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Essay: Migration in and out of Libya

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  • Subject area(s): International Relations
  • Reading time: 7 minutes
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  • Published: March 18, 2021*
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  • Words: 1,957 (approx)
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  • Migration in and out of Libya
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Migration in and out of Libya is neither a new nor a recent phenomenon. Libya has been both a destination and a transit country for migrants for decades. Today it is increasingly becoming only a transit country due to its proximity to Europe and internal situation. This paper aims to assess and provide policy recommendations on the current migration situation in Libya and economic migrants will be the main focus. First, an overview of the current situation in Libya will be provided, second, the main issues of migration in Libya namely the overall security situation, the high numbers of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), along with the human rights and smuggling and trafficking issues will be outlined. Third, some of the main policies in place to manage migration in Libya will be explained and analysed. Before concluding, recommendations of policies that the European Union (EU) could implement will be made.

Migrants from Africa and the Middle East have used Libya as a key migration path known as the central Mediterranean route, as its west coast is only 350km away from Malta and Lampedusa in Italy. Following the outbreak of the Libyan civil war in 2014, the centralised government collapsed and was replaced by two ruling entities in Tripoli and Tobruk. The partition resulted in several ungoverned areas and in an inefficient government structure which enhanced the use of Libya as a transit country and triggered the increase of smuggling and human rights violations. The main factors explaining the widespread migration in Libya, include the border policies with sub-Saharan Africa, humanitarian crises in nearby countries, the strength of smuggling networks, the weakness of the Libyan state and the country’s security situation. At the beginning of the Syrian civil war, many of the migrants crossing Libya were Syrian refugees. Many of them have now shifted to the eastern Mediterranean route, and been replaced by migrants mainly from Egypt and the Sahel region such as Niger, Chad and Sudan, where instability and violence have been a constant or from Nigeria where smuggling networks and Boko Haram operate (See figures 1 and 2). These ‘new’ migrants’ reasons to move vary from hunger, violence, environmental degradation, to lack of opportunities. They are generally labelled as economic migrants due to lack of persecution or discrimination and are hence not considered refugees. Consequently, they do not benefit from much legal protection and are unlikely to be accepted into the EU. As a whole, the unstable, and lawless environment in Libya has made the country a long-lasting gateway to Europe and the complexities have made it unable to manage migration. The EU is therefore uniquely positioned to play an essential role, given its geographical proximity and the tragedies and human rights violations taking place right at its shores. Between 2014 and 2018, over 600 000 migrants have arrived on Italy’s shores and in 2015 “the Mediterranean became the world’s deadliest sea crossing”. It is in the EU’s best interest and responsibility to rethink its current policies and support to Libya, as its neighbourhood and member states’ stability are directly at stake.

Figure 1: Number of African Migrants Identified in Libya in 2019

Source: IOM DTM Libya, Flow Monitoring March-May 2019

Figure 2: Number of Middle Eastern & Asian Migrants Identified in Libya in 2019

Source: IOM DTM Libya, Flow Monitoring March-May 2019

Libya is faced with various internal issues which impact migration. Firstly the overall security situation. For instance, the lack of a central political actor has led to political, social, and economic instability, to an almost full devoid of the rule of law, to insecurity due to militias’ fighting over territory and political influence, and to an inability from organisations working in Libya to ensure policies’ implementation. Inter-community and inter-regional tensions have made international assistance and monitoring difficult, with organisations such as the IOM having to move its staff to Tunisia. Given the 2011 NATO-led intervention in Libya, the country also remains sceptical about foreign interference.

Another issue facing Libya is its high number of IDPs. According to the IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix, out of the 700,000 to 1 million migrants estimated in Libya, more than 370,000 thousand are internally displaced. IDPs commonly require humanitarian assistance and can represent a strain for their host communities due to possible scarce resources and overstretched basic services. They are also likely to seek illegal migration routes and to experience human rights violation.

Moreover, human rights violations in Libya are widespread and the victims are numerous. Migrants and asylum-seekers are “exposed to arbitrary arrest and abduction by militias and are regularly the victims of human trafficking and abuses by criminal groups.” The Libyan General Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM) is known to continuously perform unlawful systemic detentions of thousands of migrants. The inhumane conditions and violations undertaken in detention centres are well-documented and include exploitation, forced labour, shortages of basic necessities, medical treatment but also torture, kidnapping and rape mainly for extortion. Some detention centres are located in areas of fighting, putting the migrants directly at risk as was shown by the July 2019 Tajoura migrant centre airstrike. These detention centres are mainly populated by migrants intercepted at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard. The EU and particularly Italy’s continued support of Libya’s maritime activities which directly promotes detention practices needs to be reassessed.

Lastly, smuggling and trafficking are central concerns of migration in Libya. While under the UNTOC protocols these are very distinct (i.e. the intent of the perpetrator and the migrant’s consent), in Libya their line has been increasingly blurred, as smuggling can be choreographed as a first phase towards eventual exploitation and trafficking. Under Gaddaffi, as part of a social contract, smuggling networks were overlooked in exchange of political loyalty and revenue share. Since 2014 these practices gained in importance as the internal environment allows for more overt smuggling and as militias battle over power and territorial control, and hence need financial resources. In the communities living near the Mediterranean and the southern border of Libya, smuggling has become the most, if not the sole profitable business. Smuggling of human beings, in fact, is an important source of revenue towards the illicit economy as, with the help of middlemen, smugglers ask migrants to pay for their travels, for additional fees through forced labour and some are kidnapped and left in detention centres with ransoms being the only way out. Migrants are also often used to trade goods. When it comes to trafficking, migrants caught by the Libyan coast guard are frequently put in jail and sold into slavery, sexually exploited or tortured for money.

The EU and its member states have various policies and mechanisms put in place to manage migration in Libya. These include the Memorandum of Understanding on Migration between Italy and Libya. It was first signed on February 2nd 2017 and was renewed and extended for three years with no amendments in February 2020. The Malta declaration came the day after and endorses the same terms. The memorandum stipulates Italy’s material and technical support to the Libyan Coast Guard under the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA). Italy supports training, and equipment of Libyan authorities, enhancing their abilities to intercept migrants at sea and return them to detention centres in Libya. As previously highlighted, in detention centres migrants face abuse and unlawful detention. Since the start of the memorandum 40 000 people have been reportedly intercepted at sea returned to Libya and subject to suffering, 3 000 are said to be in official detention centres where humanitarian organisations have little access. The GNA is also said to have paid militias involved in trafficking to join operations and stop Mediterranean crossings, resulting in a further unstable situation in the country. Given that the EU and the international community are well aware of the abhorrent human rights violations perpetrated on the intercepted migrants it is unjustifiable to maintain such deal. Yet for the deal to be voided, more cooperation to find better ways to protect migrants’ rights is required.
Another measure in place until recently was operation Sophia, formally known as EUNAVFOR MED, and implemented in 2015. The operation’s mission was to “identify, capture and dispose of vessels […] used by migrant smugglers and traffickers, in order […] to disrupt human smuggling and trafficking networks and prevent further loss at sea.” The mandate was extended in 2017 to include training of the Libyan coast guard and enforcement of the UN arms embargo. In February 2020, the EU decided to put an end to operation Sophia, as member states believed that instead of being a military mission focused on smuggling and trafficking of people and arms, it had become a humanitarian mission which further overwhelmed the EU with additional arrivals of undocumented migrants.

Lastly, the EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) to Libya was created following the fall of Gaddafi to improve Libya’s border control, strengthen the rule of law and build-up capacities to detect smuggling networks. Yet to this date EUBAM Libya only engages with state actors, which, given the fragmentation of Libya seriously limits its reach.

While these policies are helpful to a certain extent, they also represent protective mechanisms for the EU in order to limit the arrival of migrants on its shores. The focus on limiting and discouraging crossings by strengthening Libya’s capabilities has made the success of such missions limited. In fact between 2016 and 2017, when the above policies and mechanisms were already in place, a 26 per cent rise of the numbers of migrants arriving on Italian shores was noticed (see figure 3), with new nationalities and more fatalities.

Figure 3: Number and nationalities of Migrants Arriving on Italian Shores (2016-2017)

Source: Italian Ministry of Interior

New political, social, economic and legal policies, which acknowledge that Libya is likely to lack a strong state for a while and that push factors in Libya and its neighbouring countries will maintain the current migration pressure, are needed.

One initiative the EU can undertake is to economically support border communities. The latter rely heavily on smuggling and trafficking as it is often their sole source of income. The EU could assist these communities by supporting and bringing expertise to Libyan authorities in managing to separate the trade in illegal goods (e.g. wheat, flour, petrol or tobacco) from the more detrimental smuggling business. Trade of goods could be decriminalised, hence giving the border communities other options than smuggling or trafficking to sustain a livelihood.
Since the partition, the Libyan territory has been divided and many areas remain ungoverned. In some places, local authorities, councils or municipalities represent the only legitimate and present institution. The EU should therefore also involve local communities and authorities and engage with them to expand its reach, enhance capacity-building and encourage anti-smuggling efforts. While considering local actors can be beneficial state institutions cannot be ignored. In 2014, the EU decided on a non-engagement policy with Tripoli, yet such state institutions are at the forefront of the management of migration control and monitoring. Cooperation and relations with essential actors needs to be re-strengthened.

Access to detention centres in Libya is scarce due to the political and security situation, thus permitting continued human rights violations. To put an end to them, the EU should therefore support and push for organisations such as the UNHCR and the IOM or local organisations to have constant and safe access to detention centres in order to monitor the situation and prevent violations. The EU could also organise visits of its own investigators from various member states or Europol for example. The altogether closure of these centres should also be considered if more efficient readmission agreements of illegal migrants can be found.

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