Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni reportedly sought assistance from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in halting the flow of migrants and refugees from Libya during her visit to Turkey on Saturday. In the meantime, the Turkish side has proposed a joint agreement to be signed by Italy, Libya and Turkey. Erdogan, known for leveraging migration issues, particularly stemming from Syria and Afghanistan, in his dealings with Europe, aims to establish himself as a leader in preventing a migrant influx into Europe in the Mediterranean region as well.
While the discussion in the pro-government Turkish media provides limited information about the meeting, reports from Meloni’s side highlight her specific emphasis on Turkey leveraging its influence over Libya to address the issue of African migrants and smugglers entering Italy. Turkey’s proximity to Italy is strengthened by the fact that unlike Greece, Italy does not oppose Turkey’s operations in Libya.
Previously, the prevention of migrant flows from Libya was a shared agenda between Italy and Turkey, prompting the foreign ministries of both countries to initiate collaborative efforts. In Ankara circles, there are claims that President Erdogan suggested to the Italian prime minister, in conjunction with Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh, the possibility of jointly signing a trilateral agreement. This proposal is believed to involve cooperation on issues related to migration and security in the Mediterranean region.
Turkey’s close ties to the Libyan government are accompanied by a growing military presence in the country. Last month, a presidential motion proposing a 24-month extension of the Turkish military’s mission in Libya was approved by the Turkish parliament.
Underlining the importance of the Turkish navy’s presence in the region, President Erdogan stated that the government’s objective is to ensure national security against potential threats, including mass migration and terrorism, through the approved motion.
With financial backing from Qatar, Turkey has actively engaged in arming, training and supporting factions aligned with the Erdogan government in Libya since 2011.
Turkey has gone so far as to dispatch Syrian fighters to Libya as mercenaries, providing them with monthly salaries and promising Turkish citizenship for both the fighters and their families. The vetting and selection process for these fighters was carried out by Turkish intelligence agency MIT, which has collaborated with jihadist groups in Syria since 2011 with the aim of overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad.
Playing a crucial role in the military success of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) against the rebel opposition led by Khalifa Haftar, Turkey supplied weapons, ammunition and drones and organized Syrian mercenaries and jihadists to combat Haftar. Additionally, on January 2, 2020, Turkey’s parliament authorized the government to deploy military forces to Libya following a security cooperation deal.
Haftar’s attempt to seize Tripoli was abruptly halted after Turkey intervened with the supply of multi-purpose Bayraktar TB2 drones, manufactured by the Turkish company Baykar Makina, led by Erdogan’s son-in-law, Selçuk Bayraktar.
Beyond ideological support, Erdogan openly acknowledged the strategic importance of Libya’s oil and gas resources to Turkey. During a joint news conference with former Libyan prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Ankara on June 4, 2020, Erdogan unveiled plans to expand cooperation, including exploration and drilling operations, to harness natural resources in Libyan territory.
In November 2020 Turkey and the GNA signed a military cooperation pact and a maritime demarcation deal. While the maritime agreement, not recognized by any other Mediterranean country, delineates the Turkey-Libya continental shelf and exclusive economic zone (EEZ), the security deal enables the Turkish government to deploy its troops in Libya.
Human rights advocates are concerned that Erdogan is using the fear of irregular migration in European countries to shield his authoritarian regime from international criticism. Migration has been a leading topic of discussion in the bloc’s national parliaments since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, and the 2016 EU-Turkey migration agreement allowed EU countries to return Syrian asylum-seekers to squalid camps in Turkey. The EU thus turned a blind eye to the anti-democratic rule of the Erdoğan regime in exchange for stronger controls on refugees leaving Turkish territory for Europe