The United Nations’ migration agency says it unknowingly co-operated with a notorious Libyan human trafficker in 2017, when he was invited by the Italian government to a meeting in Sicily at the height of the Mediterranean migrant crisis.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) on Monday said it regrets dealing with the Libyan criminal, Abd al-Rahman Milad, better known as Bija, but didn’t know at the time that he was serial abuser of migrants.
The IOM’s acknowledgment came after a Friday report from Italy’s Avvenire newspaper that the May, 2017, meeting, which was sponsored by the Interior Ministry and organized by the IOM, included Mr. Milad. Only a few weeks after the meeting, which was held at Cara di Mineo, one of Europe’s biggest migrant reception centres, in eastern Sicily, a UN Security Council report said Mr. Milad and his men were consistently linked with human-rights violations against migrants and were “directly involved in the sinking of migrant boats using firearms.”
Mr. Milad was the head of the Coast Guard in the city of Zawiyah, about 50 kilometres west of Tripoli. He was also an “important collaborator” with a local militia leader, fuel smuggler and trafficker named Mohammad Koshlaf, who also operated a migrant detention centre, the UN report said.
Avvenire said Mr. Milad obtained an Italian visa to attend the meeting in Sicily. The newspaper obtained leaked photos of the meeting which clearly show Mr. Milad taking part in the proceedings on slowing the migrant flows to Europe. His presence is not disputed by the Italian government or by the IOM. According to Avvenire, Mr. Milad asked the Italian authorities for money to manage the reception of migrants in Libya. The IOM said Mr. Milad was a Libyan Interior Ministry official at the time.
On Monday, the IOM, in a statement, said that it “did not know about the accusations against [Mr. Milad] at the time of the meeting. … We of course regret that this individual was part of the official Libyan delegation on a facilitated trip to Italy.”
Mr. Milad was officially blacklisted by the UN in 2018. “The UN blacklist identified [Mr Milad] as one of the most brutal abusers of migrants,” the IOM said. “IOM’s co-operation with him ended at that time.”
The meeting at the Cara di Mineo migrant centre included Italian intelligence and Interior Ministry officials, IOM representatives and Libyan officials. The discussions came as Italy and its European allies were lobbying the Tripoli government to build migrant “reception” centres on Libyan soil. (The effort failed.)
Three months earlier, the then-Italian interior minister, Marco Minniti, a member of the Democratic Party who had strong connections with the Italian intelligence service, signed a co-operation memorandum with Fayez al-Sarraj, leader of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli. The agreement saw the Italian government buy equipment, such as patrol boats, and provide funding for the Libyan coast guard on the condition that it pick up migrants at sea and return them to Libya.
The system seemed to work. After the Sicily meeting, migrant arrivals from Libya plunged. In May, 2016, about 26,000 migrants reached Italy. By September of that year, the number had fallen to 5,000. But human-rights groups said the migrants suffered rape, torture, extortion and other abuses once they reached Libyan shores.
While it was suspected by some government watchers that some of the Italian funds ended up in the hands of traffickers or militiamen, the allegations were denied by the Italian interior ministry.
“There had always been suspicions about the agreement between the Libyan coast guard and the Italian government,” Nello Scavo, the journalist who wrote the Avvenire article, told the Guardian. “In the past, there had already been talk of the suspected involvement of traffickers in the Libyan coast guard. But now we have the evidence. It seems really strange that Italian intelligence was not aware of [Mr. Milad’s] identity.”
The IOM said it has helped more than 47,000 “often horribly abused migrants” return home from Libya since 2015. The migrants were held in detention centres or trapped in urban areas.
An e-mail request for an interview with Mr. Minniti was not returned. He is no longer interior minister. The new Interior Minister, Luciana Lamorgese, a career migration specialist, is working closely with European Union migration officials to launch a pan-EU migrant-sharing strategy.
Her undersecretary, Carlo Sibilia, told Avvenire that the Interior Ministry will examine the evidence produced in the article. “We must be certain that there is no exchange with smugglers,” he said.
In a Reuters interview last year, when he was blacklisted by the UN and sanctioned, Mr. Milad denied any wrongdoing. “The [UN] Security Council has categorized me as a criminal without any evidence,” he said. “Regarding me carrying out human smuggling, this is not true … I am a legitimate officer of the navy and the only coast guard unit that has been working since 2014. I have never fired a bullet at migrants.”
While the migrant arrivals to Europe have fallen by about half since 2017, when almost 187,000 migrants came by sea and by land, the number of fatalities is still tragically high. So far this year, 1,041 migrants crossing the Mediterranean are dead or missing, the IOM said.
On Monday, the Italian coast guard recovered the bodies of 13 women whose small, overcrowded boat capsized off the coast of Lampedusa, the Italian island halfway between Sicily and the Tunisian coast.