For Italians, the civil war in Libya does not evoke pictures of bloodshed and killings, but rather of a humanitarian disaster and the specter of an imminent wave of immigrants showing up at their doorsteps.
In the first days of the conflict, public debate in Italy circled around what Italian interests in Libya are and how Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi should react. Now the focus has shifted to what Italy will do to cope with the possible flood of immigrants.
On Feb. 22, one week after protests began in Libya, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini called upon European Union member countries to prepare themselves for the arrival of up to 350,000 refugees fleeing the violence in Libya. At a press conference in Cairo, he called the threat “immigration of epochal dimensions toward the European Union.”
Some experts say though, these worries are overblown, at least at the moment. Professor James Walston, political scientist at the American University in Rome says the Libyan story is being covered in Italy as an immigration emergency, but there is no emergency and so far only Tunisians have been arriving, not Libyans.
“They talk about ‘emergency’ as if it is already happening. But it is not,” says Walston.
In his opinion, fear is being percolated as a convenient way for the government to distract the public from the sex and corruption scandals that have been plaguing Berlusconi.
Since the start of the uprisings in North Africa, 5,500 migrants have arrived in Italy. Most are Tunisians, suddenly freer to leave home and look for better opportunities in Europe, reports geopolitical think tank Stratfor.
“In the present conditions, no one is arriving from Libyan shores. When the crisis is over, we will see. The crisis unfolding in North Africa will reshape things as well as the Italian approach,” wrote Roberto Aliboni, vice president of the International Affairs Institute, via his office in Rome.
Overblown but Risk is Real
Emiliano Alessandri, fellow at the Washington-based German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), says the specter of an immigrant wave to Italy has been over dramatized, but the risk is real.
The threat comes from the fact that now Col. Gadhafi and his regime is no longer in a position to control the flow of immigrants.
In the 1990s, Libya eased visa regulations for its African neighbors. Since then,
Libya became a springboard for thousands of migrants from sub-Saharan African countries to get to Italy and other parts of Europe.
The Italian island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean Sea, lying only 140 miles off the shores of Libya, is the first point of entry for many African migrants.
In 2008, Libya signed a friendship treaty with Italy, its biggest trade partner and former colonial ruler. Under its terms, Italy promised to provide $5 billion over 20 years in colonial reparations, in the form of building basic infrastructure. The two countries also agreed not to carry out hostile acts against each other from their respective territories.
The most controversial part of the treaty, however, concerned the interception of illegal immigration, under the so-called “push-back” policy.
According to this policy, any would-be immigrant to Italy caught in the international waters between the two countries, could be immediately returned to Libya. Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni boasted that Italy achieved a 96 percent drop in illegal immigrant arrivals in the first months of 2010, compared to the same period of 2009, according to Stratfor.
Human rights defenders have deplored the policy. They argue that it contravenes the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status for Refugees, which bans states from returning refugees to the point of origin without considering their requests for asylum first.
“It looks less like friendship and more like a dirty deal to enable Italy to dump migrants and asylum seekers on Libya and evade its obligations,” said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch at the time.
Now with Gadhafi’s position at stake, the Italian government may lose its ally on the Libyan side of the agreement.
Italy suspended the friendship treaty on Feb. 28. The suspension was prompted by the European Union and NATO’s condemnation of Gadhafi’s killings in Libya.
After some initial hesitation—when Berlusconi said he didn't want to “disturb Col. Gadhafi”—Italy joined its political allies and supported the sanctions.