Europe’s Libya Problem

How to Stem the Flow of Migrants

Migrants after being picked up by the Libyan coast guard, July 2017. Ismail Zetouni / Reuters

In July, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the self-proclaimed leader of the Libyan National Army, one of the major armed groups in the battle for Libya, announced that his forces had liberated Benghazi from jihadist fighters. Although Benghazi’s emancipation was viewed by many as a welcome development, it does little to push back the massive tide of migrants using Libya as a transit country nor to prevent the numerous abuses perpetrated against them. Nearly 11,000 migrants arrived on Italian shores in just the last five days of June, following nearly 80,000 in the first half of 2017. Over 2,000 have perished at sea since the start of this year. The vast majority came from sub-Saharan Africa and embarked from the Libyan coast.

The European Union (EU) has been searching for a way to stem the flow of migrants and handle the tens of thousands who arrive in Italy on a daily basis. The EU’s current policy approach aims to shut off the route through the central Mediterranean and strengthen Libyan coastal patrol and enforcement capacities at sea. But it is unlikely to be effective or humane, given the sheer volume of migrants and the number of groups that profit from trafficking them, not to mention the weakness of the Libyan navy and other official security structures.

Before 2011, former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi shrewdly exploited his ability to use his country as a valve on migration, extracting hundreds of millions of dollars and other concessions (such as high-profile visits and increased trade and cooperation) from EU leaders in exchange for more stringent border enforcement by Libyan authorities. In fact, the recent agreement between the EU and the internationally-recognized Presidency Council of Libya revives a 2008 agreement between Libya and Italy that was designed to control illegal migration at that time. Nearly 11,000 migrants arrived on Italian shores in just the last five days of June.

That policy helped slow the movement of Africans to Europe by keeping potential migrants in Libya, where they were subjected to poor

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