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The Italian- Libya agreement and its relation with non-refoulement of refugees

Reza Majd28 March 2018

Written by: Nidhi Singh

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.


“The refugee crisis.” It’s one of those phrases that really catches your attention. You can barely turn a page in a newspaper or look at the television anymore without there being some reference to it. But the phrase itself is a bit of a misnomer since it does not address who are the people affected by such a crisisWhile the existence of the crisis is now widely accepted by states and the international media, it is difficult to ascertain if the crisis in question relates to the refugees, or the countries which receive them. In most contexts I suppose, both are at stake.

February 2018 marked the one-year anniversary of the The agreement was most famously entered into to ‘cut off the Mediterranean route’ for refugees stemming from Africa, by detaining them in Libya so they could not reach the shores of Italy and subsequently enter Europe. To this end, Italy entered into an agreement with the now fragmented government of Libya (all three of them, and assorted militias) to provide them with boats, funding, and training to and detain all refugees coming from the African route. This push-back agreement was meant to cut back on the number of refugees entering Italy.

This agreement was lauded by the European Union as a whole and was then reinforced in the Turkey and Sudan Agreements. While the Turkish agreement is fairly well known, the push-back agreement for detaining of refugees in Sudan remains one of a kind, since the head of the state of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, remains one of the few people to have received the distinction to be prosecuted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The reason for entering into such agreements can be found in the humanitarian principle underlying the refugee convention, which is unequivocal on the procedure for treatment of refugees. The only way to subvert it, would be to not allow any of the refugees to reach the shores of Italy in the first place. The governments of these countries (Sudan and Libya) are paid to catch boats leaving their shores and force the people back into their countries where they are detained.

The Libyan Agreement is not new, in fact back in 2008, a similar agreement existed between , which famously didn’t allow anyone to get into the detention centres to check conditions, . While this policy has faced major criticism from and NGOs, such as Amnesty International, the key domestic actors remain silent on the subject.

This, in part could be attributed to new , which is alleged to be massively hampers the work most can do , over 70% of the NGO’s have stopped work on this route. It was only the recent reports on the slave trading and auctions happening in Libyan refugee camps which has thrust the matter back into limelight. Meanwhile, the Italian MMarco Minniti has been lauded by the EU for reducing the flow of African migrants by 87%, but no official statements have been issued on the issues of rampant human rights abuses and slave trading of refugees occurring in Libya.

This now brings us to the question of attribution, in terms of the human rights violations committed in Libya, how much of the fault can be placed upon Italy and the EU? Italy has provided 220 million euros to Libya to stem the flow of people. In addition to this they have also provided boats and training to the Libyan coastguards, there have also been reports of Italian officials actually being on board these ships while they arrest boats and turn them back towards Libya. Here, the question of attribution is raised, should Italy be held responsible for the eventual situation of these migrants in Libya; arguably, they would not have suffered the abuse had it not been for Italy’s intervention in providing funding and training. If they are not to be held responsible, should a part of the responsibility them? How does this relate to refugees from countries such as Eritrea, who have almost a 100% recognition rate in Europe and would have otherwise gained refugee status were it not for the push back agreement?

Unfortunately, none of these questions have had yet their moment in court due to a loophole in the jurisdiction clause for refugee dispute. While clear case law already exists prohibiting the violation of non-refoulement[4] i. The only case in this regard to be heard in the European Court of Human Rights was Hirsi Jamaa and Others v. Italy[5], which was only possible as the court somewhat relaxed its stance on jurisdiction. All previous cases brought forth on the matter of interception at sea were dismissed by the court for want of jurisdiction.[6]

So far, no one who has been detained has managed to go forward to Europe, most are detained in Libya itself, [7]

Despite the heavy criticism levelled towards Italy and the EU, there are no signs of suspension of the agreement. Furthermore, it seems that there is no mode of redress as there appears to be no mode of judicial intervention to force the parties into abeyance. This agreement is however one of the cornerstone issues in the upcoming elections in Italy, but whether this debate results in improving or regressing the situation, remains to be seen.






[1] Italy – Libya Memorandum of Understanding (2017), Available at https://www.asgi.it/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/ITALY-LIBYA-MEMORANDUM-02.02.2017.pdf, [Accessed 16 Feb. 2018].

[2] Libya: Smugglers holding refugees and migrants in deplorable conditions, say UN agencies. Available at https://refugeesmigrants.un.org/libya-smugglers-holding-refugees-and-migrants-deplorable-conditions-say-un-agencies [Accessed 16 Feb. 2018].

[3] Italy’s code of conduct for NGOs involved in migrant rescue. [online] Available at: http://www.euronews.com/2017/08/03/text-of-italys-code-of-conduct-for-ngos-involved-in-migrant-rescue [Accessed 16 Feb. 2018]; See also Code of conduct for NGOs involved in the rescue of migrants at sea: the ASGI comment. (2017). [online] ASGI. Available at: https://www.asgi.it/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Draft-ASGI-Position-Paper_Final_EN.pdf [Accessed 16 Feb. 2018].

[4] The practice of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution. It is an obligation under the Refugee Convention, 1951 to which Italy is a party.

[5] Hirsi Jamaa and Others v. Italy, Application no. 27765/09, Council of Europe: European Court of Human Rights, 23 February 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/cases,ECHR,4f4507942.html [accessed 16 February 2018]

[6] Ibid

[7] The migrant slave trade is booming in Libya. Why is the world ignoring it? | Ross Kemp. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/20/migrant-slave-trade-libya-europe [Accessed 16 Feb. 2018].

Through the looking glass: How western countries are likely to react to the migrant crisis through International Relations Theory

Reza Majd23 March 2018

Written by: Aashna Chatterjee

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

Syrian family receiving clothes and other items at their arrival in Canada (CTV News, 2016)

Over the past few years, the refugee crisis in Syria has reached an unavoidable level, greatly impacting its neighbouring countries as well as the Western World, especially in Europe. The reactions of these countries is still being debated about and discussed throughout the international community. Through a broader analysis using the three main International Relations Theories (Realism, Liberalism and Constructivism), it might be possible to understand and clarify the opinions and reactions of western states in the best manner possible.

Refugees and refugee movements are more than just human rights issues. They are and have always been an inherent part of international politics owing to the “way” an individual receives refugee status- conflict and war in the country of origin, which requires them to seek “refuge” in another country (Loescher and Betts; 2011). In the case of the Syrian Refugee crisis, some of the countries that these displaced people have fled to, are those belonging to the European Union. International Relations theories on the other hand, help understand the International arena and provide various “lenses” or perspectives through which one can study it. Thus, an operative theory might help in breaking down the crisis and the debates surrounding it and might help clarify which perspective suits the dynamics a world in crisis, the best.

Realism suggests that the protection of national security is of utmost importance and in this anarchical setting, every country must act out of its own self-interest and thus strive to remain in power. If it is not in the interest of a developed, western country to aid developing nations, then they won’t. For instance, it would be difficult for a realist leader in the western world, like the United States to justify the entry of thousands of Syrians without insinuating terrorist activity or general domestic discord. In this way, a Realist would not allow a nation to risk its security, when it is already at risk by other foreign powers. This however, is not true of the current world dynamics. Countries have taken in a number of refugees and are working towards rehabilitating them. It is taking time and policies are being shaped around recent events, especially in the EU, but this goes against realist thought which would essentially close its gates to all refugees. While this may be the case for a very few countries, it is not a statement that can be generalised. Furthermore, International Organisations have been prevalent in the dialogue surrounding refugees and this would not have been possible in a realist world. Thus again, Realism only explains a part of the situation but is unable to encapsulate it as a whole.

In this case, why not look at the opposite side of the spectrum and see what Liberalism has to offer? Liberalism suggests that the best way to describe state behaviour is through an interdependent drive for peace. In other words, states are more likely to cooperate and establish a peaceful international community. A liberal perspective might look at the crisis and suggest that international cooperation would be the best way to tackle the crisis and that interdependency is what is needed to bring Syria back to life. Furthermore, a refugee coming into a new country would bring in economic advantage over time. A Liberalist would see this as a welcome development, which would help in the process of global, economic cooperation. This again, however is an ideal scenario as the current rhetoric of western states suggests that refugees are seen as people taking away jobs and physical space. Countries are actively rejecting refugees and suggesting a “cap” to the number of people they take in. This is further exacerbated by referring to refugees as “migrants” and thus stripping them of the rights given to them by the 1951 Human Rights Convention, an international treaty, created by an international organisation. This goes against Liberal thought as (a) International Institutions are very important in a liberal world and states comply with regulations set by these IOs and (b) it goes against the “law” of interdependency and cooperation.

Additionally, given the amount of time taken to address the crisis and the fact that it has broken more relationships between countries than it has possibly unified, it can be suggested that Liberalism only addresses one small part of the crisis. It can be used to describe not how the countries are acting currently but how they want to be seen as acting. Countries from the west have indeed banded together to help solve the problem in Syria and have cooperated a great deal to ensure the best possible outcome, however a liberal perspective still cannot be applied to this as each country acts based on their own context and not as a collective team.

This brings us to the last major International Relations theory: Constructivism. Constructivism as a lens is an interesting one: rather than trying to define the world, it seeks to analyse how one thinks about the world (Laffey, 2013 in Oezel, 2015). In constructivism, norms define everything and the world is socially constructed through discourse and practice. This incorporates linguistic practice and rhetoric, institutions and borders (Weldes et al, 1999; 16). It seeks to study how the world forms its assumptions and what the consequences are. Thus when it comes to the refugee crisis and the idea of security, constructivism looks towards a reality constructed through context. A country is likely to think of the “pros and cons” of taking in refugees based on a sense of collective discourse and context (Weldes; 16). In other words, the concept of security and insecurity comes from how individuals, state officials and media outlets describe the world they live in and how that constructs their identities and what they collectively deem as threats to their security. furthermore, the 1951 human rights convention explicitly states that it is a member state’s responsibility to protect refugees and some countries have indeed opened up their borders to welcome those in need. Constructivism would suggest that the convention created a norm for countries to follow. Through this lens, it is possible to gauge and analyse the reactions and policies made by western countries towards refugees. If we were to look at the context and the general discourse of how identity and security are defined in a country, it would help identify the way states are likely to react to the crisis.

The reactions of countries in the western world have varied from being welcoming towards refugees to closing their borders outright. International Relations scholars seek to generalise the phenomenon in order to best study this major crisis and one of the best ways to do this for them is use International Relations theories. This article hoped to shed some light on how the major theories in IR would define the reactions of western states towards the refugee crisis in Syria. Based on the discussion above, it can be suggested that Liberalism and Realism would only be able to explain certain parts of the crisis as opposed to being able to view the crisis as a whole. The crisis is far to complex to fit into a didactic framework set up by these two theories, especially realism. On the other hand, Constructivism, owing to its nature of studying discourse and context, might be the best out of the three to understand the situation and that is far more important than merely explaining it. Understanding the norms and discourse would enable one to understand the situation as a whole and thus be able to work towards a solution to this very large and important crisis.




Betts, A. and Loescher, G. eds., 2011. Refugees in international relations. Oxford University Press.


Oezel, Y.,2015. Providing Security? Border Control and the Politics of Migration in the EU.


Weldes, J., Laffey, M., Gusterson, H. and Duvall, R., 1999. Introduction: constructing insecurity. Cultures of insecurity: States, communities, and the production of danger, pp.1-33.

‘Whenever it rains in Syria, the Lebanese have to Open their Umbrellas’

Reza Majd7 March 2018

Written by: Simon Daunat

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

Syrian Refugees in Arsal (Lebanon), March 2014.


The saying goes, ‘whenever it rains in Syria, the Lebanese have to open their umbrella’. Indeed, since the beginning of the Syrian crisis Lebanon has been host to massive numbers of Syrian refugees. With a population of 4.5 million inhabitants, the ‘Cedar Country’ welcomed at least 1.5 million Syrians, accounting for approximately 25 percent of its population. Added to the 450,000 Palestinians already present, this massive influx of refugees makes Lebanon the country with the highest concentration per capita of refugees. Whereas Prime Minister Saad Hariri recently re-affirmed he would not force Syrians to return, Lebanon does not have the capacity to bear such a responsibility, affecting both Lebanese and refugees.

In 2017, the World Bank stated that educational and health infrastructures were struggling to manage such a population increase. For instance, in 2016, demand for hospital care increased by 40%, putting the health sector on the precipice. This sharp increase in the population also pressured the labour market and augmented prices of commodities and rents. As a result, since 2011 170,000 Lebanese were pushed into poverty (Oxfam). Moreover, the crisis exacerbated socio-political tensions in the country; with a political power-system distributed along sectarian lines, the massive arrival of (mainly) Sunni Muslims in the country has increased fear within the broader population. Indeed, the large arrival of Sunnis triggered the memories of the Palestinian exodus, which contributed to a certain extent to the Lebanese Civil War (1975-90). Hence, a national opinion poll conducted in 2013 highlighted that 74% of Lebanese respondents agreed with the statement that ‘Syrian refugees were posing a threat to the national security and stability’. Whereas tensions have not yet reached the point of violent escalations, they have considerable repercussion on refugee integration.

Thus in 2015, Lebanon took a tougher stance towards refugees marked by the introduction of visa restrictions, and more difficulty to access to residency permits (and their renewal). Lebanon is not a signatory of the 1951 UN Refugee convention. Consequently, 80% of Syrian refugees lack legal status (Human Rights Watch), subsequently leaving them exposed to arrest, abuse and exploitation. Furthermore, the lack of status and residency permits affects refugees’ access to jobs and basic services: according to UNCHR, in 2016 58% of refugees in Lebanon lived in extreme poverty (a growing number compared to previous years); and 500,000 Syrian aged 3-18 had no access to education, endangering their future economic and social integration in the country. Without any prospect of access to legal status, jobs and education, the integration of Syrians is unlikely to occur.

Nevertheless, the main constraint to refugees’ integration derives from the Lebanese confessional system. This system is supposed to represent the demographic share of each religious community. Therefore, political power is distributed proportionally among Lebanon’s 17 religious groups. However, such a system prevents any possible integration/ naturalisation of refugees by fear of triggering sectarian tensions due to sudden demographic imbalances among those communities. The Palestinian integration in Lebanon is a striking example. Many Palestinians arrived as early as in 1948 and today still face severe economic social and political difficulties. In 2016, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNWRA) indicated that more than half of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon still live in camps, where poverty, unemployment, and poor housing conditions remain prevalent. Palestinians face consistent discrimination in hiring and employment opportunities, and rare are those who are granted Lebanese citizenship. The cause of their non-integration was not dictated by economic growth, job market or the infrastructural capacities of the host country (which since their arrival have known prosperous days). Instead, it is mainly due to the incapacity of the current system to integrate refugees in their societies, obliging them to live as ‘second-class citizens’. Today the situation is occurring once more, but this time with millions of more refugees. As Saad Hariri recently declared “Lebanon is on the verge of a breaking point”.

What future can we imagine for refugees in Lebanon? This is what two Lebanese Professors, Karm Medjad and Dr Abdel-Maoula Chaar tried to answer in a report published in 2016 describing three possible outcomes to this crisis. One of them, ‘Phoenexia’, is a scenario where Lebanese society reinvents itself along secular lines, neutralising political tensions, and increasing the integration of refugees. Enabled by strong political and financial assistance from the international community, this would be the only positive and long-term solution to the current crisis. The two other scenarios (keeping confessionalism as the main political system) only predict further instability, deeper sectarian divisions, and in a worst case a balkanisation of Lebanon.

We cannot accurately predict which path Lebanon will take but our only certainty is that Lebanon needs more support from the international community. In a recent UNHCR report it was stated that $2.8 billion is needed to cover the Lebanese Crisis Response Plan 2017-20 to provide “direct humanitarian assistance and protection to vulnerable individual”. However, to this day donors have only committed to $350 million (2018-2020).

Whereas Lebanon shares a large part of the refugee crisis burden, this magnanimity came with a cost. Therefore, it is up to the international community, and particularly Europe (that failed to fulfil its humanist duty) to assist Lebanon in the management of this crisis, in order to provide a brighter future for both Lebanese and refugees.



UNCHR for Syrian Emergency: UNHCR provides humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees and helps the most vulnerable refugees to meet their most urgent needs – including water, food, medicine, blankets and warm clothes and jerry cans:


UNWRA to protect the rights and dignity of Palestine Refugees:





  • Christophersen, M. Liu, J. Thorleifsson, C. and Tiltnes, A. (2013) ‘Lebanese attitudes towards Syrian refugees and the Syrian Crisis’ (Lebanon: ANALP).
  • Human Rights Watch, (2018) ‘Lebanon: Speech Restrictions, Stalled Reforms’ 18 January, Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/01/18/lebanon-speech-restrictions-stalled-reforms, Accessed 4 February.
  • Kukrety, N. (2016) ‘Poverty, Inequality and Social Protection In Lebanon’, Oxfam, 20 January.
  • McDowall, A. and Maclean, W. (2018) ‘Lebanon says will not force Syrian refugees to return’ Reuters, 02 February.
  • Medjad, K. and Chaar, A-M (2016) ‘Lebanon with a View: A 2030 Vision of the Refugee Crisis’ The Scenario Factory.
  • UNHCR, (2018) ‘Survey finds Syrian refugees in Lebanon became poorer, more vulnerable in 2017’ 09 January, Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/news/briefing/2018/1/5a548d174/survey-finds-syrian-refugees-lebanon-poorer-vulnerable-2017.html, Accessed 4 February.
  • UNHCR (2018) ‘Syria Regional Refugee Response: Inter-agency Information Sharing Portal’ Available at: http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/country.php?id=122, Accessed 6 February.
  • UNSCOL, (2017) ‘Funding for Lebanon Response in 2017 Demonstrates Sustained Solidarity by International Partners but Level of Disbursements needs to increase’ 8 June.
  • UNWRA (2017) ‘Protection Brief Palestine refugees living in Lebanon’, October.
  • The World Bank (2017) ‘The World Bank in Lebanon’ April 01, Available at: http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/lebanon/overview, Accessed 05 February.