MILAN (AP) — Italy on Friday approved sending Italian naval ships to help the Libyan coast guard combat migrant trafficking following a request by the North African nation.
The measure is part of efforts to stanch the flow of hundreds of thousands of migrants who are smuggled out of Libya across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe each year by traffickers using unseaworthy boats.
Premier Paolo Gentiloni, who is under increasing pressure to manage their arrivals in Italy after being rescued at sea, said the initiative to help Libya patrol its shores "can give a significant contribution to reinforcing Libyan sovereignty. It is not an operation that we take against Libya sovereignty."
Details about the operation, including the rules of engagement, were not disclosed following the Cabinet's approval, but Gentiloni said Italy would "not be sending a huge fleet or air squadrons."
Human Rights Watch warned, however, that the Italian action could amount to a naval blockade that "could expose migrants and asylum seekers to even greater abuse."
"Given the horrible treatment of migrants in Libya, it is difficult to imagine how any European government could disembark anyone there, or hand anyone over to Libyan authorities, while also protecting their rights," Judith Sunderland, the associate Europe director at HRW, said in a statement.
The operation will be considered by Italy's parliamentary commissions next week, and Gentiloni said he hoped it would receive broad parliamentary approval.
Gentiloni has said the request from the Libyan government could be a turning point in managing the torrent of migrants pouring into Italy across the Mediterranean Sea.
Traffickers have exploited widespread lawlessness in the violence-wracked, fractured North African nation to make it a smuggling haven. The Italian government is under increasing domestic pressure to better manage flows, especially since the European Union's plan to redistribute migrants arriving in Italy has run into resistance from other EU nations, like neighboring Austria, Poland and Hungary.
Italy already is furnishing Libya's coast guard with rubber boats and training aimed at improving Libya's own patrols, while working with authorities on strengthening the capacity of border guards in the south, where most illegal migrants enter the lawless nation.
The European Union on Friday announced 46 million euros ($53 million) in funding to help Italy implement that program.
EU Foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini says while the EU works to help end Libya's political crisis, the bloc will continue assisting Libyan authorities "to address the migration flows, rescue migrants, making sure that human rights are respected, and fight against the smuggling networks."
Mike Corder contributed from Brussels.