To his admirers, Marco Minniti, Italy’s powerful interior minister, is the mastermind who solved Europe’s migration problem.
To his critics, he’s the unscrupulous architect of a secret deal with North African militias and thus responsible for severe human rights violations of refugees trapped in Libyan camps.
Since he took office in December 2016, the 61-year-old former communist from Calabria, who spent the first two decades of his career trying not to make headlines, has turned himself into a polarizing protagonist of the political scene in both Europe and Italy.
Dealing with Libya’s splintered leadership and its porous borders is the cornerstone of his attempt to combat both terrorism and human trafficking. And, he says, the only way to solve Europe’s migration crisis.
“What Italy did in Libya is a model to deal with migrant flows without erecting borders or barbed wire barriers,” said Minniti, who oversaw the country’s security services as undersecretary under two prime ministers and served as deputy interior minister under then Prime Minister Romano Prodi. It’s a “way of stemming the flow,” he added, “that Europe could adopt.”
“Only when I reassured them that I was from Calabria, a region where deals and alliances are sealed with blood, did they finally agree to sign”— Marco Minniti
In less than a year as interior minister, Minniti has introduced a controversial code of conduct for aid groups operating migrant rescue ships in the Mediterranean, banning any organization that did not sign on from accessing Italy’s ports. He also passed a new immigration law that critics allege violates the country’s constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights by not ensuring the right to a fair trial.
In February, he signed an anti-trafficking memorandum with the Libyan government. Over the summer, he brokered a peace deal between tribes of the Fezzan region south of Tripoli and helped relaunch the Libyan Coast Guard to prevent boats from leaving the country for Europe — a policy that was endorsed by the other 27 EU capitals in the conclusions of a Foreign Affairs Council summit in July.
The result: A dramatic drop in the number of migrants reaching Italy’s shores — 118,011 so far this year, compared to 177,658 over the same period in 2016, according to interior ministry data.
Today, Minniti is praised by officials in Brussels, criticized by NGOs and left-wing leaders and feared by Italian politicians across the political spectrum as a potential challenger for Italy’s top office after the country holds its general election in early March.
Minniti’s unique approach to the region, which he refers to as “desert diplomacy,” is exemplified by a peace deal he brokered between two of south Libya’s strongest tribes — the Awlad Suleiman and the Tebu.
In April 2016, 60 tribal chiefs, religious leaders, mayors, and police and military officials gathered at the Viminale, the interior ministry’s palatial headquarters named after one of the seven hills of ancient Rome.
Minniti spent 72 hours in strenuous negotiations, mediating a quarrelsome conversation between the tribal leaders, some of whom wore tunics and whitetagelmust turbans.
At first the tribal chiefs didn’t trust him, Minniti said in an interview. “Only when I reassured them that I was from Calabria, a region where deals and alliances are sealed with blood, did they finally agree to sign.”
He eventually managed to convince those in the room to sign the Permanent Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, a seminal step toward securing Libya’s southern border and curbing the flow of illegal migrants from Niger and Chad.
The accord, he said, meant “sealing the border to the south of Europe.”
‘Stripped of human dignity’
Minniti’s approach has been strongly criticized by both the United Nations and NGOs.
“At MSF, we substantially criticize the externalization of the Libyan problem and the consequent agreements struck by Minniti from February onward,” said Marco Bertotto, head of advocacy at Doctors Without Borders Italy.
“The Italian government, with support from Europe, has put a stopper on the departures from Libya by not calculating or perhaps omitting the inevitable consequences of violations of human rights that would originate,” he said.
In November, U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein described Europe’s reliance on the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept migrants as “inhuman.”
U.N. monitors visiting facilities in Tripoli reported accounts of beatings, rape and the use of shock batons. “Monitors were shocked by what they witnessed: thousands of emaciated and traumatized men, women and children piled on top of each other, locked up in hangars with no access to the most basic necessities, and stripped of their human dignity,” Zeid said.
In Amnesty International’s latest report on Libya, the human rights watchdog accused European governments of “actively supporting a sophisticated system of abuse and exploitation of refugees and migrants by the Libyan coast guard, detention authorities and smugglers.”
“Minniti’s original sin is striking a deal to keep the migrants in Libya,” added Mattia Toaldo, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “That of the other EU member states is having approved whatever Italy proposed on migration.”
The fear minister
In spite of the criticism, Minniti’s harsh approach to migration and his history working with the country’s security services has paid off politically. According to a September poll, he is the most popular minister in the Italian government. (The bar is low; just 33 percent of the country approve of his policies.)
“When we proposed such measures we were labeled as racist. Now finally everyone seems to understand we were right” — Matteo Salvini, Northern League leader
“Minniti is the political figure with the most cross-party appeal, because he and his policies give people a sense of security,” said Ilvo Diamanti, a leading Italian pollster. “He is the minister of fear and has emerged as the man of the year when it comes to communication.”
One of Minniti’s mantras is to confront fear, which he describes as “a legitimate feeling, one democracy needs to listen to and deal with. Populists on the other hand thrive on fear.”
Stemming the flow of migrants is seen by the governing Democratic Party as central to its fortunes in the coming election, and the Italian daily La Repubblicaspeculates that Minniti could be an “ace-in-the-hole candidate” if former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s leadership of the party is challenged.
For his part, Minniti denies being interested in the country’s top job. But even Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s far-right Northern League praises the minister.
“Minniti is for sure better than [Angelino] Alfano [his predecessor] and is finally implementing tough policies such as controlling NGO’s ships operating rescues. When we proposed such measures we were labeled as racist. Now finally everyone seems to understand we were right,” he said.