Libya: A Power Vacuum and the Gateway to Europe

By Jacqueline Eckert

Libya is a diverse country with rich and complex history. It has been ruled by Carthaginians, Persians, Egyptians and Greeks before eventually becoming a part of the Roman Empire. In the 16th century Ottoman rule continued until the Italian colonisation of Libya from 1911 until 1943 and in 1951 Libya became an independent kingdom ruled by the Sanusi monarchy, which established modern Libya’s first constitution in 1951.

A military coup in 1969 overthrew Libya’s King Idris, which set the path for a series of social reforms. Mu‘ammar al-Qadhafi’s Cultural Revolution led to an autocracy as well as to conflicts with other Arab and African states. While Qadhafi’s treatment of migrants often violated human rights, the $5 billion deal with Italy in 2008 made sure that in return Libya efficiently reduced the numbers of migrants making their way to the European shores. Qadhafi remained in power until the Libyan Civil War of 2011, fought by pro-government forces and by those attempting to overthrow it, accompanied by a NATO military intervention. ‘The degree of militarisation imposed on the Libyan population in the 2011 revolution highlighted the strength of the Libyan tribe.’[1] Looking at Libya’s ethnical and geographical situation Associate Professor Tarek Ladjal underscores that:


‘Throughout its history, Libya as a nation has constituted a region of a cultural and civilisational vacuum due to it being located between the eastern (Egypt) and western (Tunisia) urban centres. This is largely due to its large desert, which has not helped in the resettlement of migrating peoples and tribes. Such a state was also caused by the nature of its tribal composition in which its many tribes live simple nomadic existences without any sense of national unity or central authority.[2]’


Keeping this in mind, in the period post-2011, the strength of rebel militias has increased with approximately 1,700 armed groups, including fighters loyal to the Islamic State, especially since the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on 11 September 2012. Currently there is an ongoing second Libyan Civil War (2014–present), where numerous groups seek control over the country. The Government of National Accord (GNA), though internationally recognised and UN-backed as an interim government, holds little power and legitimacy amongst Libyans as tensions continue to increase in 2017 due to the ongoing security power vacuum within Libya. There is a presence of jihadists, including Ansar al-Sharia as well as the Islamic State (ISIS), which have gained significant territory in Libya. These groups have taken great advantage of the widespread political instability and jihadists use the country as a mobilisation place to coordinate wider regional violence and launch attacks. In addition, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated at 435,000 Libya’s population of internally displaced people.


The Wave of Migration, Smuggling and the European Response


The political chaos and power vacuum that emerged due to rivalling factions fighting for power allowed smuggling networks to thrive, creating a market designed to profit from trading humans like commodities. The European Union (EU) states, that ‘since 2015, the resources and assets for EU operations at sea have tripled, contributing to saving more than 400,000 people in the Mediterranean. However, the increase in migration along the Central Mediterranean route, where over 181,000 migrants and refugees arrived to the EU in 2016, has also led to record levels of loss of life at sea.’ Migrants from across Africa (e.g. Eritrea, Somalia, Niger etc.) and Middle East (e.g. Syria) continuously travel through Libya which serves as a gateway to crossing the Mediterranean and reaching Europe.


In response, the Valetta Summit on Migration held in Malta on 11-12 November 2015, which is approaching its two-year anniversary, was seen as an opportunity to deepen cooperation and conversation between European countries and Africa, with African agency as its central component and aim. The result of the summit was a Political Declaration, an Action Plan and a new Trust Fund. We have to ask ourselves the following questions: What are African countries doing to prevent their citizens embarking on life-threatening journeys to Europe? Is development aid such as the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (116 million euros mobilised by EU) and EUNAVFOR Med Operation Sophia an adequate antidote to the mass migratory flows? Was the Valetta Summit a European, rather than a joint way of managing the increased migratory flows?  


While institutions such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) promote sub-regional integration and opportunity, the power vacuum in many countries, including the Middle East, means that migrants will continue to try to cross the Mediterranean. In Libya, detention camps filled with migrants are already under control by different militias and subject to human rights abuses and opposed by Europe as a way of dealing with the numbers. The historic trans-Saharan trade routes (dating back to 7th and 8th century AD) are now organised networks of trafficking and smuggling controlled by local armed groups – a resilient business. In order for this to be addressed, not only do such networks have to be interrupted but the region has to also facilitate dialogue with armed groups in order to create alternative business opportunities (for example through international oil companies investing in local development instead of securitisation) in order to take the focus away from smuggling. The first step to such policies would be political security, regional stability (especially in the south) and rehabilitation of the economy. Luigi Narbone highlights that:


In February [2017], the current transitional internationally recognised-government – led by [Libya’s] Prime Minister Fayaz Al Serraj – signed a memorandum of understanding with Italy to combat illegal migration. The approach adopted by the EU and Italy aims to give Libya a major role in illegal migration control and refugee protection in exchange for assistance and funding… The MOU between Libya and Italy was blocked on March 22 by the Tripoli Appeals Court for lack of approval by Libya’s House of Representatives.


There is thus no consensus on solution and political stability is lacking. This year the EU has also begun to offer simplified visa procedures and increased economic aid to Tunisia and Egypt, according to Reuters, in exchange for smoother deportations of unwanted African migrants. Sceptics note that the EU is not tackling the roots of the refugee crises by not pushing for political peace and by instead focusing on border protection. While efforts are being made (e.g. EULPC supporting UNSMIL to support peace and security process in Libya), the question remains: will it be enough to improve conditions?


A section from an article by Malia Politzer and Emily Kassie sums up the answer to that question:


‘As long as there’s poverty and unrest that makes people want to leave their homelands, and as long as people can find a way to profit off migration, the smuggling business will continue.’


The high death toll as UNHCR reported that 3,740 lives were lost from January – October 2016 while crossing the sea shows that a close and strong European and African cooperation is required. Both sides need to step up their efforts. With regards to European action plans such as the Trust Fund, a European Parliament source has stated that ‘the member states paid less than planned because the EU spent less than planned’, which means that a part of the budget has not been used due to unsuccessful cohesion policy projects.  Furthermore, Valetta was arguably a Western way of dealing with the migration flow, as the Trust Fund is to a large extent funded by the European Development Fund. The complexity of Libya’s tribal composition and the power vacuum in Libya facilitate the migration flow to Europe, especially since the fall of Qadhafi, the former gatekeeper, which has led to the opening of the 1,100-mile coastline with hardly any monitoring.


The areas assessed in this article that could receive more policy attention are, apart from what is already being done, the following: on the micro level funding of local economic zones and opportunities (e.g. education) and developments in Libya that divert opportunity away from smuggling and human trafficking (e.g. encouraging local people to interrupt these networks to prevent brain drain), fostering dialogue between numerous armed and opposition groups, re-establishment of the Libyan criminal justice system, and last but not least hinder or reduce beneficiaries of border security contracts from selling arms that fuel conflicts. The way to these goals is a constant conversation and reassessment of policies and the current state of conflict. Stability, ultimately, can only emerge from the inside.