The View From Libya, Ground Zero in the Migrant Crisis

An epidemic of human smuggling is adding to the woes of a country that already has more problems than it can handle.

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Last week, as many as 1,200 migrants drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe from Libya. More than 800 of them died in a single accident, which the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees described as “the deadliest incident ever recorded in the Mediterranean.” The fact that these refugees, who come from all over Africa and the Middle East, embarked on the final stage of their journey from Libya underlines once again the lawlessness and chaos that have engulfed the country since the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime. Libya cannot confront the problem on its own. Human trafficking presents huge threats to Libya and its surrounding region, and international action is needed to combat it.

Smuggling desperate people into Europe is a lucrative business for human traffickers. Migrants fleeing war and oppression pay thousands of dollars to those who offer to help them cross the sea in search of a better life. Libya’s chaos and instability have created the perfect environment for these smugglers to operate — and to make enormous profits.

But despite Libya’s direct connection to the tragedy that unfolded in the Mediterranean last week, the country’s media and government have paid little attention. But this should come as little surprise. Libya is being torn apart as rival governments fight for power and resources. The people of the country are focused on the growing threat from terrorist groups that are taking full advantage of the civil war, the lack of capable institutions, and the inaction of the international community.

Some local communities and actors have been trying to tackle the migrant problem. Last year, a meeting between tribal elders, security officials, and military leaders in the city of Tobruk took measures to counter trafficking. This included the lifting of social immunity (a social arrangement by which tribes provide protection and support to their members) for members of tribes who participate in the trade. The removal of immunity — a dramatic measure by local standards — shows just how seriously the tribes and security forces take the issue. Tobruk’s local council also held a series of important meetings with Egyptian officials and military figures near the border area between the two countries, leading to cooperation agreements on efforts to improve security and fight smuggling. So local communities have been trying to do what they can to tackle the problem — but they’ve been doing so on their own, despite the general lack of resources, the infighting between Libya’s rival governments, and the international community’s disinterest.

For Libyans, human trafficking poses a number of dangers. First, given that the health sector has been hard hit by the civil war, there are concerns that illegal immigrants could pose a health threat (a fear that was particularly pronounced during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa). A spokesperson for Tobruk’s medical center — one of the few functional hospitals left in the country — told me that “Libya’s health sector is unable to deal with providing basic services to patients, let alone with the outbreak of epidemics.”

Second, human smuggling poses a security threat to Libya and its surrounding region. There have been many warnings that the Islamic State and other terrorist groups are using the trafficking networks to bring foreign jihadists into Libya — and possibly helping them cross into Europe as well. Anecdotal evidence suggests that profits from human smuggling are being used to fund extremist groups operating throughout the region.

I spoke recently with Mokhtar Roofa, an officer with the Libyan Air Force based in Tobruk. From there, he told me, the air force conducts aerial surveillance of the eastern border with Egypt. Roofa has been closely monitoring trafficking in the area, and he showed me some interesting video testimony from illegal migrants who were either rescued by Libyan border guard units in the desert after their smugglers abandoned them or who had been intercepted and taken to illegal immigrant detention centers. In some of those testimonies I saw, migrants described the journeys they had taken, usually long and involved tales covering huge distances and involving transfers within a complex web of groups and individuals that connected many countries.

Roofa explained that the trafficking network spans a number of countries across North Africa and the Middle East, including Sudan, Egypt, Niger, and Chad, as well as Syria and Turkey. Roofa noted that there have been many clashes between human smugglers and border guard units in the Libyan Desert. The traffickers are well-equipped with weaponry and advanced communications equipment, such as night-vision devices and GPS systems that enable them to move in the dark, while Libya’s border guard units lack even the most basic resources.

The civil war and the breakdown of institutions are making it hard for the international community, and the European Union in particular, to deal with the Libyan authorities. Yet this is no reason to give up. The international community’s continuing reluctance to help Libya overcome its internal instability is only exacerbating the refugee crisis. If anything, the EU should redouble its efforts to mediate in the civil war and to help bring the rival parties to the negotiating table.

Just to make matters worse, EU officials have now broached the idea of carrying out military strikes against human traffickers in Libya. The Islamist government that controls the capital Tripoli and much of the coast immediately declared that it will “confront” any European moves to attack sites used by traffickers, and urged the bloc to consult with it about any corresponding plans. The Tripoli government clearly aims to use the trafficking issue as a political bargaining chip to obtain recognition from EU governments. (The photo shows a security official from the Tripoli government looking at illegal migrants intercepted in Libya earlier this week.) This shows the depth of the dilemma facing those who favor some form of dramatic intervention to end the crisis.

The international community should look for other ways to help the local authorities in Libya tackle the issue of illegal immigration. They should provide equipment and offer support to democratically elected local authorities already engaged in efforts to combat human trafficking. In addition, more work should be done with neighboring countries to encourage greater cooperation in border zones.

In any case, you can believe me when I say that Libyans aren’t any happier with the current situation than the Europeans themselves. Perhaps it’s time for both sides to join forces in finding a solution.


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