crossed. But later that same day, al-Sarraj and the Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti discussed possible Italian assistance and managed to overcome domestic resistance in Libya.
Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed Siala confirmed that al-Sarraj did invite Italy to send warships into Libyan waters with the permission of the Presidency Council (PC), a group of nine people that represent the U.N.-recognized government's executive branch. Siala said in an official statement that Libya asked for "logistical, technical and operational support to the Libyan coast guard," which will require "the presence of some elements of the Italian Navy at the port of Tripoli, but only for this purpose and only if necessary." The discrepancy in accounts of what request was actually made may indicate a deeper issue for al-Sarraj: Libyan sovereignty remains a central issue and is likely to bring further controversy and complications as he negotiates with other rival Libyan figures.
More than 94,000 migrants have fled to Italy this year and more than 181,000 arrived in 2016. Italian and European authorities continue to pursue ways to prevent migrants from illegally crossing through the central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy. Illegal migrants are still a controversial issue in the European Union because the relocation mechanism among member states is hardly working. Countries of arrival — such as Italy and Greece — are complaining about the lack of support, and tension on internal borders in the Schengen zone remains a threat. Italy's decision to help Libya comes at a time when the French government is also trying to make progress with the North African country. Last week, the French government hosted a meeting with the two factions that are vying for control of Libya, which prompted the government in Rome to accuse Paris of acting behind its back.
The Italian government hopes to play a role in Libya, but is still uncertain whether its ships will be allowed to rescue migrants in Libyan waters and take them back to Libya when the Libyan coast guard fails to intervene directly. The EU mission Sophia already has ships in international waters, but Libya has never agreed to allow them in its territorial waters. The prospect of any relief at its migrant ports means that Italy will make an effort to work with Libya when asked, as long as it's authorized to enter Libyan waters.