Following the NATO-backed overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya descended into a decade of disunity and violence resulting in incalculable suffering and loss of life. Today, much of the country remains a war zone, and migrants in EU-sponsored Libyan detention facilities continue to suffer well-documented, gross human rights violations. This article, the first in a two-part series on migration, is based in part on interviews conducted with Dr Omar Grech, Senior Lecturer in International Law at the University of Malta (UM); Dr Derek Lutterbeck, Deputy Director at the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies at UM; and Dr Felicity Attard, expert in International and Maritime Security Law at the Faculty of Laws at UM.
Libya, a Failed State?
On 20 October 2011, rebel forces, backed by NATO air strikes, captured Muammar Gaddafi as he hid in a drainage culvert on the outskirts of Sirte. It remains unclear whether he died from wounds inflicted during his capture or from torture and summary execution. Within hours, images of his blood-soaked corpse, eyes half open, mouth ajar, were aired across the world, and much of the international community celebrated the birth of a new democratic era for the Libyan state.
In the decade that followed, Libya would be transformed from one of Africa’s wealthiest, most developed nations to a failed state characterised by periods of internecine warfare, the consequences of which, in terms of lives and livelihoods lost, are incalculable. Throughout this period, rogue militias proliferated across the country, filling the power vacuum left by an ineffectual government in disarray. According to Dr Omar Grech, rival militias, some of which were integrated into state security institutions without reform or training, remain a defining element on the ground, as do political inertia, abuse of power, and frequent violent conflict.
Today, two rival national governments claim to represent the Libyan people and vie for influence amongst this complex patchwork of militias. Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh is the current prime minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli. The GNA receives direct support from Turkey and Italy, amongst other states, and is recognized by the United Nations as Libya’s legitimate government. Fathi Bashagha is a rival prime minister appointed by the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk, Libya’s eastern seat of power. The HoR draws support internally from General Haftar and his Libyan National Army, as well as an array of other militias, and externally from Russia, Egypt, and France. Grech notes that there is ‘no trust between the sides [in Libya] and efforts at confidence building have not been particularly useful.’
A lack of international consensus on Libya’s future, even within the European Union, exacerbates the country’s internal divisions. The United Nations has documented countless violations of its arms embargo on Libya, including the provision of drones and transport aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, artillery pieces, and armoured vehicles, as well as the deployment of mercenaries. It notes that ‘For those Member States directly supporting the parties to the conflict, the violations are extensive, blatant and with complete disregard for the sanctions measures.’ In short, ‘the arms embargo remains totally ineffective.’ States across the region take advantage of Libya’s disunity in order to pursue their own short-term goals, whether they be hard power projection, energy extraction, securing infrastructure development contracts, arms sales, and/or migration management. As an example, Grech explains that the French government views Libya through the lens of its ‘counterterrorism, anti-radical-Islam agenda, whereas the Italians are more concerned with migration.’ Thus, they have often supported opposing sides in the conflict. Further afield, Russian interests in Libya likely centre on securing a military foothold on the southern flank of NATO and establishing control over flows of energy and migrants to Europe. To that end, Russian Wagner Group mercenaries are already entrenched around key military bases and oil facilities across eastern Libya. In July, the HoR pledged to reduce gas exports to ENI, the Italian energy giant, by 25 percent.
Against this backdrop, described aptly by Dr Derek Lutterbeck as a ‘moving picture with shifting alliances,’ the Government of Malta ‘has always tried to stick to the UN line,’ working closely with the Tripoli-based GNA, especially on migration management, while calling for an immediate end to hostilities and a diplomatic resolution to the conflict.
For example, Malta vetoed Operation Irini, an EU NAVFOR mission aimed at enforcing the UN arms embargo which likely disproportionately targets the GNA in Tripoli as the HoR in Tobruk receives arms deliveries primarily by air and land. Maltese authorities also intercepted and seized $1.1 billion worth of counterfeit Libyan currency printed in Russia and intended for the Tobruk-based government. They also released €94 million linked to the Gaddafi family from the Bank of Valletta to the GNA, and regular official visits are organised in Tripoli and Valletta between high-ranking members of the GNA and the Maltese Government.
Migrants in Libya
Prior to the overthrow of Gaddafi, Libya, with its booming economy and high demand for foreign labour, was primarily a migrant destination country. Today, the vast majority of people travelling across the central Mediterranean depart from Libya, due in part to lack of central government authority, porous borders, and above all, widespread violence.
Human rights violations, torture, and enslavement in Libya’s migrant detention facilities are well-documented. For example, a 2022 Amnesty report cites abuses against migrants by a state-funded security agency in Libya. A 2021 UN-commissioned report asserts that there are reasonable grounds to believe that abuse and ill treatment of migrants at sea, in detention centres, and at the hands of traffickers amount to crimes against humanity. The UN report notes that:
‘Interviews with migrants formerly held in DCIM [Department for Combating Illegal Migration] detention centres established that all migrants – men and women, boys and girls – are kept in harsh conditions, some of whom die. Some children are held with adults, placing them at high risk of abuse. Torture (such as electric shocks) and sexual violence (including rape and forced prostitution) are prevalent. Migrants are detained for indefinite periods without an opportunity to have the legality of their detention reviewed, and the only practicable means of escape is by paying large sums of money to the guards or engaging in forced labour or sexual favours inside or outside the detention centre for the benefit of private individuals.’
Grech asserts that some elements within the two main political factions view migrants ‘as money making opportunities in terms of smuggling or as human resources in the context of harder, more demeaning work’, and that ‘people are regularly subjected to slave-like or serf-like conditions’ in Libya’s detention facilities. Neither faction is a signatory to the Refugee Convention.
The Department for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM) is responsible for managing Libya’s infamous network of migrant detention facilities. Since December 2021, the DCIM has been run by Mohammed Al-Khoja, a militia leader implicated in human rights abuses against migrants. Although the DCIM is based in Tripoli, it oversees detention facilities which span a large region and are often run by militias. Grech notes that ‘there are so many different human rights abuses that one can identify [in Libyan detention facilities] that one hardly knows where to begin.’
Extensive smuggling networks have sprung up to profit from the migrant trade. The very militias that run migrant detention facilities are often implicated in migrant smuggling or maintain working relations with smuggling organisations. An especially notorious case is that of Abd al-Rahman Milad, a commander of the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG) who has been sanctioned by the UN and accused of human trafficking and human rights violations. It is normal practice for migrants to purchase their ‘voyage’ to Europe from the militias that detain them and to be transferred directly from DCIM detention facilities to smuggling vessels along Libya’s coastline. Just as on land, there is little indication that Libyan smuggling organisations care for the health and safety of migrants, and according to Dr Felicity Attard, expert in International and Maritime Security Law at the Faculty of Laws at UM, ‘the vast majority of journeys are undertaken in old, unseaworthy, and overcrowded vessels or rubber crafts which are not fitted with proper engines or navigational equipment.’
Many migrants in Libya, however, may never have their chance to brave the open sea and attempt an escape to Europe. Thousands remain stuck in Libyan detention facilities, year in and year out, trapped in a brutal cycle of extortion by torture, sexual violence, forced labour, enslavement, and exploitation. A large percentage of people detained in Libya come from sub-Saharan African states such as Sudan, South Sudan, Mali, and Eritrea: places that are synonymous with extreme violence and poverty. Many others though – Syrians, Afghans, and Bangladeshis, for example – hail from further afield. That these countries and so many others are unsafe is indisputable. In the words of British-Somali poet Warsan Shire:
‘No one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark…
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land…’
Disclaimer: All data and information presented in this article is accurate as of the time of writing (September 2022) and is subject to change based on newer data.