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The Libya deal: a year on, wherefore the migrant crisis?


The Libya deal: a year on, wherefore the migrant crisis?

Abandoned ship used by migrants in Lampedusa / Libya deal


Despite some success in reducing the flow of irregular immigration, EU and Italian efforts and cooperation with Libyan authorities have not amounted to a fix-all solution.


– Libya will likely continue to be a transit country for migrants crossing the Mediterranean until (1) a central government is able to reassert its control over its borders, and (2) legal employment opportunities are created to temper the highly lucrative people-smuggling business
– Due to the complexity of resolving these issues, expect to see sustained people flows for at least the foreseeable future
– Despite human rights concerns, cooperation between the EU and Italy with various actors in Libya will likely continue

Joint EU-Italian initiatives have stemmed the flow of migrants into Europe, resulting in fewer arrivals on European shores in 2017. However, without first resolving Libya’s instability issues, irregular arrivals will continue despite Europe’s continued efforts.


On February 2, 2017, Italy signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Tripoli-based and UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). The Memorandum — which was endorsed by the EU a day later at the Malta Summit — facilitated the training and equipping of the Libyan coastguard. Alongside this arrangement, the Italian government has reportedly reached ‘understandings’ — which could be described as bribery — with a variety of local actors, including militia in key coastal gateway towns such as Sabratha, tribes on Libya’s southern border and the mayors of key cities.

Whatever the true nature of European and Italian methods, they have born dividends as arrivals in Italy declined from 181,436 in 2016 to 119,130 in 2017.

However, shock at the conditions of detention facilities within Libya has led to widespread condemnation of the EU-Italian approach; detainees have experienced torture, rape, poor conditions and extortion. In spite of these allegations, in December the EU announced plans worth tens of millions of euros towards the further policing and securitisation of borders in North Africa, including Libya.


Sabratha - Jupiter-Tempel / Libya deal
Photo: Franzfoto / Wikimedia Commons

The present role of Libya as a haven for people smugglers can only be understood in the context of NATO’s assistance in ousting former leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Libya had always been a transit point for migration to Europe, a fact not lost on Gaddafi who threatened to create a ‘Black Europe’ if the EU did not provide him with cash payments. Despite such threats, Gaddafi mostly contained the flow of irregular migration, with numbers averaging being below 40,000 per year during the early 2000s.

Yet in the power-vacuum which has existed since 2011, no one political entity or army has been able to exert control over Libya, let alone her frontiers. Currently, Libya is divided between two rival governments: the Tobruk-based House of Representatives — supported by General Khalifa Haftar, a key powerbroker and leader of the powerful Libya National Army militia — and the GNA, which was the product of a UN-led initiative to unite the country by creating a national-unity government. A variety of armed militias and tribal groups who operate in or outside of areas nominally controlled by these two political factions further complicate the situation on the ground.

Unsurprisingly, the number of irregular migrants passing through Libya to Italy steadily increased as the security situation in Libya deteriorated. The 2016 EU-Turkey migration deal — whereby Turkey agreed to accept ‘irregular arrivals’ deported from Europe — only increased the attractiveness of Libya as a departure point. With over 600,000 immigrants and refugees — most of whom hailed from Syria, West Africa and the Horn of Africa — having arrived since 2014, Italian public opinion became increasingly hostile. As support for populist parties rose and the appetite of other EU countries to assist Italy remained low, a deal with Libya became the obvious way to placate Italian opinion before the upcoming elections in March.


Distressed persons are transferred from the amphibious transport dock ship USS San Antonio (LPD 17) to Armed Forces of Malta offshore patrol vessel P52. San Antonio provided food, water, medical attention, and temporary shelter to the rescued. / Libya deal
Photo: U.S. Navy photo/U.S. Navy

Although it has been relatively successful, do not expect the deal to completely halt flows into Europe.

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At least for the foreseeable future, Libya’s complicated political situation will hamper efforts to stop the flow of irregular rivals. In a deal brokered by French President Emmanual Macron in July 2017, Haftar and Fayez al-Sarraj agreed to hold elections by the end of 2018. Even if elections are held despite the litany of disagreements surrounding their nature, as well as concerns over whether the two main power brokers actually want elections, it is possible that Libya’s deep-seated societal issues will be merely played out rather than resolved.

Haftar, a self-styled anti-Islamist — in a country where Islamists have considerable influence — has publicly linked political Islam to terrorism and expressed scepticism about the participation of such groups in the election. Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, Muammar Gaddafi’s son, has also complicated matters by declaring his intention to run. In essence, it is uncertain whether defeated candidates will accept the legitimacy of the victor in a divided country awash with weapons, meaning that the chances of any actor being able to control Libya’s frontiers remains slim. Accordingly, a relatively strong central government may only emerge if Haftar is able to extend his reach over all of Libya, but this would take time and is far from a certain development despite having expanded his territory in 2017.

Even should a central government emerge, Libya will face further obstacles to controlling its borders. Heavily armed militias are often key players in the people-smuggling trade. Any future Libyan leader will have a difficult time neutralising and co-opting these groups, not least because of the highly lucrative nature of the people-smuggling business in a country where economic conditions remain poor. Corruption is also another issue, as rumours have emerged that the Libyan coastguard has turned a blind eye to people-smuggling in exchange for cash payments.

Despite the clear limitations of the deal and concern over human rights, do not expect present arrangements to be scrapped. Whichever way the Italian elections go, any leader would be highly unlikely to exit the deal when 70% of Italians think immigration from Libya is too high. With the EU focused on self-preservation in the face of populist threats and an increasingly difficult relationship with members of the Visegrád group — encompassing Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia — who mostly oppose further immigration, it is little surprise that the EU opted to bolster their arrangements with Libya in December. To ease concerns over human rights, the EU is more likely to focus on evacuating migrants from Libya, militarily targeting people smugglers and increasing European oversight over detention centres.

As Haftar slowly increases his control over the country, it is possible that levels of irregular migration will stabilise or fall. However, with prospective immigrants and refugees still willing to risk the journey, do not expect Libya to be able or willing to halt the refugee flow until it resolves its own security and economic woes.

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