Seeing the “migratory crisis” differently: the Libyan case [1/3]


This series of three articles is the result of a year-long geopolitical research project carried out at the French Geopolitics Institute (IFG), under the supervision of Mr. Ali Bensâad, a famous researcher and Libya specialist. This nearly 150-page project is based on a dense documentary corpus and a month-long field survey carried out in June and July 2018 in Tunis, where, since 2014, the international response to the Libyan crisis has been located (EU, UN, UN, UNHCR, NGOs…). Diplomats, journalists and researchers were interviewed within the framework of this research. Thus, this series of articles will provide a relatively original perspective on the migratory crisis in the central Mediterranean region using elements of this geopolitical work.

Libya, land of the “migratory crisis” before its time?

In 2016, 181,436 migrants reached Italy via the central Mediterranean route. Most of them passed through Libya. Behind the urgency of the crisis, a certain determinism is concealed.

The echoes of the “migratory crisis” in the central Mediterranean have not been heard here for several months. As with the Aquarius, which is stuck in the port of Marseille, ships belonging to other associations such as SEA Watch are forbidden access to rescue areas. Nonetheless, this reduction of activities at sea does not mean the end of the attempted crossings, quite the opposite.

Against all accusations of “collusion” or cooperation levelled at a number of non-governmental organisations, the launching of fragile boats continues despite the lack of humanitarian ships, while mortality continues to rise. If the “migratory crisis” seems to have abated, it is because for a while, it has been going on behind closed doors.

Shipwrecks, or the suffering endured in the different retention centres, official and otherwise in Libya do not receive the same level of media attention anymore. Indeed, the detainment of the Aquarius indirectly contributes to keeping away journalists who used to board the boat in large numbers. In that regard, the idea of a “decreasing” crisis which is under control, or at least about to be curbed, is reinforced. In parallel, the Libyan coastguard, funded and trained by the European Union (EU) as well as individually by some member States, are performing an increasing number of interceptions at sea. Thus, almost anonymously, makeshift inflatable boats and their occupants are brought back to Libyan soil, where foreign reporters are even rarer than at sea, access to Libyan territory being very difficult. The crisis is therefore in some ways hidden, as is the sense of urgency that goes with it. Is this a sign of its future disappearance?

A migratory crisis and geographical realities

Main current migratory routes, 2018

If the word “crisis” itself is an obstacle to taking a step back, a “long term” analysis offers a completely different perspective on migratory flows in the former Jamahiriya[1]. So that, far from being reduced to an “event”, the current situation is a complex synthesis of various parameters. These multiple cogs, combined with the state of anomie inherited from the Revolution of February 2011, confirm the idea of a lasting migratory phenomenon and warn against possible resurgences. Thus, long before the insurrection against Gaddafi, the “Guide of the revolution” set Libya ablaze, the seeds of a “migratory crisis” were already being sown.

Rather than crossing borders, the “candidates for Europe” currently crossing Libya are part of a continuum. The considerable increase in boat departures from Libyan coasts is a recent trend, but from a geographical point of view human migration towards Libya is in reality nothing new. For centuries, Libyan territory and more precisely its southern part, has been characterised by what the researcher Ali Bensâad considers to be a situation of “interpenetration” of territories: through alliances and exchanges networks, deep connections (tribal, trade) and cultural links.  The Sahara, for example, is “much more than a border or an impassable barrier, it is a contact space that has renewed its historic role as a human, commercial and cultural crossroads”. The Tuaregs (Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Algeria, Libya) and the Toubous (Chad, Niger, Sudan, Libya), two peoples scattered across different States in North and Sub-Saharan Africa, including Libya, symbolise this territorial fluidity. Through those two groups, it is clear that this mobility is not limited to Libyan territory, but is a characteristic of the region.

This means that people were already moving long before the “migratory crisis” [2], to the point that their comings and goings were institutionalised. The creation of the Economic Community of the West African States (ECOWAS), in 1975 was followed by proceedings meant to ease the free movement of goods and people that existed outside of the “official” framework. On a smaller scale, Libya, under the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, has significantly contributed to the urbanisation and development of the Sahara. The means of communication between different territories are therefore also the result of a “spatial voluntarism” and a geopolitical vision: the “myth of the end of borders”. In 2004, the geographer Olivier Pliez described the aspects of those spatial policies as follows: “Libya is exemplary of the vigour of this interventionism that started with the enlargement of road network. The latter, until the 1960s, was reduced to an East-West connection down the coastline. Therefore, with 16,000 km of roads built between the early 1970s and the mid-1980s, nearly all Saharan cities and villages have been connected to national road network in the last 15 years[3] ”.

Libya is crossed, following the revolution, by migratory flows grafted to pre-existing communication lines. As expected, some of the original actors of mobility in the region (Toubous, Tuaregs) reoriented their “spatial resources” towards the trafficking of migrants and refugees towards Europe: “Faraj was wandering in the desert as he always did, without a map nor GPs, only guiding himself using stars and, during the day, landmarks such as power lines or atypical rocks. He did not have much of an education. Despite all of this, he had the skills required for migrant trafficking, so that in the chaos of war, he survived – and even prospered [4].

However, a sign that the territorial conceptualisation in the South is strongly rooted in a long tradition of the movement of people and goods, participation in these activities does not necessarily suffer from pejorative representations: “traffic here is a job, not a crime[5]. Yet, the existence of this geographic framework of migration is not sufficient on its own. It is completed by other factors, among them economic factors.

Before the crisis, two million migrants in Libya

Before becoming a “transit country” or what some observers unfairly call an “open door” to Europe, Libya was a land of “mass” immigration. With around six million inhabitants in a terriroty equivalent to more than three times the size of France, Libya is mostly supported by a foreign work force. This is due to its low demographic growth mechanically leading the country to turn toward immigrant workers, and this phenomenon is highlighted by pharaonic development projects, such as the on-going Great Man-Made River [6]. In parallel, Libya is surrounded by States that are significantly less developed, such as Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world.

But, with the country possessing strong oil stocks which are the biggest in Africa, the Libyan market remains very attractive as well as accessible, due to its proximity, its easy access, and its pro-immigration policy. Consequently, Libya absorbs a significant number of workers: around two million before the revolution, which is equal to a third of the country’s entire population. The European Training Foundation, part of the European Union, reported in 2014 that wages for migrants and refugees in the country were attractive one year after the fall of the Gaddafi regime: “(…) monthly wages paid to migrants working in hotels in Tripoli range from 500 to 700 dinars [7] ”. Before the revolution, the building sector employed a large part of the sub-Saharan work force for a relatively unexpected reason! This reason was explained by Christophe Biteau, head of the Doctors Without Borders mission in Libya: “Libyans are quite satisfied to have black people doing the dirty work, Libyans do not do brickwork, they do not do manual work, and never will[8]. Also, from the point of view of this work force, access to the Libyan market promises a substantial windfall. Its progressive “disappearance” after 2011, a consequence of endemic instability, may have contributed to the emergence of a “migratory crisis”, which was summarised by the European Training Foundation as follows: “Remittance flows are a key milestone for the countries of origin (according to the 2011 World Bank report, remittances from Libya represented a total of nearly one billion USD in 2010). The loss of incomes could be devastating for the migrants’ countries of origin”. Consequently, revolutionary turmoil affects an entire regional basin, preventing people from benefitting from the economic alternative that Libya represented for them before the fall of the Gaddafi and so forcing them to leave via migratory routes. Finally, as shown on the map below, Africa is also home to a number of flashpoints, which shed light on other important factors in migration toward Libya and Europe.

European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

Already weakened and instrumentalised migrants

The legislative aspect of migration management in Libya is closely linked to geopolitical orientations, and so much that compliance with the positions of some Libyan actors has been observed on the international scene. Thus, the foreign workforce, which initially consisted mostly of Arabs, diversified considerably at the very moments in which Libya was marginalised on the international scene: the American embargo in 1982, the Tripoli and Benghazi bombings in 1986 and the country’s involvement in the Lockerbie bombing and UTA airplane bombing in Niger, in 1988 and 1989 respectively. Thus, Libyan foreign policy instinctively turned towards Africa: the workforce became “africanised” with the arrival of millions of workers from the South. On the same topic, the end of the embargo in 2003 was, for example, the scene of a spectacular change in strategy: having become once again a possible negotiating party and free from the weight of sanctions, Gadaffi’s regime give a legal answer to European fears in a movement that was far from disinterested: “Libya turns thousands of migrants in a situation that is legal or tolerated by the regime into illegal migrants who are denounced as such [9]”. In a dubious bargain, the Gaddafi took a turn towards heavy repression and used xenophobia against lucrative economic contracts with some European companies [10].

By feeding the population’s fears, Muammar Gaddafi further increased the reversibility of migration in times of crisis. In an undiversified economy which is also over-dependant of oil resources, periods of embargo or unstable hydrocarbon prices spark dissatisfaction among the population. Foreign workers, especially sub-Saharans, are used as a scapegoat when needed. Cases of slavery or violence endured by those same migrants today are a consequence of Muammar Gaddafi’s legacy, who did not cease to employ xenophobia against these migrants.

Geography, geopolitics, economics, legislation… all mixed together and driven by multiple and complicated dynamics, these different data weigh heavily on the migratory situation in post-revolutionary Libya. With the collapse of the central State and the appearance of widespread violence in the Libyan political-security landscape after 2011, insidious mechanisms of a “latent” migration crisis have gradually emerged. The international answer to this crisis finds itself facing a dilemma: responding to the urgency of the migratory issue at the same times as adopting a long-term vision for Libya, while there are other issues at play which are much more urgent than migration in the local population’s eyes. This will be the subject of the next article in this series.

Banner picture. Credit: Associated Press.


[1] Official shortened name used by Libya, from 1977 to 2011.
[2] For example, « the African Development Bank estimates that more than 7.5 million West Africans (around 3% of the region’s inhabitants) are currently migrating in that region (DRC, “We risk our lives for our daily bread”, findings of the Danish refugee council’s study of mixed migration in Libya, 2013)
[3] Pliez Olivier, La fin de l’État démiurge ? Les nouvelles facettes de l’urbain dans le Sahara libyen, 2004, Autrepart numéro 31.
[4] Excerpt from page 207 of the book (translated into French) of Frederic Wehrey entitled, « The Burning Shores, inside the battle for the new Libya », F.S.G, 2018. Researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, F. Wehrey wrote in this excerpt about his visit to Fezzan and his meeting with Faraj, a young Libyan Tuareg who, after the revolution, used his “mobility capital” for migrant trafficking.
[5] ICG (International Crisis Group), « How Fezzan Became Europe’s new borders », July 2017.
[6] Seen as one of the biggest in the world, it aims toward food self-sufficiency for the country.

[7] European training foundation (ETF) Labour Market and employment policy in Libya, 2014.
[8] Interview from July 2018, in Tunis
[9] PERRIN Delphine, Fin de régime et migrations en Libye, les enseignements juridiques d’un pays en feu, 2011.
[10] See Claire Rodier : Xénophobie Business, 2012.

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