Belgian newspaper De Standaard reports on 31 August that the Italian secret service is paying Libyan human traffickers to keep immigrants away from the Meditteranean Sea. As the most important source for this news, it cites the attestation of someone they call ‘Samir’. De Standaard claims Samir has been researching human trafficking in Libya for the past six years, on the orders of an EU member state. His reports are said to be highly valued by the United Nations. His claim about the secret deal the Italians made in Libya, is furthermore said to be confirmed by four well-informed sources. Samir claims:
“Two deputies of the Italian secret service travelled to Sabratha in Libya this spring to negotiate with human traffickers. They promised large amounts of cash and support in exchange for stopping migrants.“
De Standaard claims that the deal with ‘Brigade 48‘, as the gang – widely known for mass rapes, murders and tortures, call themselves, is the real reason for a spectacular reduction in the number of migrants (down 82%) in August. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) even announced that the past 22 days no lives were lost at sea.
Italy denies having made a deal. The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims that recent measures at sea, like the NGO code and more efficient operations by the Libyan Coast Guard have caused the reduction. De Standaard dismisses this out of hand, claiming the reduction started before the measures were taken and that the Libyan Coast Guard is stopping less people than two months ago. The paper cites migration expert Matteo Villa of the think tank Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), who says:
“All local sources I have contacted confirm the smugglers have changed sides in return for Italian money. It is smart of the Italian government to widely communicate its measures at sea, while at the same time making a secret deal on land with the trafficking-mob.“
De Standaard corroborates its story by pointing at an undescribed, unnamed ‘public facebook page’ where the traffickers supposedly simply tell about Italy ordering them to raise a small army of 500 ‘hunters’.
According to source Samir, the Italians paid €5 million to the traffickers, using the police headquarters and city hall of Sabratha as a front. He even claims Brigade 48 made its own headquarters there. Meanwhile, Samir’s sources say the €5 million are just a deposit:
“The Italians wanted to know whether or not the money would be well spent.“
De Standaard then quotes one Bashir Ibrahim, whom it calls the new spokesman for Brigade 48, as telling Associated Press that the situation is a truce, and that:
“if the support for our civil guard stops, we won’t have the capacity to keep doing this work.“
Interestingly, an AP piece, using a very similar quote, mentions a Bashir Ibrahim in relation to another militia, called the brigade of al-Dabashi, not Brigade 48.
The article ends with Villa suggesting that the deal can be kept in place over the summer, despite the volatile situation in Libya, pointing at the Italian gas company Eni, which is able to protect 400km of the pipeline through war zones. Villa claims that Eni pays off militias. Meanwhile, he thinks that the only true way forward is the one suggested by the European Commission: supporting the Tripoli government and training the Libyan Coast Guard:
“That is the only way to contain the violence. But the member states are impatient. The German, Austrian and Italian elections are coming up. They all want fast results. And if you lean on the Libyans too hard, they lapse into their old ways. They will use brutal force and victimise the migrants.“