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A Sicilian fishing town, and the perils of Italy’s migration deal with Libya

‘We follow the law of the sea. For us, these are not migrants; they are simply people stranded at sea that we must help.’

The burnt-out wreck of the Portopalo di Capo Passero, a ship used by migrants to cross the Mediterranean, is kept in the Mazara del Vallo port after being confiscated by Italian police.
The burnt-out wreck of the Portopalo di Capo Passero, a ship used by migrants to cross the Mediterranean, is kept in the Mazara del Vallo port after being confiscated by Italian police. (Eugenio Rosso/TNH)

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Over the past decade, the Sicilian fishing town of Mazara del Vallo has had a front-row seat to witness escalating EU efforts to curb migration across the Mediterranean, but its fishermen have paid their own high price for Europe’s strategy and its dealings with Libya. 

Mazara’s fishermen have rescued thousands of asylum seekers and migrants in distress. They have also been targeted by the Libyan Coast Guard for fishing in waters that Libya considers its own. 

Pietro Russo, a 66-year-old fisherman from the town, has been sailing the central Mediterranean since he was 17. “Even we, as EU citizens, have experienced the brutality of the Libyan Coast Guard on our own skin, so we know what migrants desperate to leave Libyan prisons feel,” Russo told The New Humanitarian. 

2021 is shaping up to be the deadliest year in the central Mediterranean since 2017. At least 640 people have drowned or gone missing following shipwrecks, and more than 14,000 asylum seekers and migrants have reached Italy – a ratio of one death for about every 22 people who survive the crossing. 

In comparison, around 1,430 people had died or disappeared in the central Mediterranean by the end of May 2017, and more than 60,000 had arrived in Italy – a ratio of 1 death for every 42 arrivals.  

This year, more than 8,500 asylum seekers have also been intercepted by the EU-backed Libyan Coast Guard and returned to detention centres in Libya, European navies have largely withdrawn from search and rescue activities, and NGOs trying to help migrants – facing numerous bureaucratic hurdles – are struggling to maintain a consistent presence at sea. 

As weather conditions for crossing the sea improve heading into summer, Mazara’s fishermen find themselves increasingly alone, caught in the middle of a humanitarian crisis that appears to be getting worse and facing a hostile Libyan Coast Guard. 

Many of the fishermen feel their government has abandoned them in favour of maintaining good relations with Libyan authorities (an accusation Italian authorities refute), and are frustrated that Italy appears to be turning a blind eye to the risks of partnering with Libya to curb migration – risks the fishermen have witnessed and experienced first hand.

Last September, 18 fishermen from Mazara were captured by forces aligned with Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar while fishing in a disputed area of the sea. They were held in a detention centre in Libya for more than 100 days. Dozens of fishermen from the town have been similarly detained in a series of incidents stretching back to the 1980s.

More recently, at the beginning of May, the crew of a Libyan Coast Guard boat donated by Italy opened fire at three fishing vessels from Mazara – wounding one fisherman – for allegedly entering the disputed waters.

Italy’s government acknowledges that maritime boundaries need to be more clearly defined to avoid future incidents, but with the focus on other priorities – from the COVID-19 pandemic to controlling migration – that’s not likely to happen any time soon. 

Meanwhile, Mazara’s fishermen are frustrated that tens of millions of euros of Italian taxpayer money is being used to support a group that attacks and detains them, and they are increasingly speaking out about their experiences – and about what they say is Italy and the EU’s Faustian bargain with Libya in the central Mediterranean. 

“If [Libya] is not safe for us, who are Italian citizens and can have protection, how can it be [safe] for vulnerable asylum seekers?” Roberto Figuccia, a Mazara fisherman who has been detained by the Libyan Coast Guard twice since 2015 and has rescued more than 150 asylum seekers and migrants at sea, told The New Humanitarian. 

The early years

Located on the western edge of Sicily, Mazara del Vallo is around 170 kilometres from Tunisia and 550 kilometres from Libya – about the same distance the town is from Rome. Home to around 50,000 people, it is a melting pot of Mediterranean cultures. Since the 1960s, thousands of Tunisians have settled in the area to work in the fishing sector, and many now hold dual citizenship. About seven percent of the town’s current population was born abroad – a relatively high number for a small Italian town. 

Russo, however, has roots in Mazara that stretch as far back as anyone in his family can remember. He was born and raised in the town, and never left.  

He recalled setting out on a pristine early autumn morning in 2007 from Mazara’s port, steering his fishing boat out into the shimmering waters of the central Mediterranean. Russo and his five-man crew were preparing the fishing nets as the sun inched higher in the morning sky when someone spotted an object shining on the horizon. The crew soon realised it was a help signal from a boat stranded at sea. 

Russo piloted his trawler towards the people in distress. As he drew closer, he saw a deflating rubber dinghy packed with asylum seekers and migrants. There were 26 people onboard, mostly from Chad and Somalia. It was the first time Russo had rescued anyone at sea, and the event is seared in his memory. 

Back then – before numbers started soaring in 2014 and 2015 and the wider world suddenly started paying attention – it was still common for anywhere from around 17,000 to 37,000 asylum seekers and migrants to cross the central Mediterranean to Italy in any given year. No one was really keeping track of how many people died. 

Italian authorities would often call on fishing vessels from Mazara – like Russo’s – to assist in rescues and stabilise the situation until the Italian Coast Guard or Navy could arrive. “Since we were often closer to the scene, they would tell us to go ahead,” Russo said. “We would do it even if that meant losing work days and money.”

The fishermen’s rescue efforts gained international recognition, and several received awards for their humanitarian spirit. For most fishermen from Mazara, the rescues are not political; they just make sense. “We have never abandoned anyone,” said Russo, who has been involved in five other rescues. “We follow the law of the sea. For us, these are not migrants; they are simply people stranded at sea that we must help.” 

But in 2009, attitudes about migration outside of Mazara started to shift. The previous year, nearly 37,000 asylum seekers and migrants landed in the country – an increase from around 20,000 each of the three previous years. Sensing a political opportunity, Silvio Berlusconi, the populist Italian prime minister at the time, focused attention on the increase and signed a treaty of friendship with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, committing the two countries to work together to curb irregular migration. 

tunisian-migrants-mazara.jpg

Tunisian worshippers pray in a makeshift mosque inside a former shop in a neighbourhood called the Kasbah in Mazara del Vallo.
Eugenio Rosso/TNH
Tunisian worshippers pray in a makeshift mosque inside a former shop in a neighbourhood called the Kasbah in Mazara del Vallo.

In July 2009, Italy also introduced a law criminalising irregular entry into the country, and fishermen found themselves facing the threat of being charged with facilitating irregular immigration for rescuing people at sea. Each time they disembarked asylum seekers and migrants in Italian ports, they were now required to give a deposition to police stating they were not smuggling them into the country.

The 2009 law did not deter Mazara del Vallo’s fleet, but the policy made it more bureaucratically onerous – and potentially legally risky – for civilians to rescue people in distress.  

“Authorities would still close an eye on [rescues] in the first couple of years because those were new guidelines that military authorities had just begun navigating. But it was definitely the first signal that things were about to go in a different direction,” Russo explained.

The shift

The more decisive shift towards outright hostility against civilians rescuing asylum seekers and migrants in the central Mediterranean began after October 2014, when the Italian Navy’s search and rescue mission Mare Nostrum came to an end. 

The mission was launched one year early, in October 2013, after more than 400 people died in two shipwrecks off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. In Italy and the rest of Europe, the tragedies galvanised a brief moment of sympathy for people risking their lives at sea to reach safety. 

But the year that it operated, the number of people crossing the central Mediterranean jumped to over 170,000 – nearly three times the previous high. Most of those arriving in Europe were refugees escaping civil war in Syria or fleeing repression and human rights abuses in countries like Eritrea. But among European politicians, the idea took hold that having search and rescue assets at sea was acting as a pull factor, encouraging people to attempt the journey. 

Negotiations over an EU-backed operation to replace Mare Nostrum broke down. In the months and years that followed, Mazara’s fishermen noticed Italian and EU naval assets – deployed to combat people smuggling or enforce the UN arms embargo on Libya – slowly started retreating from the areas where most migrant boats crossed. 

Read more → Death on the Central Mediterranean: 2013-2020

Harassment and violent attacks by the Libyan Coast Guard against fishermen from Mazara also picked up pace, the fishermen say. 

Then, in 2017 Italy signed a memorandum of understanding with Libya to begin funding, training, and equipping the Libyan Coast Guard to reduce the number of asylum seekers and migrants reaching Europe; and Italy and the EU began pushing Libya to take control of the search and rescue zone off its coast. 

“The migration agreements were met with backlash from the Sicilian fishing sector,” Tommaso Macaddino, president of the Sicilian branch of the fishermen’s labour union UILA Pesca, told The New Humanitarian. “We already knew deputising the control of that area to Libyans would set a dangerous precedent, not only for migrants but also for Italians.”

For Macaddino, the negotiating power the agreement gave Libya – and the trade-off Italy was prepared to make – seemed clear. “A larger portion of waters under the management of Libyans meant migrants in that area were less of a European responsibility,” he said. It also meant, Macaddino added, that – in order to keep its Libyan partners happy – the Italian government was less likely to challenge Libya’s claim to the disputed waters where Mazara’s fishermen work.

Escalation

In 2017 and 2018, the situation for civilians rescuing asylum seekers and migrants in the central Mediterranean took yet another turn for the worse. Several Italian prosecutors opened investigations into whether NGOs were cooperating with Libyan people smugglers to facilitate irregular migration. In the end, none of the investigations turned up evidence of collusion, but they helped create an atmosphere of public and political hostility towards civilian rescue efforts. 

Mazara’s fishermen – once celebrated as humanitarians – were now seen by many as part of the “migration problem”. 

After Matteo Salvini – a right-wing, anti-migrant politician – became interior minister in 2018, he closed Italy’s ports to NGO rescue ships and introduced hefty fines for civilian rescuers who ran afoul of increasingly stringent Italian guidelines as part of a broader crackdown on migration.

For Pietro Marrone, a 62-year-old fisherman from Mazara who became a captain at age 24, the outright hostility was the last straw. “Instead of stepping back, it motivated many of us – well aware of the risks Libyan militia represent to any human being – to keep saving lives at sea,” Marrone told The New Humanitarian.



Marrone decided to join the NGO Mediterranea Saving Humans as a captain for rescue missions. In March 2019, the rescue boat Marrone was piloting saved 49 people – all migrants from western Africa, and several of them children – who had been drifting off the coast of Lampedusa for two days. Italian authorities refused to give Marrone permission to bring the rescued people into an Italian port, saying they should be returned instead to Libya. He brought them ashore anyway. 

“I refused to obey a military order to leave them at sea. In the 1980s, I had a violent encounter with Libyan militias, [so I know that] no one is safe if taken back to Libya,” he said.

Read more → What happens to migrants forcibly returned to Libya?

Marrone was charged with facilitating illegal immigration and disobeying the military, and had his captain’s license revoked. The case against him was dismissed last December after Salvini’s immigration bills were amended by a new Italian government that entered office in September 2019. But NGOs continue to be investigated and prosecuted for participating in rescue activities. 

Out of 21 cases opened since 2017, none has gone to trial. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Italian authorities have impounded NGO search and rescue boats at least eight times, citing what they say are various technical and operational irregularities. The NGOs say it is just another way the Italian government is trying to criminalise rescue activities. 

“What’s the crime here?” Marrone asked. “Humanitarian missions keep being criminalised, and migrants [keep being] pushed back to a country that cannot guarantee their protection, in crowded detention centres.”

Bearing witness

Ilyesse Ben Thameur, 30, is the child of Tunisian immigrants to Mazara del Vallo. He is also one of the 18 fishermen who was captured last September and held in Libya for over 100 days. 

The detention centre where he was held was overcrowded and filthy. Many of the other people in the facility were migrants or Libyan intellectuals opposed to Haftar. Ben Thameur said he could hear their screams as they were tortured, and see the lingering marks of violence on their bodies. Like other fishermen from Mazara, when he was released, he returned to Sicily with physical and psychological wounds. 

“If even EU citizens like myself cannot be safe there, imagine what it must feel like for migrants who have no one backing them up.” 

While captive, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs reassured Ben Thameur’s family that he was being kept “in safe and healthy conditions”. People in Mazara think the messaging was an attempt to hide the abuses taking place in a system they say Italy is complicit in supporting. 

“Our stories show that Libya, as a whole, is not a safe port for anybody,” Ben Thameur said. “If even EU citizens like myself cannot be safe there, imagine what it must feel like for migrants who have no one backing them up.” 

In May 2020, just a few months before he was captured, Ben Thameur helped save dozens of asylum seekers and migrants. He believes that if his crew wasn’t there, they might have been intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard and taken back to detention centres in Libya. 

Having experienced detention in Libya, it bothers him that his government is helping to send thousands of people back to those conditions. Along with other fishermen from Mazara – and across Sicily – Ben Thameur hopes speaking up about his own experiences will help make a difference. 

“If they don’t believe migrants' accounts, they will at least have to listen to EU citizens who experienced the same tortures,” he said. “Maybe our testimony showing that even Italians aren’t safe [in Libya] could somehow help change things.”

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