Addressing Fragility in Libya Means Protecting Migrant Rights

Since the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has yet to be unified under a functioning national government. Infighting elites and small armed groups continue to govern their own territories. The resulting state fragility creates conditions where illicit activities—notably the trafficking and abuse of vulnerable migrants—can thrive. Unfortunately, efforts to address irregular migration could be making matters worse.

Libya is a major hub for migrants en route to the European Union from across the African continent and beyond. Opportunities for legal migration to Europe for most Africans remain extremely limited, driving migrants in search of economic opportunities and physical safety to seek out irregular routes. Afraid of getting caught and with limited legal pathways to move, desperate people often take desperate measures, putting them at high risk of abuse by traffickers, smugglers, local militias, and even corrupt government officials. The European Union and its member states have invested heavily in Libya’s migration management capacity, primarily in hopes of curbing the number of irregular migrants reaching their shores. However, the limitation of regular pathways and the securitization of responses to irregular migration has inadvertently created financial opportunities for illicit actors (e.g., non-state armed groups, traffickers, and smugglers), and contributed to instability and state fragility.

Effectively addressing the irregular migration challenge in a way that reinforces—rather than undermines—human rights is a critical component of any effort to prevent conflict and promote stability. Such a rights-respecting approach is also of fundamental importance to the legitimacy crisis at the heart of Libya’s fragility. The United States recently selected Libya as a priority country for its Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability, also known as the Global Fragility Strategy (GFS) in a nod to the 2019 Global Fragility Act that mandated it. Though irregular migrants arriving in Europe directly affect the United States’ European friends and allies, Libya’s ungoverned spaces and the illicit activities that exist in them (including the presence of international non-state armed actors, such as Russia’s Wagner Group including the bad actors who facilitate the irregular movement of people) are of U.S. national security interest. Migration management and state fragility are intricately related in Libya.

Effectively addressing the irregular migration challenge in a way that reinforces—rather than undermines—human rights is a critical component of any effort to prevent conflict and promote stability.

Challenges in the Existing Migration System

As of October 2022, the United Nation’s migration agency, IOM, identified over 683,000 migrants in Libya from over 42 countries, equivalent to almost 10 percent of Libya’s population. Though it is hard to know exactly how many people are in Libya without regular status, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), historically, “most refugees and migrants arrive irregularly in Libya through Sudan (for those from East Africa), Niger (for those from West and Central Africa), or, to a lesser extent, Algeria (for those from West Africa).” Though many come from Sub-Saharan African countries, some people come from as far away as Pakistan and Bangladesh. Not all of them will attempt to cross to Europe in a given year (IOM reported over 125,000 attempted the trip in 2022), leaving many of them underemployed, informally employed, or trapped in exploitative labor conditions within Libya.

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But the European Union’s main concern is the presence of such a large number of people who could attempt to cross the Mediterranean. This has led the European Union and EU member states to place an overwhelming focus on stopping people from embarking on the journey or from entering Europe if they do. Responses have been targeted at professionalizing Libyan security forces and deploying migration management technologies, including the technology-enabled hardening of Libya’s borders and coastline and the empowerment of Libya’s security forces to stop people from leaving.

An unintended consequence of this securitization of migration management is that it can put money in the hands of militias, traffickers, and corrupt government officials and thus reinforce state fragility in Libya. In addition to the human rights abuses that can result from this, the broken status quo benefits those with vested interest in maintaining it, meaning that already endemic state corruption could entrench over time, further undermining good governance and democratic principles in the long run. And, perhaps more importantly to European policymakers, the current system (or lack thereof) does not address root causes or results of migration.

Those interested in the stabilization of Libya should learn from the shortcomings of past efforts. Doing so will require more than just focusing on stopping flows via the securitization of migration.

EUTF-Specific Challenges

Through the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF)—established in 2015 with a stated mission of decreasing irregular migration to Europe by addressing its root causes—the European Union delivers funding, technology (e.g., biometric identification systems), and training (e.g., cybersecurity, coastal surveillance, and maritime detection) to detect, identify, and intercept people attempting to reach Europe from Libya.

The EUTF has enhanced the capacity of search and rescue missions, which have undoubtedly saved lives that might otherwise have been lost at sea. Since 2014, IOM has recorded over 25,000 migrant deaths and disappearances at sea, 17,000 of which took place along the Central Mediterranean route for which Libya is the most popular launching point. In 2016, just 8 percent of interceptions along the central Mediterranean route were made by the Tunisian and Libyan coast guards; by 2018, this had risen to 49 percent. In building this capacity, destination countries (in this case in Europe) are outsourcing migration management to transit and origin countries, primarily through training and technology. In the case of Libya, this means that those who might have been intercepted in European territorial waters are now being intercepted in Libyan waters.

However, this outsourcing comes at a cost. Evidence suggests that the funding and technology provided to the Libyan government by the European Union has contributed to enhanced capabilities to intercept, detain, and repatriate migrants; it has also contributed to their marginalization and exploitation. Intercepted migrants often end up in dangerous situations and face serious human rights abuses at the hands of the Libyan state actors, including the EU-trained Libyan Coast Guard and personnel in detention centers supported by the European Union, EU member states (e.g., Italy), and the United Nations. An AP investigation in 2019 found that networks of coast guard members frequently colluded with militiamen and traffickers to exploit migrants, often using diverted EU money. Other investigations have found that thousands of migrants end up in detention centers with problematic approaches to the protection of human rights that the European Union has supported with equipment and training. Libyan-run detention centers have been described as “unfit for human habitation.” A 2018 joint report by the UN Support Mission in Libya and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights found that “unlawful killings, torture and other ill-treatment, arbitrary detention and unlawful deprivation of liberty, rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence, slavery and forced labour, extortion and exploitation by both State and non-State actors” were commonplace in these detention centers. Though exact figures can be difficult to verify (UNICEF reported in October 2021 that the Al Mabani detention center alone has 5,000 people or four times its official capacity, while a separate May 2022 report by UNHCR reported that there were 2,772 total people held in all detention centers), it is clear that migrant detention centers in Libya are problematic.

Intercepted migrants often end up in dangerous situations and face serious human rights abuses at the hands of the Libyan state actors.

There is also evidence to suggest that the prioritization of managing migration flows to Europe over other concerns—like addressing the root causes of migration—is part of a larger trend in European assistance to Africa. The Migration Policy Institute found in May 2021 that the EUTF “only modestly altered foundational economic and social factors driving migration” in its first seven years of existence while, at the same time, about a third (1.5 billion euros) of EUTF funding went toward efforts to address irregular migration already underway. This commitment was reinforced in November 2022, when the EU Commission’s new EU Action Plan on the Central Mediterranean pledged to continue strengthening the capacity of the Libyan government’s migration management institutions.

Though the EUTF commits in writing to achieve its goals “in full respect of fundamental rights and international obligations,” some have noted a subpar track record of enforcing such commitments. In fact, the European Ombudsman recently found that the European Commission failed to properly assess the human rights impacts of the EUTF, including the risk in Libya of the “misuse of data and possible privacy infringements of third country populations in a vulnerable position.” It also highlighted specific incidents of abuse that were facilitated by the provision of European migrant detection equipment, such as a June 2021 incident in which the Libyan coast guard shot at a boat carrying 50 migrants, including children, and then prevented an attempt to rescue passengers who fell out of the vessel, resulting in four deaths. In another reported incident, Libyan authorities opened fire on a group of migrants at a disembarkation point when they attempted to flee, resulting in three deaths. The complaint to the Ombudsman listed several other instances of abuse by the Libyan Coast Guard based on migrant interviews, who reported beatings, rape, extortion, and torture. As a result of this evidence, the Ombudsman recommended that all future EUTF projects require a prior human rights impact assessment.

Opportunities for the GFA to learn from EUTF challenges

The United States has prioritized Libya in its Global Fragility Strategy and should learn from the EUTF experience. The 2019 Global Fragility Act (GFA) is designed to give U.S. policymakers the tools needed to “reduce violent conflict, alleviate migration pressures, and prevent violent extremism” by investing in 10-year strategies tailored to specific contexts. These strategies are due to be released in the first half of 2023. The GFS translates those goals into action by setting up mechanisms for interagency coordination and identifying five priority locations to focus its efforts, one of which is Libya.

The launch of the 10-year GFS strategy and recent EUTF criticisms are an opportunity to assess the impact that migration management has on fragility and develop more cohesive strategies to address it. These efforts should be coordinated across partner governments working on similar issues, including in Libya. The U.S. GFS implementation team should work with its EU colleagues and other stakeholders to do the following:

  1. incorporate lessons from Libya’s migration management experiences into the design and implementation of the GFS, particularly focusing on the shortcomings presented in the European Ombudsman report and uncovered in the 2020 mid-term evaluation of the EUTF;
  2. align, or at least deconflict, inherently shorter-term migration management efforts (e.g., EUTF funding of technology) with longer-term GFS efforts to, among other things, alleviate migration pressures;
  3. ensure all GFS projects carry out a human rights due diligence assessment prior to implementation, and conduct regular assessments throughout the course of the program;
  4. prioritize transparency, oversight, and accountability in all GFS-related programming in Libya, also prioritizing support to civil society actors—including those working on migrant rights—who are critical to achieving these goals;
  5. ensure that all assistance provided under the GFS, EUTF, and any other effort to manage migration and promote stability in Libya takes into account protection of migrant rights in policy and in practice;
  6. assess the potential for manipulation of migration management technologies and put in place human rights protection related training and safeguards around their utilization; and
  7. deny migration management technologies to known human rights abusers, especially foreign security forces, which the U.S. government is already prohibited from doing under the Leahy law.

It is in everyone’s interest—from migrants to European and U.S. policymakers interested in future stability, democracy, and the protection of human rights in Libya—to ensure that efforts to address migration are coordinated and mutually reinforcing. The protection of migrant rights should be a top priority in order to avoid siloed programming that seeks to achieve narrow migration management goals but risks exacerbating state fragility in the process.

Lauren Burke is a program manager and research associate for the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Erol Yayboke is a senior fellow with the CSIS International Security Program and director of the CSIS Project on Fragility and Mobility.

This commentary is made possible by the generous support of the Open Society Foundations.

Lauren Burke
Senior Program Manager, Human Rights Initiative
Erol Yayboke

Erol Yayboke

Former Director, Project on Fragility and Mobility and Senior Fellow, International Security Program