ROME — For hundreds of thousands of desperate migrants, Italy became a safe harbor, a landing place for those crossing the treacherous cobalt blue of the central Mediterranean Sea. But this long-tolerant nation is moving to create a de facto migrant blockade — by striking an odd bargain with Libya, its dysfunctional and war-ravaged neighbor to the south.
Libya is the main launching point for migrants streaming into Europe from across a broad swath of the globe, and whose numbers this year are again surging. Under the plan, Italy would train and equip Libyan guards to scour coasts and deserts to stop, push back and detain migrants before they reach the high seas.
European leaders are counting on the Italian effort in Libya to shut down the last major corridor to the continent for migrants, largely ending a massive influx that began in 2014. But aid groups warn that the plan could come at an overwhelming human cost by trapping untold thousands of migrants in Libya, where the rule of law has all but disappeared since Moammar Gaddafi was toppled nearly six years ago.
Nevertheless, in the coming weeks, Italy is poised to begin dispatching 10 sea vessels as well as helicopters, four-wheel-drive vehicles and communication equipment to facilitate the new Libyan patrols.
“We will stop boats from taking off from the coast . . . and stop migrants from crossing into Libyan territory,” said Ahmed Safar, the Libyan ambassador to Italy. “Those apprehended will be escorted to the nearest detention facility.”
With the Trump administration also seeking to curb irregular migration to the United States, the move highlights the new lengths to which Western nations are willing to go to protect their borders. Success, critics say, could leave migrants subjected to almost surreal levels of violence. Interviews with more than a dozen asylum seekers who arrived in Italy from Libya in recent weeks painted a picture of a conflict-ridden country where migrants face systematic rapes and beatings.
Still others say they have been bought and sold as chattel in a thriving, modern-day slave trade. In recent weeks, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a group associated with the United Nations, told of migrants being put up for auction in parking lots in Libya, with some being purchased for as little as $200.
Such fates, migrants and aid groups say, sometimes come at the hands of the same Libyan officials who would be the migrants’ keepers. Italian refugee camps like one just north of Rome, for instance, are teeming with traumatized asylum seekers like Tirhas Sbhetleab who describe Libyan officials as tormentors.
The 35-year-old single mother fleeing the harsh regime in Eritrea suffered an eight-month ordeal in Libya. In July, she and dozens of other migrants who paid $5,000 for the trip to Europe were apprehended at sea by a Libyan military ship, she said. They were taken to a police station in Sabratha, on the Libyan coast, before being locked up 25 to a cell in a fetid detention center.
For months, she said, she was whipped by guards with a black electric cord and served meager rations, including one glass of water each day. She watched some inmates die. Many of the younger women and girls, she said, were “taken outside” at night to be raped by guards.
She suffered a different fate.
One afternoon, a senior guard came to her side, Sbhetleab recalled, dragging her up by one arm. She was hauled into a room and given a blood test. Once she was found to be free of disease, she was sold to a Libyan family as a house cleaner.
“I rose at 5 a.m. and worked until midnight,” she said, speaking in a trembling voice as she cried softly. “I had no pay. They beat me. The woman of the house complained that she had paid too much for me. So I shouldn’t be allowed to take breaks.”
When she was resold to another Libyan family last month, she said, a young man in the house allowed her to make a phone call. She called her family in Eritrea, who thought she had died at sea. They helped her establish contact with another Libyan smuggler, she said, and before dawn on the morning of March 19, she fled the house and met a driver about a mile away. She escaped to Italy a few days later.
“If you leave us in Libya, you leave us to die,” she said.
According to a report by UNICEF, 34 migrant detention centers have been identified in Libya. The Libyan government’s Department for Combating Illegal Migration runs 24 of them, while others are run by entities including local administrations. In addition, armed groups hold migrants in an unknown number of unofficial detention camps.
International observers have access to less than half of Libya’s government-run detention centers. Even in those, aid groups say, standards fall far below internationally accepted levels.
“The detention centers do not meet the basic conditions” for humans, said Othman Belbeisi, head of the IOM’s Libya mission. “I would say that many times, in some of the centers, even food is not available for all migrants.”
But with new arrivals this year — about 27,000 through early April — jumping 24 percent over the same period last year, Italy is losing patience.
An agreement struck last year with Turkey helped close the eastern migrant route to the continent via Greece, with Italians seeking a way to do the same in the central Mediterranean.
Yet the Libyan deal is just one part of a new migrant crackdown in Italy, a nation that, urged on by Pope Francis, actively conducted search-and-rescue operations in 2013 and 2014 to save migrants at sea.
The Italian coast guard is still orchestrating rescues, although often with the aid of merchant ships. Groups such as Doctors Without Borders are also staging regular missions into the central Mediterranean to find and rescue migrants.
But two main factors have led Italians to take a harder line: First, the attack in December on a Christmas market in Berlin was carried out by a Tunisian asylum seeker who arrived in Europe via Italy — prompting critics here to take aim at migrants as a security risk.
Also, migrants who landed in Italy once rapidly moved on to more prosperous nations in Europe's north. But as the Swiss, Austrians and French have been more aggressive about migrant checks at the Italian border, many more asylum seekers are staying put. Italy had 122,960 asylum applications in 2016, up from 83,530 in 2015.
In response, the Italian Parliament this month approved a law that limits the appeal process for rejected asylum seekers. Interior Minister Marco Minniti is also seeking to open 16 detention centers nationwide where rejected asylum seekers scheduled for deportation — including those seen as security risks — would be held until they could be safely removed.
Minniti is also an architect of the Libya plan, which includes the training of nearly 130 members of the Libyan coast guard by the Italians. In an interview, he said such training, along with plans for international monitoring at Libyan detention centers, would ensure that migrants detained there would be humanely treated.
In addition to coastal patrols, he said, the Libyans will also set up new surveillance in the Sahara to stop migrants from entering Libyan territory. Minniti said the plan would aid migrants by discouraging them from coming. This year, more than 1,080 have died at sea, with untold more dying inside Libya.
“The people who land in Italy arrive from the violent hands of human traffickers,” he said. “All we are doing is saving them from that fate.”
Critics counter that deteriorating security in Libya may not allow for substantial international monitoring. In addition, many migrants are being kept in camps where smugglers hold them for months while extorting cash from their families.
Those who have escaped fear systemic killings should the way forward to Europe be blocked.
“Are they crazy?” said Ismail, a 23-year-old Eritrean living in a Red Cross camp in Rome who would give only her first name for fear of reprisals against her family back home. She became pregnant after a smuggler raped her in Sudan, she said. In Libya, where she was held for eight months as smugglers extorted more money from her family, her captors repeatedly raped her despite her advanced pregnancy, she said.
“If they can’t get them across, the smugglers will just kill them all or leave them to die,” she said. “I know this. I saw how they treated us. Some [of the migrants] killed themselves because it was easier than going on.”
Stefano Pitrelli in Rome and Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin contributed to this report.