Meloni plan for naval blockade to migrants ‘a non-starter’

Former foreign affairs minister Evarist Bartolo told MaltaToday Giorgia Meloni’s plan for a naval blockade was a non-starter, particularly since it depended on the approval and participation of other member states

Fratelli d'Italia leader Giorgia Meloni
Fratelli d'Italia leader Giorgia Meloni

The far-right Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) surprised Europe by clinching 27% of the popular vote in Italy’s general elections two weeks ago, with its leader, Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s prospective prime minister.

For many years, Meloni has denounced Italy’s migration policies for being too lenient and for risking turning the country into the “refugee camp of Europe”.

Among the most controversial proposals she put forward during the electoral campaign was to reverses the country’s humanitarianism on refugees, for a blockade of the Mediterranean coast of North Africa to stop the flow of migrants to Italy and Europe.

Meloni has long made it clear that halting flows of people across the Mediterranean is one of her priorities. But she has never explained how the blockade would function: would Italy go it alone or seek EU involvement? When and where would vessels be patrolling? What would be the rules of engagement?

Efforts to block humanitarian rescue vessels from docking at Italian ports could prompt legal challenges. And if Meloni chokes off pathways to Italy, the volume of crossings would probably increase to other Mediterranean countries, including Malta and Spain — as happened three years ago.


Former foreign affairs minister Evarist Bartolo told MaltaToday Meloni’s plan for a naval blockade was a non-starter, particularly since it depended on the approval and participation of other member states.

Bartolo said that Meloni never said the Italian navy would be running the blockade alone – also because it lacks the units or resources to cover an additional 3,000km of coastline.

“Meloni’s proposal is not new; in fact there has already been a European military mission with a remit to stem immigration,” he said. “This was stopped because the EU countries themselves would no longer support it.”

In fact, following a spate of deaths in the Mediterranean in early 2015, the EU launched the Sofia mission in June 2015 with its main remit being migration. The mission ran until June 2019 and in those four years, it saved 45,000 people.

“But some EU countries put a stop to Sofia because they said it was actually serving as a pull-factor, encouraging people smugglers to send more migrants towards Europe, knowing they would be picked up by ships forming part of the mission and taken to EU ports,” Bartolo said.

The mission highlighted two main issues cited by opponents of the scheme: where the migrants would disembark and where they would be relocated.

In March 2020, the EU launched a new mission, Irini. But this time, because some EU countries would still not back a mission focused on migration, Irini’s only mission is to stop arms trafficking to or from Libya. It has no remit whatsoever on migration.


Comprehensive solutions

Martin Cauchi Inglott, former Colonel in charge of the Armed Forces of Malta’s Martitime Division, and now a martime security consultant, said that if Europe aspires to control migration out of Libya, comprehensive win-win solutions must be found which address the interests of asylum seekers, Libya and Europe alike.

He said migration continues to challenge the European project to precarious levels, while EU member states fail to act collectively, opting to put national interest above all other consideration.

“Any courses of action should protect asylum seekers and dissuade economic migrants from heading to Libya through amicable means,” Cauchi Inglott told MaltaToday. “But is this really possible? In my opinion, yes, though Europe cannot continue tackling migration in a compartmentalised manner.”

He said it is Libya’s responsibility – not Italy’s – to patrol its maritime borders, which it does to the best of its ability.

Migrants who manage to escape detection and proceed beyond Libya’s grasp are intercepted or rescued by EU maritime forces or NGO vessels.

The expectation for Italy or the EU to block migration at sea is not feasible because Europe is bound to ensure that refugees eligible for international protection are indeed protected.

“European countries favouring the blockading option should also consider two unquestionable ramifications,” Cauchi Inglott said.

“Firstly, migrants deserving of international protection and asylum in Libya are sandwiched between a rock and a hard place, probably having to endure more inhumane treatment and arduous working conditions, possibly even slavery,” he said.

“Secondly, tensions in Libyan detention centres could escalate to uncontrollable levels, and this will inevitably lead to human traffickers organising outbound waves of migrants to Europe.”

Processing centres

Meloni has also proposed the setting up of processing centres – what she calls ‘hot spots’ – outside the EU where migrants and asylum seekers would be processed before being allowed into the EU.

Evarist Bartolo said this was not an entirely novel idea and had been proposed previously in various iterations. “The UK and Denmark have already announced plans to set up such processing centres in Rwanda,” Bartolo said.  “Meloni, on the other hand, said she would propose setting up a centre in Tunisia, but I believe Tunisia would never accede to such a request.”

Cauchi Inglott agrees that migrants rescued at sea could have their asylum applications processed in centres in Libya or elsewhere, under the lead of the European Asylum Support Office, with the support of UNHCR, and under the country’s oversight.

“If land-based facilities are deemed unsafe, the EU should consider processing asylum applications aboard decommissioned cruise liners in coastal waters,” he said. “Migrants warranting possible asylum would then be transferred to Europe for further filtering and relocation in a fair and equitable manner.”