Migrants and Militias: Libya’s Enduring Crises

Main Image Credit L.É. (Irish Naval Service) Eithne patrol vessel takes part in Operation Triton, a border security operation conducted by Frontex, the EU border security agency, 70 kms off the coast of Tripoli. Courtesy of Irish Defence Forces

Libya is back in the international spotlight after reports emerged of African migrants being sold to the highest bidder. However, this is just one aspect of the North African state’s seven-year crisis.

Leading international news network CNN reported last month that African migrants hoping to use Libya as a stepping stone to Europe were being auctioned off.

The report brought back to the fore the crisis in Libya, which has simmered since the 2011 NATO-led, UN-approved intervention that led to the toppling and eventual killing of strongman Muammar Qadhafi.

After the intervention, the brutal civil war faded somewhat from international; gaze as other conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine took centre stage.

Yet, without detracting from the importance of these other conflicts, finding a way to stabilise Libya must be recognised as one of the central strategic challenges facing European foreign policymakers in 2018.

Libya’s role as the central transit country for cross-Mediterranean migration flows provides the most obvious imperative for more concerted action. Since 2011, more than 740,000 migrants have survived the dangerous journey to Italy (116,000 in 2017 alone).

For Europe, Libyan instability allows space and opportunities for extremist groups to operate

According to UN estimates, an additional 400,000–700,000 migrants and refugees remain in Libya, with many suffering abuse and mistreatment in detention camps and private prisons of smuggling gangs.

For Europe, Libyan instability allows space and opportunities for extremist groups to operate. And although Daesh (also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) no longer holds territory, cells of fighters remain active across the country. Together with several Al-Qa’ida-linked groups with ties to wider networks throughout North Africa and the Sahel, they pose a threat to Libya, neighbouring countries and Europe.

The oil-rich country’s economy has collapsed, and Libyans are struggling with persistent energy, food and water shortages. Meanwhile, corruption is rife and cross-border organised crime and smuggling networks dealing in anything from migrants, to weapons, drugs, fuel and other goods are flourishing.

Yet, for the past few years, European governments have behaved as if the solution to Libya’s conflict is  imminent, and have prioritised short-term counter-migration and counterterrorism measures without much regard for how these impact on the country’s political crisis.

In their efforts to fight Islamic extremists prevent human trafficking across the Mediterranean, European governments have provided support to local security forces, which are often militias with tenuous links to political authorities.

This week, Amnesty International accused European governments of complicity in the ‘horrific abuse of refugees and migrants’, claiming that many of the same militias Europe partners with were directly involved in torture in detention camps across the country.

Furthermore, outside support for local militias has only contributed to Libya’s internal conflict, making it more complex and intractable over time. The now two-year old UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) was meant to unify two rival parliaments and governments in a Government of National Accord (GNA). However, while the GNA is recognised by most of the international community, another two governments exist and still claim constitutional and popular legitimacy.

Elections should not take place until we are certain that they will not add a third Parliament or fourth government

The GNA’s security forces, the favoured partners for European governments, are little more than a coalition of militias with unclear lines of command and control. Meanwhile, the country’s strongest militia, the self-declared Libyan National Army (LNA), is opposed to the GNA and controls most of the eastern Libya. Its commander, former Qadhafi ally turned rebel commander, Khalifa Haftar, is thought to want to be Libya’s next strongman.

Haftar has close ties to Moscow and his stock appears to be rising among in Europe too; European governments hope he might help to stop migration flows and enforce some stability. Yet, his opponents, mainly in western Libya, consider him a war criminal and have vowed to never accept his bid for national power.

The UN’s Special Envoy for Libya, Lebanese academic and diplomat Ghassan Salamé, oversees finding a way to finally implementing the LPA. But progress is very slow with many political and militia leaders are acting as spoilers as they are fearful of losing personal power.

Salamé has set his sights on organising elections for 2018, and the country’s electoral commission has already begun a voter registration campaign. However, during a briefing to the UN Security Council in November, he also warned that ’elections should not take place until we are certain that they will not add a third Parliament or fourth government. Libyans deserve national uncontested institutions’.

At the same time, the LPA’s opponents argue that its mandate is due to expire on Sunday and have urging Haftar and his LNA to take power, which would likely result in a renewed escalation of violence.

European governments must recognise that stabilising Libya, fighting terrorism, curbing cross-Mediterranean migration, and alleviating humanitarian suffering there cannot be tackled separately

Europe’s latest initiatives do not appear to engage with this situation. During the EU–Africa Summit in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, on 29–30 November, European governments announced the formation of a EU-African Union–UN task force to help migrants leave Libya (to neighbouring countries, their home nations, or to Europe), and the creation of a EU External Investment Plan aiming to facilitate up to €44 billion worth of – mainly private – investments into African economies by 2020.

However, it is unclear how many migrants the task force will be able to reach and there is a risk that it will just be moving migrants from one detention camp to another.

The crisis in Libya does not make it an ideal destination for investment and the EU’s plan does do little to address instability and the ongoing conflict there.

In fact, the task force is likely to require support from local armed groups, further adding to the empowerment of militia commanders, who are likely to jealously guard their fiefdoms in any political settlement.

To break this cycle of conflict, European governments must recognise that stabilising Libya, fighting terrorism, curbing cross-Mediterranean migration, and alleviating humanitarian suffering there cannot be tackled separately. An intervention in any of these areas inevitably affects the others.

Finding a comprehensive solution to Libya’s crisis is a huge and very complex task. Yet, only if European governments accept that short-term measures are always destined to fail and make finding such a solution a key policy priority for 2018.

It will be the only way to stop further atrocities as those captured in the CNN report and ultimately prevent Libya from becoming a permanent failed state on Europe’s southern border. 

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.


Dr Tobias Borck

Research Fellow for Middle East Security Studies

International Security Studies

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