Libya: Migrants are at the mercy of human trafficking networks, and the sterile European security approach of handling the issue

Migration issue in Libya reflects clearly ties and relations between the Northern region and the Southern one amid the continuing widening economic gap between the two banks or sides of the Mediterranean Sea. The most prominent point that can be noticed when reflecting on this issue is the dominance of the security and economic approach, which supersedes related legal and human rights frameworks. That is a natural consequence of the increasing armed conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, especially after the emergence of Arab’s revolutions (AKA Arab Spring) which evolved into a civil war in Libya in 2013. This war resulted in a change in the caliber of immigrants, as they are no longer confined to poor and unemployed individuals, but included middle-class university educated graduates, women -which is a precedent- and entire families, joined them. Security vacuum resulted from these conflicts led to the emergence and booming of smuggling migrants’ phenomenon, especially in Libya.

Despite the international organizations and European countries efforts to reinforce and support human rights approaches, economic approaches and national and regional economic interests are the real dominating aspects in managing migration policies in the Northern hemisphere. This resulted in the rise of conservative right-wing trends, which are unhostile towards immigrants in European countries; it also led to a rise in terroristic incidents plotted by extremist Islamic groups (ISIS). All that, along with the successive economic crises have pushed Europe towards adopting Security approaches. Adopting these approaches did not change whether before the Libyan revolution of after its occurrence, but it led to worsening the current Libyan scene and its leaner towards violence.

Spreading chaos strategy, which parties involved in the Libyan affair are hoping for a chance to win the war through pushing towards it, made all suggested European solutions focused on stabilizing the situation instead of solving it to reduce the effects of refugee flows coming to their countries. Especially as the Southeast Mediterranean is considered an essential crossing point.

Irregular migration issue constitutes a continuous controversial subject between Libya and Europeans. Despite the fact that they concluded many agreements and understandings regarding this subject, disagreements between parties continued to appear as they have different views on how to handle this exacerbated phenomenon, which became a source of concern for the whole world, especially Europe.

1- Situation of migrants in Libya

- Absence of accurate data and information.

Absence of objective and comprehensive data about migrants in Libya since the beginning of the Libyan crisis has been compounded by the eruption of civil war, the Libyan institutions’ division between the Eastern and Western region authorities. The Statements delivered by the Libyan authorities concerning the locations and numbers of persons arrested by both official agencies and non-governmental actors are contradicting.

0 million
Numbers and figures of migrants who crossed Libya or settled

Numbers and figures until 2017 according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees “UNHCR” and other organizations

Until 2019: Number and figures of migrants according to Doctors without borders

According to the European Migration Agency, about one million migrants from different countries and several transit routes arrived to Europe in 2015, while the agency later confirmed the decline of these figures, one of the most important reasons for which was the strict Italian migration policy in the Mediterranean. This raises an urgent question between the increase of arrivals to Libya since 2015, while the numbers at the same time are decreasing in the Northern bank of the sea.  This actually means that, some of them will return to their countries and others will reside in Libya due to the deteriorating security conditions. Increasing figures in migrant shelters reflect insufficient care from local authorities and international organizations.  This grey or neutral area regarding these numbers and figures reflects a margin of real human sufferings that cannot be assessed or handled.

The figures of migrants’ shelters and their criteria for classification vary among international organizations and formal and informal institutions. This criterion is inaccurate because of the institutional division in the Libyan State, and this criterion, unfortunately, limit organizations scope of intervention to what is officially considered by authorities only.

0 Migration Shelters
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
0 Migration Shelters excluding informal facilities
International Organization for Migration

According to the figures of which DAAM Center acquired knowledge, in Western, Eastern and Southern Libya there were 21 shelters until 21 March 2020 and the only two shelters in Southern Libya (Brak Al-Shati and Sabha) were closed. Other shelters in the Western region of Salahuddin, Ganzour, the airport road and Gharian were closed. In the Eastern region, shelters are still open.  While no information is available on Tareek Al-Sekka Shelter. 

Here are detailed tables of shelters that currently exist and the numbers of children, women and men who are reside there. It is worth noting that these numbers represent what is registered, while the actual numbers change continuously because of the flow of arrivals.
Table No. 1: Statistics on shelters existing in the Western region and their geographical distribution until 22/03/2020
Shelter Name Men Women Children Total Comments
Salah Aldin





Information not available

Sog Al-Khmies
Abu Slim
Airport Road


Tariq Al Seka





Information not available

Zawiyah Nasiriyyah
Zawiyah Abu Issa


Table 2: Statistics on Shelters existing in the Eastern region and their geographical distribution until 22/03/2020
Shelter Name Men Women Children Total
Al Bayda

According to the International Organization for Migration and international non-governmental organizations, there were documented informal detention facilities in Tripoli, Tajura, Twaishah, Zintan, Tobruk, Ajdabiya, Sibrata, and Misrata, Ain Zara and al-Kfar. This also raises questions, which have remained pending and unanswered about the status of these shelters.

- Testimonies on the situation of migrants in Libya

First stage: The movement of smugglers has become easier because of the recent security outflows in the country, and the situation of migrants in Libya is extremely difficult, especially at the stage of their movement from their place of departure to their arrival destination in the detention spot, which has been established by smugglers. At this stage, they are usually transferred in 4×4 vehicles or covered under food-supply goods or sometimes under construction materials and several testimonies are being passed on the migrants’ death while they are being transported or being killed on the road.

Smuggling lines work according to “giving and receiving on spot” principle within a linked network from the road between the Libyan borders with Chad, Sudan and Niger to the two cities of Zouara and Sibrata, which are the most vital regions in the country. The situation has remained like that for several years despite the attempts of tightening security and monitoring to resolve and control it.  It is also a region to gather the rest of Asian migrants who came through Egypt.

These smuggling networks split and share migrants’ money whom in fact, most of them die during the journey on the road.

One of the most popular border points of access is El Awinat port, which is located near Sudan, through which about 1000 migrants enter daily to Libyan territory according to statistics of 2017.

Smuggling gangs gather and transport migrants along a 1200 km road on the industrial river road, which leads to Muradah, Bani Walid, and Sibrata cities, as there are no authorities in these vast areas, in addition to the absence of civil society. Along their road to death, the actual atrocities of migrants on this journey cannot be fully covered or mentioned accurately here.

Second stage: When migrants arrive to coastal areas, they are divided into groups of hundreds and distributed in “camps”, which are rooms roofed with wood and metal, for long periods. Many of them also die during fights among armed gangs controlling smuggling networks. Those who are arrested and placed in shelters suffer from the same conditions. Testimonies of Libyan civil society activists, whether from shelters in the Eastern or Western region, have reported the exploitation of migrants for forced labor, for which they rarely receive a return.  Some Yemeni immigrants worked for the favor of the shelter’s director in an Eastern Province center in exchange for mobile phone charges. Some “official” centers are already run by armed gangs, which means that trafficking networks are expanding to include officials and authorities’ security personnel. As for meals, they consist of breadcrumbs and food remains, and even news coming from inside the centers confirms that most of the food may be inedible. 

Although some testimonies have indicated that men and children have been sexually abused, women continue to be the most abused victims of violent and rape, and several cases of rape have been documented in some of the smuggled detention centers, which are also reported in the testimonies of some migrant women. Black-skinned migrants of Nigerian nationality, for example, were raped and forced to return home with their rape conceived children. The aggressors are usually bypassers or customers of brothels in Libya, where migrant women are sometimes detained for months. Those children are called “Arab children” in Nigeria. Nigerian families refuse these children, while mothers themselves give signs of rejection and commit violence due to the state of oppression and depression they live after returning to the country which they originally left for a better life they dreamed of.

2) Managing migration issue inside Libya

There are no legal provisions governing administrative forms of detaining migrants. Although there is Law No. 19 of 2010 on combating illegal migration, it should be noted that Act No. 6 of 1987 on regulating the entry and residence of foreigners in and out of Libya is complementary to it in the absence of any conflict between the two texts. Despite Libyan law provisions which criminalize irregular migration and other related crimes, namely, the crime of entering Libyan territories without obtaining visas and smuggling illegal migrants inside the country, or participating and being a member of a gang or an organizations that carry out activities of smuggling and enslaving migrants or even the non-reporting of illegal immigrants. And despite penalizing such actions with penalties that vary between imprisonment, fine and labor with different periods of imprisonment terms and different amount of money for each act or offense, but the Libyan legislator failed to legislate provisions to govern the administrative forms of detaining migrants. Therefore, international organizations usually point out the urgent need for Libya to develop a sound legal framework for their immigration policies in line with international human rights standards

Although the legal guarantees provided for illegal immigrants, in which the law provides for their humanitarian treatment, preserving their dignity and rights, and preventing any violation against their money and movable property if they were arrested, reports by human rights organizations indicate that there are many violations of migrants’ rights in Libyan detention centers such as arbitrary detention, inhuman conditions of detention, torture, forced labor and sexual violence and ill-treatment. All those who are intercepted at sea are placed in detention centers automatically, thus placing them at risk of human rights violations, which can be avoided by using wider shelters that are more spacious and other non-custodial measures proposed by international experts.

In the absence of a unified central administration or government, many of those who reside in those shelters are recruited to participate in military operations for both sides, and those who reside outside them are being tempted into money. Moreover, these recruits are being placed on the front lines of battles to transport provide fighters with equipment and weapons, and if they refused to play this role they get tortured or even killed.

In addition, migrants’ shelters and detention centers got bombed during ongoing fighting and battles and in a very serious precedent a number of irregular migrants were brutally killed in the Libyan city “Mazda” (one of Mount Nafusa towns). The Ministry of Interior of the Government of National Accord issued instructions to the region’s Security Directorate to arrest the murderers who killed 26 Bangladeshi migrants and 4 Africans and injured 11 other migrants – who were transferred to Zintan main hospital to be treated- in a genocide incident. This incident was a retaliatory reaction against immigrants carried out by a Libyan family for a murdered victim of smugglers and human trafficking gangs.

The issue of immigration normally fell within the scope of jurisdiction of the Libyan Ministry of Interior, but that changed when the illegal migration control department was established in 2014. Since 2015, Eastern and Western bodies have been numerous amid the institutional division of the Libyan state. This has consequently led to the subordination of detention shelters and centers either to armed militias or to the complicity of those who are in charge of them in favor of armed gangs.

This highlights the incompetency of these shelters management, as unqualified persons without adequate facilities supervise them, while the scarce financial assets are transferred from the Libyan state or international authorities.

At the level of international law, Libya did not ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention, nor has the Interim Constitutional Declaration provided for this right. Libyan laws maintain a punitive aspect regarding crimes of secretly crossing the border. A clear example of that is Law No. 19 of 2010 on combating illegal migration, which included articles on criminal liability for migrants and their deportation that can be described as highly very unfair. The political division in Libya also caused an absence of a clear vision of how to deal with this issue, especially amid the armed formations controlling a large territory of the country.

This made the Ministry of the Interior’s (illegal migration Department) system in its weakest state, which has recently become totally dependent on the aid of international organizations working in this field.  All that has clearly worsened the situation of detention shelters, especially as the military funding obsession is developing and ruling other issues and becoming a priority.

As a result of the conflict over the capital, Libyan Government of National Accord decided to close a number of irregular migrants’ centers in the areas under its control and release those who resided inside, as it was unable to guarantee their security after the attack on one of these centers in Taghura city, east of the capital Tripoli. This scenario has been repeated several times as the military operations between the forces of the Government of National Accord and the general command forces led by Khalifa Haftar is developing fast.

It should be noted that the Supreme Council of Judicial bodies had passed Decree No. 62 of 2010 establishing a specialized court and two separate bodies.  Article 3 of this Decree stipulates that “a District Court in the North Tripoli District shall be established and called the (Court against illegal Immigration). Its jurisdiction extends to misdemeanors related to Law No. 19 of 2010, and its domestic jurisdiction extends to Al-Sawany region, and East, North and South of Tripoli. While article 4 of the same resolution establishes a partial prosecution for combating illegal immigration that falls within the jurisdiction of the aforementioned illegal migration Court, stating that it is responsible for investigating and prosecuting the offenses set forth in Act No. 19 of 2010. But these specialized courts have not done anything on the ground and we do not know what the reasons are behind their failure to do so are.

3) Migration issue in Northern countries

A time course setting out the domination of the security and military approach in the European countries' dealings with migration issue in Libya before and after the revolution

- Migration issue shifts between the Union's policies and policy shifts within its countries

Although the European Neighborhood Policy attempts to make a multi-dimensional policy, it ultimately turns to focus on the security approach with regard to migration issues. European dynamics moves on a national-regional basis, where national policies are interlinked with European economic national options. On the other hand, the South Mediterranean countries adopt competitive national policies among themselves without any appreciation for the added value of coordination and joint action regionally.

This input was present before the transformations the region has been witnessing since 2011, as relations between the European Union and the Southern Mediterranean countries were built on the basis of partnership agreements with each country separately on various conditions. The absence of democracy and the control of repressive security regimes has made the migration issue a security issue with a privilege that is being negotiated on the basis of purely political accounts by these regimes, this was aforementioned when we stated earlier the dealings of Gaddafi’s regime with migrants’ issue.

Within this context, European countries chose to view migration issues with narrow security aspect, given that they are able to provide more stable interests than betting on failed systems and countries in terms of absence of good governance and equitable economic growth.

This scene did not change much after 2011. The joint report directed to the European Parliament, the European Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Territories, which came under the title “Review of the European Neighborhood Policy”. The report emphasized the absence of political will of pushing towards adherence to democracy values and rules of good governance, although there are assistive shifts towards this direction. Hence, the recommendations were to work within agreements focusing on fewer priorities. This can be considered an adjustment of policy that seeks to limit losses in light of the instability experienced by most of the Southern Mediterranean countries.

In practice, security and military solutions are objectively devoted to dealing with the issue of migration in Libya from the side of the European Union. This can be concluded without neglecting the subjective factors, which are linked to the nature of the European Union as a primarily geo-economic space, which is strongly influenced by internal political dimensions of the member states. This can be easily witnessed when monitoring migration issues since 2018.

Prior to Brussels’ summit, the President of the European Union Council, Donald Tusk, said that the Council will present an Austrian-Danish proposal, calling for landing platforms outside the European Union, in which immigrants will be divided into asylum seekers who need international protection and migrants for economic reasons. These platforms would be run by European agencies that would consider initial demands and exclude migrants for economic reasons to maintain necessary speed and the lowest cost needed. According to the draft document submitted by Tusk to the Council, “Such platforms will provide quick procedures to distinguish between the two classes and reduce the incentive to embark on risky trips” i.e. sailing to Europe.

In June 2018, the European Union summit was held in Brussels on migration in an atmosphere of political tension as German Chancellor Angela Merkel faced severe pressure at home to take a stronger stance on migration, as the Christian Social Union Party Merkel’s partner in the government coalition threatened to close the borders of the state of Bavaria in face of migrants.  It was an issue that could have led to the collapse of the new government, which did not exceed three months old, and undermine the Schengen area of ​​open borders in the European Union.

After discussing the issue of platforms during the European summit meeting in Brussels in June 2018, the official positions of the Southern Mediterranean countries, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Libya and Egypt, agreed all in rejecting this kind of focus, and it is one of the few times that these countries met on a stance towards European policies.

Until June o2018, about 33 thousand people came to Europe, which is less than half of the number recorded in 2017, and the number decreased compared to 2015 by 95 percent, as stated in the summit document. But, the Europeans moves come within the framework of incitements made by the right-wing populists who wanted to raise their level of popularity by spreading  xenophobia and feelings of fear for everything that is foreign. As usual, the leaders of the states of the Visegrad group (Poland, Hungary, Czech and Slovakia) refused to participate in the reception policy, and stressed the abandonment of the imposed solidarity through migrant quotas.

This will be implemented “within the framework of the Multinational Force to Combat illegal migration, as well as to strengthen the European Union’s support to the Libyan Coast Guard,” said Donald Tusk, President of the European Council. “Moreover, we have sent a clear message to all ships, including NGOs, working in The Mediterranean, which must respect the law and should not hinder the work of the Libyan Coast Guard.” Europe is seeking to build migrant camps in North Africa, including Libya and Morocco, and Merkel told reporters, “I highly value our agreement that we want to work to establish a partnership with Africa.”

While the French-Italian proposal regarding the shelters on the territory of the European Union came, in the countries that want to build them within their territories, in which migrants would be placed after their arrival, provided that the process of screening those who should be deported  and those who are entitled to seek asylum, so the latter can be distributed and transferred to another European countries. This would be done on “voluntary” basis.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, whose government includes the anti-migrant 5-star movement and the far-right League, had previously refused to agree to a text of the summit on security and trade except by the pledge of the rest of the leaders to help Italy deal with migrants arriving across the sea, and the rest of the countries that bear Frontline migration burden, especially Greece and Spain.

Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters after the agreement: “All in all, after an intense discussion on the most challenging topic of the European Union, which is migration, we have reached a common agreement and this is a good sign.” We still have a lot of work to do to bring the different perspectives together,” she added. But for reference, the dispute still exists between the European Union countries regarding the amendment of national migration and asylum laws to this day.

The outcomes of the 2018 Brussels summit demonstrated the dominance of security solutions on the issue of migration in Libya. The latter is considered the first proposal to be a land to accommodate and resettle migrants within it due to many considerations, including the vast area in addition to the financial capabilities of Libya and its ability to absorb migrants. Especially with the fragile institutional situation. This makes the receiving countries work on the idea of ​​resettlement without the presence of a Libyan decision to agree or not, and this is what is expected to change the demographic balance of the Libyan people.

The extension of migration agreement between Libya and Italy is a new affirmation of the security approach that is today imposing itself a fait accompli. Libyan civil society organizations and international organizations rejected this agreement and considered it a disregard for its known deficiencies and the violations that accompanied it.

Italy and the European Union are funding the Libyan Maritime Border Force, which has been known to deal inhumanely with migrants and asylum seekers. A leaked report on the European Union, in September 2019, indicated that the detention of migrants is a profitable business for the Libyan government in the West, as the summary of the report contains several important points, including:

European politics have been described as the “European castle”, and is similar to the United States Wall. Sophie Annfield, a member of the Dutch European Parliament in the committee, considered it “more lethal”. So it is only a barrier to cover up and ignore the human tragedies as long as it is on the other side of the wall.

- Attempts to convert Libya from a transit land to destination land

Despite the continuous attempts by the European Union on more than one occasion to discuss turning Libya into a land that accommodates migrants who are trying to reach Europe, the Libyan side at the official and popular levels rejects this idea, especially since most migrants do not view Libya that it is the ultimate goal or destination but they deal with Libya, as a station or a phase through which they want to reach Europe.

However, the poor security situation and the political division that is taking place today is what has caused Europeans to seriously consider trying to resettle migrants practically on the ground. This is evident on more than one occasion. A clear example of this is what was reported by an Italian journalist through a report prepared and mentioned in 2016, in which it stated that the Italian Ministry of the Interior supported some armed formations in the city of Sabratha in exchange for keeping migrants in Libya and preventing them from reaching Italy by sea. In addition, this agreement comes outside the context of the treaties concluded between the two countries, Libya and Italy, just as the Italians also reached an understanding with the militia to stop smuggling operations in Sabratha (40 km) West of Tripoli, which is the main departure port for smugglers. Frequent reports were received of a secret deal made by the Minister of Interior during the same year with a strong smuggling gang of 500 people in Sabratha, led by Abu Al-Debshi, Also known as the Uncle “Al-Am”.

This policy has exacerbated the conflict between smuggling gangs, which are seeking to control the geographical areas and centers of shelter in them, to impose a location allowing them to be a party to receive European funds. For example, during a battle in late 2017, 26 people were killed, 170 wounded, and thousands were displaced from the city of Sabratha due to the conflict between smuggling militias. For reference, the hegemony of these groups changed according to the balance of the military conflict between Government of National Accord and Haftar. As they emerged from the city under the pressure of the latter, some of them returned with the return of the Libyan government forces.

After the aforementioned Brussels conference, what was considered a “new approach” was reached through more European Union support for the Libyan Coast Guard to repel migrants at sea before their arrival in Europe, as well as camps for migrants outside Europe, especially in North Africa, with the aim of deterring migrants from crossing the Mediterranean. But this point raises questions about whether they comply with international law or not, as European leaders agreed to tighten border controls and increase funding for Turkey, Morocco and other countries in North Africa to prevent immigration to Europe. According to Human Rights Watch report, the union’s policy with increased dependence on the Libyan coast guard forces continued to impede efforts to rescue migrants by NGOs and that eventually increased death rates. By mid-November the number of deaths reached 2,043, it was a decrease in figures compared to 2017. However, the death rate per transit rose from 1 per 42 in the first eight months of 2017 to 1 per 18 in the same period in 2018. This policy aims to return migrants intercepted at sea to Libya, despite the imminent danger. Instead of thinking about solving the problem of migration through regional migration agreements, the Union continued its search for partners that would accept resettlement of migrants in it, starting by building shelters in it. Egypt, Tunisia and other North African countries and Albania were proposed as potential partners, despite concerns about conditions, treatment and access to asylum. This trend failed, especially after the neighboring countries of Libya rejected these policies, including Tunisia

Therefore, it is possible to note the repeated attempts to impose a new reality on Libyans and migrants at the same time, which is to stay in Libya and not reach Europe, and this is what exposes migrants to a catastrophic humanitarian situation in view of the security conditions that Libya is going through today. European powers do not miss any opportunity to impose balances that allow them to control the flow of migration and its impact on European space

4) Migrants’ crisis in the shadow of Corona pandemic

Regarding the catastrophic conditions in which migrants live in Libya, international organizations and Libyan civil society organizations have appealed to the parties to the conflict to accept a humanitarian truce and devote themselves to face the new pandemic. But, what happened is actually the total opposite

The report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at the beginning of April indicated that everyone: civilians, refugees and asylum seekers face difficult challenges, especially in accessing basic materials and services or finding work, with the prices of foodstuffs, fuel and house rents rising on record. This increases the numbers of displaced outwards and internally

The Libyan civil society organizations, in addition to the international organizations, have indicated since the start of the crisis the need to respect the humanitarian truce, but the Libyan conflict continued, causing a security collapse that disrupted the humanitarian and voluntary work, and impeded the delivery of aid to those in need. This left many migrants with an unknown fate in front of the threat of this disease and the risk of violence

The security crisis has further affected the health sector in Libya. The conflict destroyed many hospitals and health centers, while many were forced to close. Public sector hospitals suffer from poor diagnosis and treatment for patients, a lack of equipment, medical equipment and capabilities that would have increased performance, so Libyans opt for asylum in neighboring countries. In fact, most of them also lack medical and paramedical staff. The head of the Libyan National Human Rights Commission Ahmed Hamza pointed out foreign workers in the health sector were representing 20% of it and that they were forced to leave.

It is well known to those who follow Libyan affairs that the corruption experienced by Libya, especially in the health sector, compounds the crisis and affects all attempts to confront the pandemic, especially for Libyans and migrants who find themselves in a more difficult situation than others. Corruption has wasted health sector resources and drained official efforts to reform it

Actually, the health sector in Libya is moving against all international recommendations regarding the pandemic. Despite the exceptional measures taken by the authorities in the West and East of the country, practically the sector suffers from several shortcomings. Curfew and quarantine rules are applied arbitrarily and violently on Libyans and migrants alike. Also, the capabilities required to conduct the analyses are not sufficient to cover the worst case scenarios.

The aforementioned requires readdressing the status quo by stopping military operations and focusing on facing the pandemic, or else that could lead to disastrous consequences for both Libyans and migrants. Part of the solution begins internally in order to impose a different equation for the narrow interests of foreign countries in Libya, on the issue of refugees, displaced persons and others.

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