The urgent need for a new strategy

The overwhelming majority of travelers travel through Libya despite the risks that the country poses.

On May 25, the Libyan coastguard opened fire at a boat of migrants, forcing hundreds to jump into the water. The total number of drownings was 34, including children.

Limits of a Strategy

Libya is the focus of multilateral and bilateral strategies to reduce migration to the EU. After the overthrow of Muammar Gadhafi, the country has been in a difficult transition.

Since Gaddafi fell, the government has been struggling to bring order amongst the numerous armed militia who have been fighting over power.

In February, the current transitional internationally recognised-government – led by Prime Minister Fayaz Al Serraj – signed a memorandum of understanding with Italy to combat illegal migration. In exchange for funding and assistance, the EU and Italy have adopted a strategy that gives Libya a leading role in controlling illegal migration and protecting refugees.

Libyan Prime Minster Faiez Mustafa Serraj at a March 2017 meeting in Rome. Remo Casilli/Reuters

The proposal came just a few days before the Valletta Summit in Malta. At the summit, the EU decided to intensify efforts for Libya to strengthen its capacity to combat smuggling. These programs aim to train and equip Libya’s coast guards, strengthen border controls in the south, promote the country’s ability to host blocked and readmitted immigrants, and combat smuggling.

In Europe and Libya, many oppose these agreements. Tripoli Appeals Court blocked the MOU between Libya & Italy on March 22, due to a lack of approval from Libya’s House of Representatives.

Outside Libya, observers believe that outsourcing the management and control of migration flows to a country riddled by conflicts and lacking an effective government could have serious implications on the living conditions and rights of tens and thousands of people.

Ancient routes of smuggling

Other reasons also exist to question whether these strategies will work in Libya. Malta’s program proposals mention the business model used by migrant smugglers.

Libyan routes for smuggling migrants follow ancient pathsRecent archaeological research suggests that they may date back to the third century AD.

Known as Trans-Saharan routes, these were important for traders during the Arabo-Islamic growth around the 7th and 8th century AD.

Major trade routes in Sahara 1889. Edouard Blanc /Wikimedia

In the south of Libya, there are vast desert expanses that are difficult to control.

After the revolution, new and old forms of human trafficking still occur in Libya. Gaddafi’s regime relied on local tribes for control of these routes and took advantage both politically and economically.

Industrialization of Human Trafficking

A report by Global Initiative launched in March 2017 states that these routes of smuggling have evolved into better-organized networks and transnational consortiums thanks to a diaspora active “able to handle routes, volumes and people requiring substantial logistics and financial capacity.”

The consolidation of the EU has coincided with a surge of migrants and refugees looking for a way into Europe.

Profitable business

Smuggling migrants is a lucrative business, especially for criminal organizations. Some people in local communities have also been involved.

The fragmentation of the power structures in the country and the collapse of its economy have increased the likelihood of smuggling spreading. This also fuels criminal activities such as drug or weapon trafficking.

These efforts often involve the tribes and families that used to dominate the transregional trade from Western Africa to Quaatrun through Niger or Algeria on the way to Sebha. They rely on local armed groups that control strategic infrastructure, such as oil fields air, ports, and routes.

Many low-income residents live along migration routes and are involved in activities such as driving, scouting, recruiting, and providing various services. For example, a Libyan driver who travels from North Niger south to Hamada in Tripoli makes about 200 dinars for a journey of over 1000 km on desert tracks and dangerous roads.

Human smugglers watch for vehicles driven by their colleagues as they travel from Libya to Niger in March 2014. Joe Penney /Reuters

Smuggling has become an important source of income – either directly or indirectly – and a major factor in corruption within local communities and municipalities. This business is resilient and can reinvent itself as needed by redesigning its routes and strategies.

Colombia’s drug cartels are one of the most well-known examples of this type of business. The combination of their economic and political interests makes it a very powerful model that is difficult to combat with a primarily security-based strategy.

In Libya, increasing the capabilities of local entities such as the Coast Guard, which have been implicated in corruption cases, could be counterproductive to migration containment. The humanitarian and security conditions in Libya could deteriorate even if the current strategies reduce the number of migrants who cross the Mediterranean.

In Libya, thousands of people are being held for up to ten months. There are between 24 detention centers run by the government, but some militias own and construct others. They also make their own rules.

Unicef reports suggest that some migrants may be repatriated while others could be trafficked.

Life in detention, UNICEF, 2016.

The smuggling industry: A solution

In order to tackle the migration challenges effectively, it is necessary to address the political economy created through migrant smuggling.

The key goal should be to dismantle the transnational integrated networks that have grown in recent years. This will allow us to isolate the criminal leadership of these networks from the other groups and people whose livelihoods are dependent on them due to the lack of alternative sources.

In Libya, there are many success stories of communities taking action against smugglers. Citizen-led militias fought smugglers themselves in the western port city of Zuwara. They eventually forced them to leave the city.

A long-term solution will require economic alternatives for the development of the regions that are affected by the smuggling route and alternative business opportunities. This would help to decriminalize economic activity.

Only a peaceful resolution of the political conflict, with a stable economy rehabilitating infrastructure and a stabilized economy, could create the right conditions. Parallel to this, a step-by-step parallel approach can help reduce the prevalence of smuggling.

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