Once a Destination for Migrants, Post-Gaddafi Libya Has Gone from Transit Route to Containment
African and Middle Eastern migration flows to Libya and the country’s posture toward these migrants have changed dramatically since the 2011 fall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. While Libya once was a destination for foreign workers drawn by a strong economy, post-civil war, migrants have used the country as a transit point to set off for Europe—though as European borders have hardened since the 2015-16 migration crisis, many have remained stranded.
Amid profound instability unleashed with the Libyan civil war and rival factions vying for power, conditions facing the roughly 650,000 migrants who remain in Libya have been dire. Those living in the community are vulnerable to extortion, violence, and slave-like work conditions, while migrants held in detention centers may experience overcrowding, sexual abuse, forced labor, torture, and deprivation of food, sunlight, and water. Amid entrenched fighting around Tripoli, including a deadly airstrike in 2019 that hit a migrant detention center, thousands of migrants have been evacuated from the country.
The experience of one Nigerian woman interviewed by the author in Italy, after a journey across the Mediterranean that has proven so dangerous for countless people, offers a sketch in brief of how the situation for migrants has changed significantly in Libya. Drawn to Libya by the prospect of better work and pay, the woman’s thinking changed after witnessing a shooting. “Blood was pumping out... I was hiding there, looking; there was nobody to rescue the boy and that is how the boy just lost his life,” the migrant recounted in 2017. “The next thing I need[ed] to do is just for me to secure myself. I didn't go home; I was hiding. I was praying within me, to tell God to come and help me.” After this experience the woman believed she would not be safe in Libya and worked to pay her passage to Italy.
Others have not been so fortunate, finding themselves stuck in limbo. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated in 2018 that 600,000 migrants in Libya could be victims of abuse and human-rights violations. This year, IOM reported that 71 percent of migrants in Libya claimed to have limited or no access to health services, an especially concerning statistic amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The public-health crisis has added new pressure to the situation; migrants and refugees have reported losing their jobs and seeing food prices spike due, in part, to supply chain disruptions sparked by the outbreak.
Drawing on interviews the author conducted with Eritreans and Nigerians who had migrated through Libya, this article explains how conditions have changed for migrants in the post-Gaddafi era. In effect, there have been two stages: a state of transit from 2011 to late 2017, followed by a state of containment following the late 2017 implementation of a deal with Italy for the Libyan coast guard to thwart migrant boats from reaching European waters. This agreement was renewed in February 2020, offering a moment to reconsider its effect on migrants’ experiences.
Libya Since the Downfall of Gaddafi
Prior to the death of Gaddafi in October 2011, Libya was a prime destination for migrants within Africa. The country’s oil wealth propelled a strong economy and plentiful jobs. Yet that fell apart when Gaddafi was deposed. According to IOM, there were approximately 2.5 million migrant workers in Libya before the conflict started, but 800,000 fled during 2011, leaving vacancies throughout important sectors such as health and construction.
Some Nigerians interviewed by the author had worked in Libya for several years. Abu owned a clothing shop in Tripoli and lived there for seven years until the civil war began (his name and those of others interviewed in this article are pseudonyms). He went back to Nigeria for a time and then returned to his shop once the conflict appeared to settle. Meanwhile, the situation in Nigeria appeared to be worsening, so his wife and two children followed his path and joined him in Libya.
Their perceived security was not to last, however. In the power vacuum after Gaddafi’s death, different tribal regimes and authority groups competed violently to gain control. For individuals caught in the middle, the situation changed rapidly. “Last year I was living a normal life,” Abu told the author during an interview in Italy, where he fled in 2016. “I didn’t have any problems and the place was peaceful.” Things turned after the Islamic State spread from its origins in Iraq and Syria into Libya. “They came there and took over,” he said. “There was a lot of crisis over there. Even my first daughter, a bullet met her and she died there.”
As with countless other migrants caught amid the civil war, Abu and his family found their only escape route seemed to be via the sea, with the desert behind them and no way to return home.
Trapped amid Conflict
The increased violence in Libya has made the situation far more dangerous for migrants and locals. An estimated 401,000 people were displaced within the country as of April, according to IOM. As of mid-2020, two authorities continued to vie for power in Libya: the UN-supported Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli and politicians in the east aligned with Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army. Neither has consolidated central control, though support from Turkey has aided the GNA in repelling an advance on Tripoli in recent months. Instead, much of the country has been ruled by tribal regimes (see Figure 1). In some parts of the country, tribal rule has been consistent since the fall of Gaddafi, whereas in other territories it has been contested between different groups over time.
In the southeast, for example, the Toubou ethnic group gained control after the fall of Gaddafi and has maintained consistent authority over its territory. The Toubou control large swaths of people, money, and goods coming in and out of their territory. As a result, the Toubou have built a business kidnapping and extorting Eritrean and East African migrants entering their territory.
Figure 1. Map of Ethnic Groups in Libya
Source: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) rendering of Xyzzy map on Wikimedia Commons, available here.
In the southwest, on the other hand, there has been more contestation of control between rival tribal groups. Since Gaddafi’s overthrow, the Toubou and Tuareg groups have challenged each other over land. This part of Libya is the central entry point for migrants arriving from West Africa and has become the main source of reports about slave markets and trading of human beings.
With the fall of Gaddafi, migration through Libya increased due to the lack of controls. Onward migration from Libya had previously been controlled by Gaddafi’s regime. Post-Gaddafi, the trade and extortion of human beings became a central source of income for communities in Libya, often to the migrants’ detriment.
Nigerian and Eritrean Experiences through Libya
According to IOM Displacement Tracking Matrix data, the top five nationalities of migrants in Libya as of February were those from Niger (136,000), Chad (103,000), Egypt (100,000), Sudan (77,000), and Nigeria (50,000). The largest groups arriving in Italy via sea, however, were from Bangladesh, Tunisia, and Cote d’Ivoire.
The situation has changed since Europe’s refugee and migration crisis in 2015 and 2016. At that time, the two largest groups arriving in Italy were Nigerians and Eritreans—national groups that now account for just a tiny fraction of migrants in Italy. According to UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) data, Nigerians have made up just 2.3 percent of Italian sea arrivals in 2020, and Eritreans account for 1.4 percent.
This article is based on research conducted under a Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research Rubicon grant on Eritrean and Nigerian migrant experiences in moving to Italy. The author, working with translators, conducted interviews with 34 Eritreans and 35 Nigerians from January to June 2017. Interviews were conducted in Milan, Rome, and Sicily. Respondents in Rome and Sicily were recruited on the street and through networks. In Milan, the city provided permission to conduct the interviews. The commune provided permission and support for this research and coordinated an introduction to two NGOs: Fondazione L'Albero della Vita and Fondazione Progetto Arca onlus, which are contracted by the commune to provide reception assistance. Respondents in Milan were primarily interviewed in reception facilities.
Most respondents were male (29 Nigerians and 18 Eritreans). All had arrived in Italy between 2015 and 2017, with 68 of the 69 having done so via Libya. The average age of both the Eritrean and Nigerian respondents was 25 years old. Except for two Nigerian respondents, none of the respondents had any higher education, with most not having completed secondary school.
Nigerians and Eritreans reported very different experiences in Libya, based on the author’s research. Eritreans who entered the country via the southeast expected they would be kidnapped and extorted while in Libya. They hired smugglers in Khartoum to take them to the border between Sudan and Libya. There, Eritrean migrants were told to wait for Libyans to arrive. This interlude could sometimes last for days, and respondents reported having to walk back to towns to resupply with food and water and then return to the border to wait.
When the Libyans arrived, Eritreans reported being taken captive to compounds where they were told to make a phone call to their families and connections asking to transfer money to their Libyan overseers. The amount demanded was generally in the range of U.S. $5,000 to $6,000. Once the money was paid, the migrants were transferred elsewhere in the compound and may have been given privileges such as being able to go outside once a day. When ready, the smugglers moved their charges north to the coast, and migrants then disembarked on boats heading across the Mediterranean.
Those who were not able to pay were less fortunate. They reported being tortured and had to repeatedly call their families asking for money. They reported undergoing very harsh conditions with little supply of food and water and no ability to move or go outside. One woman stated: “I was also hopeless in Libya with all the kidnapping, hunger, and disease.” Men were beaten and women were often raped. Respondents reported very different durations of stays in Libya, from as short as one week to as long as 18 months. One respondent reported that, even though he was unable to pay, eventually his kidnappers sent him on a boat to Italy all the same.
Nigerians, meanwhile, tend to enter Libya via the southwest border with Niger and reported quite different experiences. Most Nigerians interviewed arrived in Libya in 2014 or 2015, intending to remain there. Respondents were mostly unaware of the conditions in Libya and were surprised to encounter racism, violence, and extortion. Unlike Eritreans, who were primarily held in captivity while in Libya, many Nigerians were living and working with some degree of liberty. In practice, this meant that Nigerian migrants were exposed to different realities than Eritreans, who experienced a highly systemic and routinized situation of kidnapping and extortion. Nigerians, by contrast, reported a more confused journey.
As one example, upon arrival in the city of Sabha, 16-year-old Emmanual, who was from northern Nigeria, and his two younger siblings were captured and detained in a Libyan compound. Emmanual’s father had died the year before in Nigeria, and his mother took him and his siblings to live with her sister elsewhere in the country. A short time later his aunt left to go to Italy to find work, “but from then we didn't hear from my auntie again,” Emmanual said. His mother subsequently fell ill and was unable to look after the children, prompting Emmanual to decide that, along with his siblings, he must follow his aunt.
Unlike Eritreans who knew what to expect in Libya, his imprisonment came as a shock to Emmanual. Upon being captured, Emmanual was confused and repeated, “but I don't understand, I said I don't understand why I'm here.” His Libyan captor told Emmanual that his driver had not paid the necessary fine and that he would have to get the money. Emmanual responded that he and his siblings had no other family and could not get the money. They reached a deal in which Emmanual would work off the debt of 1,200 dinar (approximately U.S. $850) per person in order to liberate himself, his sister, and his brother. He would earn 300 dinar (U.S. $214) per month, so expected to spend one year working in service to his captor. Unlike Eritrean migrants who were kidnapped and extorted for ransom, Emmanual and his siblings were held in a system of indentured labor, which was unexpected and which they were forced into against their will.
After three months, the compound they were in was bombed and the detainees began to escape. Emmanual collected his sister and brother to join the fleeing prisoners, despite not knowing where they were going. Emmanual looked for other African migrants to help them, with the hopes of finding an intermediary “connection” man who would be able to help them get out of Libya. They found other Africans who took them to such a man. “We begged him, my sister begged him, and we cried, we told him our story,” Emmanual said. “So, he said okay… He took us to Tripoli as his sons and daughters and from Tripoli he pushed us for free.”
Emmanual recalls that day darkly: “The day we entered into the boat, I saw... they were bringing people out of the water, dead people, so I was very scared… God, I said, please show us the way; show us Italy way.” Emmanual was fortunate that within nine hours at sea his boat was rescued with everyone onboard still alive. “I was just praying, that's all I was doing until the moment we saw the rescue ship,” he said later. After two additional days at sea, he and his siblings disembarked in Italy. The author interviewed him two months after their arrival, while they were waiting to file a claim for asylum.
Bottled Up in Libya
The Eritrean and Nigerian migrants encountered during the author’s research were part of a massive flow of asylum seekers and other migrants who reached Europe in 2015, when more than 1.3 million such arrivals occurred, and in 2016. However, unlike in Greece where the migrant crisis was short but intense during those two years, Italy was under constant pressure from 2014 to 2017. During this period between 119,000 and 181,000 migrants arrived in Italy each year, creating a sustained state of crisis. Amid the pressures on asylum processing and reception systems, as well as on political systems, the European Union and individual Member States began undertaking a series of measures to harden their borders and reduce the number of arrivals. Limiting boat arrivals across the Mediterranean, with Libya one of the lead setting-off points, became a key policy focus.
European leaders sought to address the flows first with sea patrols of their own. In March 2016, the European Union and Turkey signed a deal that, among other things, returned migrants arriving in Greece to Turkey if they did not apply for asylum or if their claim was rejected. Then in 2017, Italy struck a controversial deal with Libya that included outsourcing the containment of migrant boats to the Libyan coast guard, which returns them to Libyan shores.
The effort has been effective at halting migrants. From 2014 through 2017, 625,000 migrants arrived in Italy via the sea, primarily departing from Libya, according to UNHCR, with a peak of 181,000 migrants in 2016. By 2018, in the wake of the Italy-Libya deal, this number had plunged to 23,000 arrivals, and last year just 11,000. Through the first six months of 2020, nearly 7,200 migrants of all origins arrived in Europe via the Central Mediterranean route, which is an increase over the same period in 2019 but a fraction from previous years.
In exchange, North African countries have received sizable financial and technical assistance from the European Union and Member States. Libyan projects have received 408 million euros (U.S. $461 million) from the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa and an additional 98 million euros (U.S. $111 million) under the European Neighborhood Instrument. Despite widespread opposition from human-rights advocates—and reporting showing that large sums of money have been diverted to militia groups and traffickers—Italy and Libya renewed their deal for an additional three years this February.
Deterring Migration, but Limited Protection for Migrants
The experiences of migrants in Libya have changed dramatically in the post-Gaddafi years, as the 2017 Italy agreement transformed the country from one of transition to one of containment. Even within these different periods, however, migrants have encountered different situations depending on which region they traverse. The absence of a central rule of law has created multiple transit spaces of exception that are beyond the reach of international law, and so operate under rules all their own.
What has remained nearly constant is the rampant human-rights violations against migrants in Libya. These violations have been documented in high-profile media pieces such as CNN’s footage of the Libyan slave trade and Sally Hayden’s exposé in Foreign Policy. Research by the author and Anna Triandafyllidou shows that the systematic kidnapping and extortion of Eritrean migrants in the Toubou territory amount to crimes against humanity. As such, the international community could consider invoking the doctrine of responsibility to protect to intervene in Libya, per international law.
The situation continues to be critical for migrants. The recent renewal of the Italy-Libya agreement must not be allowed to prolong what has already been a dreadfully extended period of migrant abuse and neglect. While the deal been highly effective at reducing arrivals to Europe, it has not changed the aspirations of migrants to reach Europe and has clearly worsened their situation in Libya. As the author stated in a 2017 critique of the initial deal, a functioning asylum or judicial system for protecting migrants in Libya is unrealistic without rule of law. There is increasing evidence that after being intercepted at sea, migrants and refugees are often brought to Libyan detention centers where they suffer human rights abuses and are neglected. Migrant advocates’ concerns about the deal appear to have been proven correct.
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