How Italy built Libya’s maritime forces


How Italy built Libya’s maritime forces

December 22, 2022

Lorenzo Bagnoli
Fabio Papetti

Between January 1st and late September 2022, over 16,600 migrants were disembarked back on Libyan shores by the country’s maritime forces. There were more than 160 “operations”, a sharp increase from the previous year. The term “operation”, in this context, can mean that boats carrying groups of migrants were either rescued or intercepted. The outcome is the same in either case: the passengers were returned to detention centres in Libya, waiting to buy their own freedom and try their luck at fleeing the country one more time. According to a UNHCR report, as of October 24th, out of 43,000 asylum seekers and refugees, 3,500 were being detained in Libya’s official prisons.

These figures point to an increase in the activities of the Libyan maritime forces. The country could never have achieved such “results” without contributions from Italy and other European countries. Italy alone has supplied at least 12 ships, as well as managing the contracts for their maintenance and the supply of specific equipment. In addition, it organises courses for crew training and leads the project to create a maritime rescue coordination centre (MRCC). These are the bricks upon which Italy has built the Great Mediterranean Wall of external borders in Libya, originating in the Memorandum of Understanding between the Italian and Libyan governments, which came into effect in February 2017, and will be automatically renewed for a three-year period on November, 2nd. The agreement drew the boundaries of the cooperation for border control in Libya.

IrpiMedia è gratuito

Ogni donazione è indispensabile per lo sviluppo di IrpiMedia

The Big Wall Project

Beginning this year, IrpiMedia will collaborate with ActionAid on investigations into The Big Wall; an observatory on the outsourcing of funds to manage migrant flows to Italy. Our work will also draw on requests for access to records by the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI).

The photographs for this article were taken by Sara Creta, who has been covering and reporting on migrants for many years.

Last year, ActionAid launched The Big Wall, an observer on the containment policies for migration flows that Italy has put in place since 2015. The project has revealed that Italy has committed to spending almost one billion euro to push the borders further south, in an effort to discourage departures from countries of origin and make migration less conspicuous to public opinion in Europe.

A Libyan Coast Guard vessel during a mission in the Central Mediterranean Sea – Photo: Sara Creta
Migrants aboard a Libyan Coast Guard vessel after being taken during a mission in the Central Mediterranean Sea – Photo: Sara Creta
A view of a detention center in Tajoura, Libya. According to the UN, a bomb dropped here in July 2019 by a foreign plane supporting Khalifa Haftar’s forces killed 53 people and wounded 130 – Photo: Sara Creta

This year, IrpiMedia and ActionAid looked into the funding of the Wall in the Central Mediterranean, the route followed by migrants to reach Italy from Libya – the subject of this investigation – and Tunisia, which will be covered in the next instalment. The main goal, according to records, is to stabilise the North African countries in order to curb the flow of migrants to Italy by striking migration at the root. Both countries, however, are obviously far from stable, and financial aids have fuelled internal conflicts rather than pacified them. The logic of the Great Wall leaves Italy and its European partners at the mercy of domestic policies in North African countries over management of Europe’s borders.

Brick by brick

Sources of funding come from Italy as well as the EU. Funds are not issued by a single entity, which results in money being handled by several contracting authorities: the Police, the Coast Guard, the Navy, and Invitalia, a government agency that oversees, among other things, the implementation of EU projects. Very few of these issue their calls for tender in public form, and in any case, the funding process is not transparent. For years, several NGOs have been asking them to share their data, in the light of the repeated violations of human rights suffered by migrants and the hundreds of deaths at sea. The lack of transparency has actual political consequences, too: without complete data, it is impossible to determine whether these programmes have achieved their goals. Overall, they have muddled through, well below what was promised and expected.

While formally a sovereign state, Libya has seen its border control, its army and its territorial integrity in tatters. «Libyan armed groups and their leaders took over the role once held by venal political elites and entrepreneurs, becoming instrumental for any development in the country», Libya advisor at DCAF Emadeddin Badi wrote in an article published by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) on July, 8th.

A conflict with no solution in sight
There are two governments vying for power in Libya: one in Tripoli, recognised by the United Nations, and one in Tobruk, recognised by the Libyan Parliament. The former is led by Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, the latter by Fathi Bashgagha. In August, armed groups loyal to the rival prime ministers battled across the capital once again. Since June, Bashgagha had been calling for his UN-backed opponent to step down. Dbeibah was expected to hold the office until elections in December 2021, which were then postponed.

The instability has also affected migrants: together with the economic crisis in Tunisia, it was among the main push factors behind the departures last summer. A little over a year ago, some of them started a movement under the name Refugees in Libya, speaking out against repression and arbitrary detention at the hands of Libyan authorities. The organisation called for an end to the Italy – Libya Memorandum of Understanding. With help from an international network of activists, the group has launched a blog.

Libya’s maritime forces are just as fragmented, and tainted by armed groups with different allegiances. Some of these answer to warlords, mostly with a personal loyalty to Dbeibah. Then there are the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG) and the General Administration for Coastal Security (GACS), which fall under the scope of the defence and interior ministry, respectively. The difference is that the former are “private” forces, answering directly to the president’s office, while the latter are “official” forces, subject to the chains of command of their respective ministries. However, the official forces include militias such as the al-Nasr brigade, which the UN lists as a human trafficking and fuel smuggling organisation.

The brigade also serves as the LCG in Zawiya, Western Libya. They are cops and criminals at the same time, with an interest in Italian contracts to consolidate their power at sea. For years, all these maritime forces have used the promise of rescuing migrants at sea as a bargaining chip.

Since the beginning of the cooperation five years ago, migrants are still fleeing Libya and drowning in the Mediterranean: the death rate in 2021 was 4.7%, compared to 2.6% in 2017. This figure indicates the percentage of people who drowned or went missing from the total number of departures for that year. The mortality rate peaked in 2019, when one out of ten migrants departing by boat drowned or went missing.

Where and how does money flow?

Perennial instability in Libya was given as the main cause of the delays in securing control of the country’s land and maritime borders. The Support to Integrated Border Management and Migration Management in Libya (SIBMMIL) programme was scheduled to wrap up as early as 2020, but some of the expected results were seen only in 2022. Its main goals are to strengthen the Libyan authorities’ capacity for rescue at sea as well as for maritime border control. According to Italy’s General Accounting Department, between 2017 and 2022 the country spent 27.2 million euro in EU funds allocated to this programme. The overall budget for SIBMMIL was 44.5 million, of which Italy contributed about two. The programme’s implementing body is the Italian Ministry of the Interior, one of the cornerstones of The Big Wall.

SIBMMIL for land borders: the agreement with the IOM

Among the beneficiaries of the fund is the UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM), working to protect migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. It is one of the very few organisations that have gained access – albeit with great difficulty – to Libya’s detention centres.
The IOM received 12 of the 44 million euros allocated to the SIBMMIL programme, following a three-party agreement with the European Commission and the Italian Ministry of the Interior. IOM officials explained that such agreements are not new. Under the convention with the Ministry, obtained through a request by the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI), the IOM would be providing mostly medical assistance to the migrants from the Southern desert, where border control is still far from being strengthened.

Assistance and protection are two of the IOM’s main missions, but more is expected from the UN agency, including the «vetting of Libyan officials participating in training activities, in order to exclude individuals who have committed human rights violations and abuses and therefore cannot be held reliable nor accountable for promoting and applying international standards». It seems an attempt to avoid another controversy, like the one that followed Avvenire’s discovery in 2019 that among the trained officials was alleged migrant trafficker and oil smuggler Abdel Rahman al-Milad, also known as Al-Bija.

However, ASGI was denied access to the documents detailing the IOM-Ministry agreement, as they are part of a «broader programme of international police cooperation with Libya», and therefore treated as classified foreign policy operations.

Of the 27.2 million euro that Italy spent on Libya, only about 20 million – less than four-fifths – could be tracked, between completed contracts and ongoing allocations. The main items of expenditure were 8.3 million in new marine vehicles (20 speedboats of various lengths); 3.4 in land vehicles (30 off-road vehicles, 14 ambulances, 10 minibuses); 5.7 in spare parts and maintenance of naval assets; 1 million in training activities, and one million in 14 containers.

Migrants wait in overcrowded conditions aboard a Libyan Coast Guard vessel in the Abu Sita naval base after being intercepted in the Central Mediterranean Sea – Photo: Sara Creta

The call for tender also includes the maritime rescue coordination centre among the mobile units. A MRCC plays a fundamental role not only in making rescue operations more effective, but also to legitimise such operations in terms of international law, without which they might be viewed as mere “pushback by proxy” from Italy.

With this programme, then, the European Union, at the urging of Italy, hopes to provide Libya with a crucial tool to independently manage the rescue of migrants at sea. The former defence minister Lorenzo Guerini spoke about the mission on July 7th, 2021, before the joint Foreign Affairs and Defence Committees. Guerini described the two directions pursued by the Italian armed forces in Libya: an increased involvement of the EU mission IRINI (patrolling the waters off the Libyan coast) in the training and monitoring of Libya’s maritime authorities, and the «development of an independent command and control of its assets by the Libyan navy»; in other words, the management of patrolling, search and rescue operations. Guerini was very clear on this point: «As of July 3rd, 2020, the activities have been carried out by the Libyan navy in complete autonomy, with their own land infrastructures and with no involvement from Italian defence personnel».

Information from Libya, however, tells a different story. A source that was very close to the coordination room of rescue operations in Tripoli until 2021, speaking anonymously as they were not at liberty to discuss the matter in interviews, claims that the Libyan coast guard officials are actually informed via email mostly by Italy (and to a much lesser degree, Spain and Malta), whenever a rescue operation must be carried out. According to the source, the Italian navy ship in the area, officially deployed on a «technical support» mission, is actually involved in the transmission of emails to the Libyans.

The mystery surrounding the role of the Italians in Tripoli compounds the embarrassment over the SIBMMIL programme: given all the funding, the MRCC should be fully operational, but the nature of the Libyan partners – more militia than official state apparatus – means that full control over the implementation of the programme is impossible.

Support to the GACS and the Coast Guard

Both the GACS and the LCG have «limited operational capacities», according to the EUBAM Libya Strategic Review 2021, a confidential document. The GACS is a police force that, until 2019, had a mandate to operate strictly within Libyan territorial waters. In 2021, it participated in 14 rescue operations at sea, and was part of an ongoing joint pilot project with Frontex and the Italian Ministry of Interior with the purpose of increasing GACS operational capacity to conduct search and rescue operations.

The goal is to include it in a monitoring system of sea borders wherein the GACS can exchange information with other European border police forces. This is not limited to immigration: the GACS is also expected to help intercept fishing vessels and cargo ships carrying contraband or weapons or fishing without a permit. Italy has supplied the GACS, and provided maintenance for a total of 7 patrol boats from 28 to 35 metres, plus another 20 vessels from 9 to 12 metres, to the tune of more than 9 million euros.

A GACS promotional video released on YouTube on June 8th shows the patrol boats supplied by Italy, including their interiors: the logos of Cantiere Navale Vittoria, the monitors, the electronic compasses, the Furuno satellite compasses, the navigation systems. Everything has been supplied to Libya through contracts issued by Italy’s Police and Guardia di Finanza. In the video, GACS director Al-Bashir Bannour says: «We thank our Italian partners for supporting us over the years with construction, supplying of replacement parts, maintenance and the training of workers».

The video makes Europe’s dependence on the Libyan maritime forces extremely clear: «According to official estimates, the number of migrants have doubled», the narrator says, «and the GACS does not have the strength to curb the influx, but it can fight the human traffickers». Later, the narrator explains that a lack of vessels «limits the effectiveness of the coastal security forces», adding: «The Ministry of Interior hopes that these new boats will bolster the capacity of crews», thanks to «new instruments» and «propulsion systems to assist ships on the high seas».

The LCG, on the other hand, is the maritime force that lies within the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence, together with the Navy. According to the report on LCG and Navy capability monitoring from Operation IRINI (the touchpoint for both training and the exchange of information among military), the LCG and the Navy have 26 vessels, 17 of which were supplied or repaired by Italy. The overall expenditure from 2018 until now, including funds to be used over 2022, is over 3 million euro. The patrol boats Ubari, Ras Al Jadar, and Sabratha, part of the Libyan fleet, have been involved in stand-offs with NGOs or incidents of violence on migrants.

What we know about the MRCC so far

On December 21st, 2021, the Italian Navy ship San Giorgio docked at Abu Sitta, the military base of the Libyan Navy, to deliver ten containers. The habitable mobile units are needed for the rescue coordination centre and a sort of encampment. While awaiting a more suitable location, the structure will be a mobile one, located inside one of the containers. The European Union’s ultimate goal is to fund 2 permanent MRCCs: one in Libya and another in Tunisia, a country that has not yet declared the borders of its SAR zone to the international community.

According to the source in Libya, the container with the equipment for the Libyan coordination centre has been sitting in the trading port for some time. Italy has already supplied a few computers and an antenna, but part of the material has not arrived yet. Therefore, the source reports, operations are currently being managed out of an apartment in a historic building, not far from Martyrs’ Square in central Tripoli.

Vessels belonging to the General Administration for Coastal Security (GACS) docked at the port of Tripoli, Libya – Photo: Sara Creta
A guard within the detention center of Shara Zawya in Tripoli, Libya – Photo: Sara Creta
A Libyan Coast Guard officer aboard the vessel Fezzen – Photo: Sara Creta

The fact that the MRCC in the container is still unused is likely due to intense competition between the Libyan Navy and Coast Guard (both under Tripoli’s defence ministry) over the management of rescue operations and, presumably, over EU funds and supplies. The LCG is less interested in the mobile operation room than in moving the base to Tajoura, located 15 kilometres out of Tripoli and formerly the site of a coordination centre, in a bid to gain more independence from the Navy.

Along with the containers, Abu Sitta has also received radio and radar equipment supplied by Italy’s Gem Elettronica srl and Elman srl, part of the MRCC package. All of the Italian suppliers declined to comment following our requests for clarification on the implementation of the MRCC. The technical dossier states that the equipment can be connected with a sensor located in the Abu Sitta base. Gem Elettronica, 30% of which is owned by Leonardo spa, has been involved in the supply of radar for Tripoli’s land borders since 2013.

In May 2021, Elman srl released a statement on its website announcing it would participate in the Libyan MRCC project. The Italian Navy only confirmed that they took part in the SIBMMIL programme for the creation of the MRCC, but did not provide further information on the installation of the containers.

The other wall: lack of transparency in EU funding

While doing research on the MRCC, IrpiMedia repeatedly requested access to information concerning its development. Few answers were given, often incomplete ones, citing «security reasons». This was especially true of EU funds for border outsourcing in Africa, which are «beyond the control of the European Parliament», according to MEP Özlem Demirel and her assistant Ota Jaksch. The European Parliament receives an annual report, a file that can be easily found by searching online, but the information it contains is not specific to each operation or project. «The European Commission establishes the programmes of the fund without having a transparent prior discussion or consultation of the respective EP committees before the decision is made», Jaksch added. «The EUTF follows the interests of the individual member States and their goals, and this has been like this since the beginning.»

The only way that MEPs can request further information from the Commission and the Council are written questions, but these «cannot exceed 200 words in total and may not have more than three questions. We already have to know something so that we can try to ask very concrete questions in order to possibly get sufficient replies», Jaksch and Demirel concluded.

No rhyme or reason

There is a recurring pattern in the cooperation between European countries and countries ruled by authoritarian regimes or weak governments. There is often a raison d’état that leads parties to enter into agreements even though it is unclear who the counterparties are and what their goals might be. Funding and cooperation projects are in the service of an unspecified agenda. So far, this strategy has not served Libya well: its maritime forces might be more efficient, yet the context in which they operate is highly unstable. Furthermore, this analysis does not take rule of law into account: the very same officials who were trained by Europe have been accused of human trafficking and smuggling, and there is no certainty that an actual chain of command even exists between the eastern and western regions of the country, as a unitary state would require.

Italy has attempted to guide the political process in Libya as the country is at the heart of the «enlarged Mediterranean», a geo-political space that Giorgia Meloni herself is invested in (as shown in her speech before the Chamber of Deputies, when she spoke about «our strategic role in the Mediterranean»). Yet in the past, when discussing the direct consequences of European missions on migrant flows, some ally states had voiced their reservations over the effectiveness of European initiatives led by Italy. In 2017, when Britain was still part of the European Union, one Lords Select Committee produced a report that described Operation Sophia (which was followed by Operation IRINI in 2020) as «a failed mission».

Two Italian Navy men at the naval base of Abu Sita in Tripoli, Libya – Photo: Sara Creta

The document noted that, contrary to Britain’s expectations, tackling irregular migration was not included in the mandate of the EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) in Libya. It went on to say that «creating a culture in the Libyan coastguard that respects the human rights of migrants is likely to be a major challenge». This is as true today as it was then: in late march 2022, Germany announced it would no longer participate in the training of Libyan officials, who had demonstrated «repeated unacceptable behaviour» towards refugees, migrants and NGOs.

According to Mark Micallef, director of the North Africa and Sahel Observatory at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GITOC), Libya’s forces should not be regarded as a unified entity. On the contrary, they are constantly opposing each other, and only a part of them is working to improve their search and rescue capabilities. Yet the expenditure to outsource border control in Libya continues unabated.


On November 8th, answering on behalf of the European Commission to a written question by Özlem Demirel, Vice-Commissioner Joseph Borrell admitted that «the European External Action Service (EEAS) is not in the position to provide information about the extent to which the GMDSS is used by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres as the MRCC is not operational yet», confirming what was told to IrpiMedia by the Libyan source.

On December 8th, The Libya Update leaked a document issued by the Justice Ministry of Government of National Unity, requesting that the Libyan Foreign Ministry remove Abdel Rahman Milad’s (known as Al-Bija) from their international sanctions list. Al-Bija is among the top officials of the LCG in Zawiya, trained and equipped by the Italians. «In October of this year, the Tripoli-based government honored Milad as he received a “letter of recognition and appreciation” directly from Fathallah Al-Zinni, who currently serves as minister of youth in Dbeibeh’s cabinet», The Libya Update adds.



Lorenzo Bagnoli
Fabio Papetti

With the contribution of

Antonella Mautone

Translation from Italian by

Francesco Graziosi

In partnership with


Foto di copertina

A Libyan Coast Guard officer aboard the vessel Fezzen
(Sara Creta)