Libya and illegal migration: what else could be done?

Last year more than 181,000 migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea through the Central Mediterranean Route, compared to 45,000 in 2013. According to the International Organization for Migration, recorded arrivals this year are on the rise and had already reached 53,386 by 10 May 2017, with around 80 per cent arriving in Italy. By the same date, 1,309 have died at sea.

It is therefore no surprise that Libya figures high in bilateral and multilateral strategies to reduce migration flows to the EU. In February, Italy and the internationally-recognised Al Serraj government signed a Memorandum of Understanding to combat illegal migration, which has now been blocked by the Tripoli Appeals Court. Shortly after, at the Valletta Summit, the EU agreed to intensify efforts to reinforce Libya’s capacities to fight smuggling and transit activities. New programmes will train the Coast Guard, strengthen border control in the south and foster Libyan hosting capacities for blocked and readmitted migrants.

As in the case of the controversial migration deal with Turkey, the approaches adopted by the EU and Italy aim to give Libya a major role in illegal-migration control and refugee protection in exchange for assistance and funding. Many argue against the political opportunity to pursue these types of agreements. Outsourcing the control and management of migration flows to countries where authoritarianism is on the rise or ridden by conflicts could have serious implications in terms of living conditions and human rights for tens of thousands of people. It could be politically dangerous for Europe in the end.

But there are also other reasons that lead us to wonder whether such strategies would work in Libya.

Libyan migrant-smuggling routes follow ancient paths. They run through both the West and East of the country, connecting the Sahel to the Mediterranean via the vast and difficult-to-control expanses of the desert in its southern regions. The paths are Libya’s historical sub-Saharan African trade routes, but also paths for old and new trafficking. Slaves, arms, drugs and oil have traditionally moved along them.

For those eager to make money,  the collapse of the security arrangements that prevailed under Gaddafi and the recent boom in migrant and refugee flows have increased the value of migrants. In Libya, where a violent conflict persists, the fragmentation of power structures and the collapse of the economy in post-Gaddafi years have increased the risk that migration smuggling becomes endemic, a key component of an increasingly criminalised economy.

New integrated networks have been established, which link domestic to foreign criminal actors and which rely simultaneously on traffics of a different nature. They often involve the same tribes and families who used to dominate transregional trade, but who now heavily rely on local armed groups which have taken control of routes and strategic infrastructure (including oil fields and airports) and handle cash distribution instead of the malfunctioning banking system. Migration facilitation activities – from driving, scouting and recruiting, to the provision of various services in the hotspots – involve many low-income people. The smuggling business has thus become a primary source of earning – directly or indirectly – and a factor of corruption for local communities and municipalities.

Smuggling and trafficking networks have demonstrated resilience in the face of obstacles, as well as a capacity to adapt their strategies and redesign routes. The history of other trafficking networks worldwide shows that the combination of economic and political interests involved is extremely powerful and difficult to counteract with a predominantly security-based approach. Moreover, in Libya’s case, increasing the capabilities of local entities (such as units of the Coast Guard, for instance), which have been involved in corruption cases could be counterproductive for migration containment. Even if current strategies could lower the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean in the short-term, the humanitarian and security situation in Libya – as well as in many other countries of origin and transit – may disastrously deteriorate. With growing numbers of people held with no prospects in Libya, political authorities and local communities would find it increasingly difficult to contain tensions.

To tackle migration challenges effectively requires addressing the political economy created by migrant smuggling. A key objective should be to break the integrated networks that have been consolidating over the past years, to gradually isolate their criminal leadership from the other groups and individuals whose livelihood, in the absence of alternatives, has come to depend on the latter. Success stories of communities turning against smugglers can be found in Libya. For example, in the western city-port of Zuwara the intensification of social pressure on smugglers eventually led to the displacement of their networks to other cities.

Of course, a long-term solution to the smuggling and trafficking issue would require the creation of alternative forms of employment and business opportunities for local communities, which would start to de-criminalize the economy. The right conditions for this could only be created through a political conflict settlement, bringing about a stable economy and the rehabilitation of infrastructure.

In the meantime, however, a parallel step-by-step approach can reduce the pervasiveness of smuggling and undermine the smugglers’ business model.

There are no easy, ready-to-use solutions available. Economic and political incentives are needed for all major stakeholders in the smuggling process: for the grassroots to stop providing the manpower to criminal networks; for key leading groups and figures at the core of these networks to disarm and leave the business. Yet, specific solutions can only emerge from a direct dialogue involving all the major stakeholders and solutions should build on the concrete economic opportunities available in given regions.

In South-Western Libya, for instance, which is one of the main migrant routes from sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean, a normal resumption of production in the oil fields of El Fieel and Sharara could offer economic alternatives to local communities. To this end, most local, national and international stakeholders indeed have a common interest in participating in an inclusive, constructive dialogue.

International oil companies need to secure smooth conditions to exploit the oil fields, which is currently limited by security concerns. They would be more interested in investing in Libya’s local development than in paying to protect the oil infrastructure and staff on the ground, as it is currently the case.

The armed groups that the oil companies rely on for security are often the same groups that play a key role in the smuggling and trafficking networks. Yet, for their leaders, revenues stemming from human smuggling are important mostly because they allow them to run and maintain the costly military units that are central to their power and influence. Discussions on forms of political recognition and inclusion in national processes, including for those from the ethnic and linguistic minorities which have a history of marginalization, together with discussions on forms of judicial protection for those who have committed crimes, could provide the needed quid-pro-quo to push leaders to depose arms and exit the smuggling business.

In turn, armed groups’ rank and file, if given an alternative way to make a living, would probably be glad to abandon illegal activities, while municipalities could facilitate the search for logistical solutions in exchange for increased revenue deriving from resumed oil production, and increased influence and legitimacy.

In the search for effective alternative approaches to illegal migration, dialogue and direct negotiations with local stakeholders can lead to the design of adapted, effective policies to tackle migration challenges. They should not be neglected.

An edited version of this op-ed can be read at The Conversation