The Arab Spring is far from being over - illegal migration in Italo-Libyan relations

Par Lili Takács | 11 octobre 2018

Pour citer cet article : Lili Takács, “The Arab Spring is far from being over - illegal migration in Italo-Libyan relations”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Jeudi 11 octobre 2018,, consulté le 02 juin 2023

Illegal migration into the European Union has been dominating the political discourse over the last months both on national and European level. The social problems in connection with illegal migration have their effects on the results of the national parliamentary elections, as it can be seen in the case of Italy: Lega and MoVimento 5 Stelle (M5S) both have strong anti-migration policies, which will have a strong impact on Italy’s bilateral relations with Libya. Libya is the main point of departure in illegal migration to the European Union, since the EU-Turkey deal came into force in 2016, so the stabilization of the fragile Libyan situation would affect the European political discourse.

Italy’s relations with North African Arab countries are traditionally strong, due to its historical, cultural and geographical ties to countries on the Southern side of the Mediterranean basin. Maintaining stable diplomatic, political, economic and commercial relations has been considered as strategic priorities by Italian governments. Amongst the region’s countries Italian presence is the strongest in Libya, from political, economic and military point of views as well, which reflects Italian strategic interests in Libya. These can be divided into three different categories: 1.) maintaining strong economic relations and enlarging commercial relations; 2.) guaranteeing Italy’s energy security through the oil arriving from Libya, reducing Italy’s dependence on Russian oil; 3.) reducing the flows of illegal migration departing from Libya, by doing so reducing the social problems caused by illegal migration and stopping international terrorist groups from entering Italy and the European Union.

Even though the above-mentioned three interests create interdependence between these countries, bilateral relations are characterized by constant instability, Italy’s dependence on Libya has increased since the Arab spring. Italy’s vulnerability caused by its energy-dependence and by its need of stopping illegal migration flows has been used as a threat in bilateral relations since Muammer Quaddafi[1] came into power in 1969. Ever since the death of the colonel in 2011 there is no power in Libya which could extend its rule over the whole territory of the country, so the potential of ‘blackmail’ which had been previously in the hands of Quaddafi, now could be used by several, smaller groups dominating the different parts of Libya, and Italian diplomacy is constrained to make amends towards more groups, than in the past. Although Matteo Salvini (Italian Minister of Interior) has a fierce way of handling illegal migration, power groups controlling the Northern region of Libya have the same potential of blackmail as Quaddafi had.

The three main interests have been constant since the beginning of the ’70-s, however the emphasis have moved towards the issue of illegal migration since the beginning of the 21st century. The Arab spring has escalated this trend. The Italian strategic interests regarding economic relations and energy security are always present in the Italian-Libyan bilateral relations, but illegal migration and the fear of illegal migrants have the biggest impact on the subjective perception of security of the Italian population, so handling it needs to be a priority of any government.

Italian diplomacy had to make a real effort in creating and maintaining stable bilateral relations with Libya, but the hardest challenges always regarded illegal migration. Parallel to the growing number of social problems caused by illegal migration, it has gained more attention in bilateral relations.

In the 2000-s Italian and Libyan migration laws have become more severe, in the same period when Quaddafi cut bilateral deals with several member states of the EU (Italy, France, Great-Britain). It is important to highlight that part of the deals was the handling of illegal migration. Quaddafi’s goal by using illegal migration as a threat was to reintegrate Libya in the international community after the sanctions (imposed by the international community for supporting terrorist groups) were lifted. Bilateral agreements with EU member states made possible to dialogue with the EU on community level, but the EU’s activities towards Libya did not go further than organizing summits or programs (e.g. Euro-African Ministerial Level Development Conference in Tripoli in November 2006, Memorandum of Understanding in July 2007, etc.), a  comprehensive and enforceable framework agreement was not signed, so the EU-Libya cooperation has had only limited results, while bilateral agreements with Italy resulted to be more effective.

The often criticized Bengasi treaty in November 2008 was the most important agreement regarding illegal migration, since it reduced significantly the number of sea arrivals from Libya. It goes without saying that the Bengasi agreement was not the first bilateral agreement aimed at curbing illegal migration, but it was the first – and basically the last – that achieved the desired goal. There are a number of reasons for this, firstly, that by creating a complete political framework for the bilateral relations, the Bengasi treaty was more comprehensive than the ones signed before. Secondly, Italy pledged much more financial support for Libya. As it can be seen below, the treaty of Bengasi lead to a sudden decline of sea arrivals from Libya, but the Arab spring reversed this trend.

Source: FRONTEX: Migratory Routes 

The outbreak of the bloody protests led to an immediate migration flow[2] followed by the Italian government’s decision to declare emergency on 12th February 2011. The decision of declaring emergency needs to be highlighted, since it permitted disregarding certain legislations and accelerating the evaluation of asylum applications.[3] As it can be seen, after the first flow directly after the outbreak of the conflict, the number of arrivals decreased in 2012, but after smuggler networks were reorganized by 2013, and Libya descended into an ever deepening chaos, human traffickers could operate and create new smuggling routes with better infrastructure without any restriction. Their scope of activities was extended to drug and arms smuggling, creating a multi-billionaire business which could not be restrained by the border, law enforcement and security agencies of the weak and fragile states of the region ranging from the poor Sub-Saharan states to the conflict-torn North African states.

The impacts of illegal migration through the Mediterranean in Italy

Social reactions

Migration gradually conquered the public discourse in Italy from the middle of the 2000s: firstly the mass immigration of Moroccan people, then of the Romanian Roma population caused tension amongst Italians. The distorted media presentation of crimes committed by immigrants aggravated the problem, increasing xenophobia in the society. The Italian society struggling with the migratory pressure caused by the Arab spring, started to see illegal immigration as a growing threat to security which resulted in the need of keeping the topic of illegal immigration in the public narrative.

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs safety is regarded as the second most important need in human life, right after the most fundamental, physiological needs. Even though Maslow’s theory is outdated according to a lot of scientists, the desire for safety and security has been in the center of welfare research. When examining the social impacts of illegal migration, the concept of subjective perception of security needs to be taken into consideration. The subjective security is closely related to the perception of threats, it is influenced by psychological situation, publicity, environment, experiences, institutions and social status[4]. The issue of illegal migration is already the subject of a heated public debate on national and at EU level as well, while mass media present in more and more aspects of life of the population contributes significantly to the increase of perception of threat regarding migration, which needs to be handled by politics.

In the campaign running up to Italy’s parliamentary elections in 2008 illegal immigration had a central role. During this period 68% of Italians thought that the majority of migrants reside illegally in the country, which is more than twice the European average. However, the 2008 campaign focused on Roma immigration, the migration from North Africa was less important, almost negligible. Public discourse about migration was so intense – and often one-sided – that according to surveys Italian population considered immigrant population four times bigger (23%) than in reality (6,56%); while 77% of Italians thought that parallel to the increase in immigrants, criminality is increasing[5]. Crimes committed by immigrants had an often one-sided, growing media coverage to the detriment of immigrants, but according to statistics crime amongst migrants in Italy and crime amongst Italian nationals was approximately on the same level; and the rate of crimes committed by foreigners was increasing at a slower pace than the size of the immigrant population.

The economic crisis of 2008 and its devastating effects on Italian economy, most importantly the growing unemployment overshadowed the problems related to illegal migration. Polling data show that the biggest concern of Italian population was the fear of being unemployed, while the proportion of Italian nationals who considered illegal immigration the biggest threat to their lives, decreased from 18% to 10% between 2009 and 2010. (This decrease is bigger than the European average: from 11% to 10%)[6]. The rise of xenophobia amongst Italians was not inherent to the economic crisis, however the unreal presumptions regarding illegal migration survived.

The social tension caused by the migration flows right after the Arab spring was aggravated by the fact that in 2012 Italy was required to abolish labour limitations regarding Romanian and Bulgarian workforce (the limitations were set in 2007 when these two countries joined the EU), which had already been a source of social tensions. The number of Romanian immigrants rose sharply due to the liberal regulations by the Prodi-government[7]: by this time more than 20% of all immigrant residing in Italy was Romanian. From the middle of the 2000s Romanian immigrants (mostly illegally arrived Romanian Roma people) caused growing tension amongst Italians, media coverage linked almost directly certain types of crime (e.g. theft, robbery, sexual violence) with Romanian Roma delinquency groups, which resulted in the condemnation of Romanians in Italy. It shows that central position of illegal immigration during the 2008 campaign was more linked to Eastern European immigration than to the illegal migration from North Africa. However, the obligation of abolishing limitations on Easter European work-force exacerbated the existing social tensions caused by the Arab spring.

By 2014-2015 the number of sea arrivals was four times bigger than in the previous years, and the proportion of the Italian population who considers migrant crisis the biggest threat on their country doubled. Islamist terrorism needs to be mentioned in connection with illegal migration, since during this period opinion polls showed a sharp increase in the fear of terrorism. This fear culminated in March 2015 after the terrorist attacks against Charlie Hebdo, and the attack against Bardo museum in Tunisia[8]. As the headlines about Islamist terrorism started to relegateto the background during the summer 2015, the fear from migration rose again.[9]

Source: Transatlantic Trends, 2014, own edition

Even though Italians’ attitude towards migration has become stricter since 2014, it was perceived as a primary threat, the approval rate of Mare Nostrum was surprisingly high. Italians were proud of their government’s action, they valued saving migrants’ lives on the sea. This changed completely by 2018: according to the human rights report of Amnesty International Italy xenophobia is spreading in Italy at a higher pace than in other European countries, the fear of ‘others’ is about to become a state of nature, which reflects the political discourse of the country[10]. The situation in Libya is considered to be graver by analysts and researchers, than by the population, 25% of the polled analysts saw the Libyan situation as the most urgent problem of Italy.[11]

Italians have a quite peculiar, one could say almost hypocrite way of seeing their goverments’ efforts to handle illegal migration. Although migration is perceived to be more and more menacing, a threat to Italy’s security, which would require tougher regulation by the government; polled Italians valued liberal migration policies to a bigger extent. 56% of respondents appreciated Angela Merkel’s decision to open German borders for Syrian refugees; 70% of them supported Pope Francis’ call for every Italian parish to accommodate refugees; Austrian and German ‘Wilkommenskultur’ was welcomed by 62%; while 66% of the respondents disapproved the tough migration policy of the Hungarian government . Thus, implementing tougher migration legislation is welcomed in Italy, but outside its national borders liberal migration policies with emphasis on humanitarian challenges are welcomed. This duplicity in the Italian public opinion is also confirmed by the fact that while Mare Nostrum was seen as a ‘pull factor’ for migration by a lot of people, the operation had a large support base in Italian society. 

Italians are united in being dissatisfied with their government regarding handling illegal migration, but they are divided about its solution. In 2016 the majority of the respondents (40%) supported intercepting migrants in the transit countries. The so-called Minniti-programme (named after the then minister of Interior Marco Minniti) addressed this demand more effectively than previous attempts to curb the number of sea arrivals. 20% of the population support deportation, which altogether means that two third of Italian population prefer not letting migrants in Italy or removing them from their country as soon as possible.[13] 

As it was mentioned above, the connection between illegal migration and criminality has been present in Italian media coverage since the middle of the 2000s. Even though this connection has often been covered one-sidedly, the security challenges posed by illegal migration to the host county cannot be denied. On the one hand the growing number of people from a foreign culture can lead to the loosening of the identity, on the other hand if migrants bend visibly the written and unwritten rules of the host societies, the society’s perception of security will decay even without an increase in crime. This is a constant problem in Italy due to the differences between the habits of the mostly Catholic Italian society and the mostly Muslim illegal immigrants. The low living standard of illegal immigrants can lead to further tensions, primarily amongst the lower classes of society, whose members are already struggling with financial problems and unemployment, they can perceive this problem as a further deterioration of their own situation. 

Given that migrants arrive to Italy mostly illegally there is a strong connection with other illegal spheres, such as organized crime groups, mafias. Organized crimes, transnational crimes, problems in connection with international terrorism (e.g. Rome is considered to be a traditional target of Islamist terrorist groups) bring forth additional security challenges. It should be highlighted that even though Italian prisons have been overcrowded for decades (overcrowding often exceeds the 300% of the original capacities), the challenges caused by radicalization in prisons have not emerged in Italy, contrary to Belgium or France. The reason behind this is that in French or Belgian prisons there are more second or third-generation immigrants, struggling with identity-crisis, than in Italian prisons, since the majority of African immigrants does not settle down in Italy.

The above-mentioned dissatisfaction of Italians with their own government had a direct effect on Italian politics. Italy was mostly governed by centre-left coalitions from the death of Quaddafi in 2011 to 2018 and the disapproval with their migration policies lead to a shift in voter preference to the right (or to the parties previously considered as extremists), as it  manifested in the results of the 2018 parliamentary elections.

Impacts on Italian domestic politics

As illegal migration through Mediterranean had its effects on Italian society and politics, it has its impact on the political dialogue on European level, Italy being one of the founding members of the Union. 

The Italian politics’ answers for the migration flows after the Arab spring were rejected by the majority of Italian society: the foreign policy regarding Mediterranean was thought to be an appropriate way of representing Italian interests by only 22% of Italians[14]. Disapproval of Italian foreign policy was further nourished by unsatisfactory government reactions to migration. This has changed the Italian political spectrum: although the then-strongest force of Italian left, Partito Democratico (PD) was able to form a grand-coalition government in 2013, the elections taken place since 2013 (e.g. European elections in 2014, municipal elections is 2015, parliamentary elections in 2018) ended with the advance of populist, extremist parties.

After the Bossi-Fini legislation in 2002 Italian migration policy was dominated by a more restrictive approach aiming to stop migration, but as it was shown in the previous graphs, the number of immigrants increased constantly, so Italian migration policy could not be seen as a success story even before the Arab spring. Italian politics was neither able to give an effective answer to the growing immigration, nor to handle the problems in connection with immigrants already residing in Italy (e.g. integrational challenges, one-sided media coverage of ‘immigrant crimes’), which from 2008 led to the rising and strengthening of xenophobic parties.

When the violent protests at the beginning of the Arab spring started to have an impact on Italy, the different approaches to illegal immigration of the right wing government parties put the government at risk at several occasions. Silvio Berlusconi – then leader of Popolo della Libertá, member of the European People’s Party – proposed Italian and international measures and actions which were antagonistic with the identity of the other coalition party, Lega Nord. These proposals included prepaying the costs of readmission to the host countries from Italian budget until several European funds were made available to cover it; but for Lega, approval of these proposals would have led to a dramatic decrease in the number of voters. The government parties’ approaches to handling migration were fundamentally different, which complicated giving effective and fast solutions to the problem.

When examining the changes in Italian domestic politics it should be noted at the outbreak of the Arab spring, Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing government was in power, but shortly after Quaddafi’s death in the autumn of 2011, the Berlusconi government have failed. The new, technocrat government led by Mario Monti did not face the challenges whether to participate in the intervention in Libya or not, but they had to face semi-direct consequences of the intervention, the migration flows. As the statistics show the number of see arrivals started to increase after the left-wing Letta-government[15] was formed in 2013, after months of unsuccessful attempts to form government. The number of illegal migrants arriving in Italy grew further during the left-wing Renzi-government, as well, aggravating social and political tensions. Although the left-wing Gentiloni-government (replacing the Renzi-government) was more successful in decreasing the number of sea arrivals, thanks to the fact that Marco Minniti (minister of Interior) had a new approach of handling migration: instead of reducing the number of sea arrivals, his goal was to stop migration on the whole, however it could not repair Italian left’s lost popularity.

It would be inappropriate to see a cause-effect relation between the ‘crisis’ of the Italian left and the growing number of illegal sea arrivals, but it should be noted that the traditional Italian left was not able to give an adequate answer to the unprecedented social tensions caused by illegal migration. It contributed highly to the fact that in the 2018 parliamentary elections populist and extremist parties have reached an unprecedented success.

Impacts on Italian economy

Italy had not recovered from the economic downturn by the time the migration flows of the Arab spring reached the country. Even though the economy is slightly growing, it is far from the pre-2008 level, excessive public debt and youth unemployment is still an enormous challenge to tackle. Legal migrants doubtlessly contribute to both sustaining and overburdening the Italian welfare system. In 2016-2017 migrants constituted cc. 0,5% of the workforce and produced 9% of GDP, they were younger and more active than the aging Italian society. Italian business sector employs willingly migrant workers, especially in the construction sector, agriculture and in other sectors that are less appealing to Italian youth, since migrant workers in Italy are not in competition with Italian workforce, they do not take away the jobs of Italians. According to the latest statistical data the contribution to the GDP of foreigners residing in Italy still exceeds significantly the billions of euros spent for handling the migration crisis. If only the part of Italian GDP produced by residing foreigners is considered, it would be the 17th economy in the European Union by itself, passing for example Hungarian, Croatian or Slovakian economies as well.[16] 

Illegal migration through the Mediterranean-sea has though diverted attention. The Ministry of Economy is still expecting growing expenses for migration: while in 2015 they spent 2,6 billion euros and in 2016 3,3 billion euros, the Stability Programme of 2017 expected 4,8 billion euros to be spent on migration (it is the 0,26% of GDP), even though the number of arrivals was in decline. According to the government the EU’s contribution was only 91 million euros[17]. Expenditures regarding migration are far-reaching (e.g.:  rescue operations, identification accommodation of the arrivals, costs of readmission, amortisation of the rescue facilities, maintaining of the welfare-system, etc.) and hard to calculate as a consequence of the instability.

As the statistics show the contribution of migrant living in Italy to the budget exceeds several times the amount spent on migration, they contribute to maintain Italian welfare-system, which is facing challenges as a consequence of the ageing Italian society; they take jobs that Italian nationals wouldn’t take, therefore they are not taking jobs from Italians. However, such expenditures spent on migration were not calculated in the Italian budget and economic performance in the long run. Having a balanced budget with enough amount to be spent on migration had been a challenge even before the Arab spring started, since Italy hadn’t recovered from the 2008 crisis; but the larger migration-expenditures are harder to set aside, while the economy is still struggling.

The impacts of the migration flows after the Arab spring are expected to be less positive in the long-run, as it could be for example in Germany, because for the majority of the arrivals from North Africa, Italy is considered to be a transit country, they do not plan on residing in Italy, therefore entering Italian labour market, so in the long run they do not take part in the post-2008 recovery of the economy.


[1] Muammer Qaddafi, commonly known as Colonel Queddafi ruled Lybia with an iron fist from 1969 to 2011.

[2] The Italian government started to establish relations with the new Tunisian regime at the beginning of the first migration flow, while the Tunisian situation was about to consolidate. The ministers of Interior signed a new agreement about the readmission of illegal migrants. However the obvious differences between the Tunisian and Libyan situations need to be emphasised: the regime change in Tunisia was fast and relatively smooth, the ’succession’ was unambigouos, Italian diplomacy found an interlocutor. But as this case shows, curbing illegal migration flows was a primary objective of the Italian administration.

[3] Consiglio dei Ministri (2011): Piano per l’accoglienza dei migranti,,

[4] Buzan, Barry – Wæver, Ole – Wilde, Jaap de (1998): A New Framework for Analysis Lynne Rienner, Publishers. Boulder, Colorado.

[5] Matarazzo, Raffaello (2009): L’Italia e immigrazione, tra fobie e integrazione, Affari Internazionali, forrás:         limmigrazione-tra-fobie-e-integrazione/.

[6] Transatlantic Trends (2014): Mobility, Migrationa and Integration, The German Marshall Fund

[7] from May 2006 to May 2008.

[8] When examining these polls we must take into consideration that 3 Italian nationals lost their lives in the attack against Bardo museum. Later the investigation found that one of the attackers was trained in Libya.

[9] Transatlantic Trends, 2014

[10] Corriere della Sera (2018): Il rapporto Amnesty: «L'Italia è intrisa di ostilità e razzismo»,

[11] ISPI (2016): Cosa pensano gli esperti,

[12] ISPI (2017): Gli italiani e il resto del mondo,

[13] Istituto Nazionale di Statistica (2018): Notizie sulla presenza straniera in Italia,,; Tóth Bálint László (2017): Az olasz migrációs politika hátterének elemzése, Migrációkutató Intézet,

[14] ISPI, 2017

[15] Even though Enrico Letta’s government was a coalition government between the left-wing Partito Democratico, and the right-wing Popolo della Libertá, it is considered to be a left-wing government, PD being the leading coalition party.

[16] Fondazione Leone Moressa (2017): Rapporto 2017 sull’economia dell’immigrazione, :

[17] Programma di Stabilità (2017),



Buzan, Barry – Wæver, Ole – Wilde, Jaap de (1998): A New Framework for Analysis Lynne, Rienner, Publishers. Boulder, Colorado.

Consiglio dei Ministri (2011): Piano per l’accoglienza dei migranti,

Corriere della Sera (2018): Il rapporto Amnesty: «L'Italia è intrisa di ostilità e razzismo»,

Fondazione Leone Moressa (2017): Rapporto 2017 sull’economia dell’immigrazione,

FRONTEX: Migratory Routes

ISPI (2016): Cosa pensano gli esperti,

ISPI (2017): Gli italiani e il resto del mondo,

Istituto Nazionale di Statistica (2018): Notizie sulla presenza straniera in Italia,

Matarazzo, Raffaello (2009): L’Italia e immigrazione, tra fobie e integrazione, Affari Internazionali, source:

Programma di Stabilità (2017),

Tóth Bálint László (2017): Az olasz migrációs politika hátterének elemzése, Migrációkutató Intézet,

Transatlantic Trends (2014): Mobility, Migrationa and Integration, The German Marshall Fund

Photo credit: naturalflow, Flickr,