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 conditions and abuse, and by discouraging others from undertaking the journey. There were reports of Libyan coastguard patrols opening fire on migrant boats, of cruel practices in Libyan-run detention centers, and of migrants being left to fend for themselves in harsh desert border regions. The Italian Navy returned migrants to Libya without adequately screening them for asylum claims. In short, the policy essentially outsourced responsibility for the issue to Qaddafi’s highly repressive regime, jeopardizing the human rights of migrants.

The new agreement shares many of the features of its predecessor in terms of shifting responsibility for migrants to Libya. According to the pact, the EU will support the establishment of refugee camps within Libya as well as voluntary repatriation of refugees who are willing to return to their countries of origin. It also provides training and equipment for Libya’s coastguard. However, it makes no mention of international human rights conventions, nor does it mandate international monitoring to make sure that conditions are humane for migrants in Libya.

In part, that is because there is no legitimate authority in Libya that could enforce such measures. Libya became fragmented after the 2011 revolution, with different militias representing regions, tribes, cities, and ideologies fighting for control of territory and valuable oil resources. By 2016, three distinct governing bodies emerged, with none able to gain legitimacy among a majority of Libyans. No central authority has been able to serve as a partner for Europe, and numerous militias profit from human trafficking. This chaotic situation has not deterred desperate migrants from pursuing the Libyan route to the sea, however.

Political reconciliation among the Libyan factions is a prerequisite for dealing effectively with the migration issue. This has been the goal of the internationally-brokered Skhirat peace process, which has yet to bring all relevant sides to an agreement (let alone a lasting one), although it continues to move forward under the auspices of various foreign governments. It may be years before full reconciliation is achieved, but in the interim there are pathways to improving the lot of migrants transiting Libya.

Migrants after being rescued by the "Save the Children" NGO, July 2017.
Migrants after being rescued by the "Save the Children" NGO, July 2017.
Stefano Rellandini / Reuters

On the local level (in Libya and its neighbors, especially Niger), smugglers and criminal groups that detain and profit from migrants in transit might have to be offered other economic opportunities. Local communities are best poised to crack down on smuggling and to educate migrants about the dangers of crossing through Libya. International donors, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), and NGOs could engage tribes to convince them that smuggling and abuse of migrants is not in their interest. In the late 2000s, the United States launched the “Awakening” in Iraq to get Sunni tribes to turn against al Qaeda and other extremist groups. The Awakening worked in part because hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were present in Iraq, but the logic of persuading and paying local actors to give up illicit human trafficking could be applied in the Libyan case, with UNSMIL as the main coordinator. Funding for detention centers in Libyan municipalities as provided by the EU-Libya deal can help, but efforts are also needed to ensure that these centers are operating humanely: neutral workers and monitors (from the International Organization for Migration, for instance) need to be allowed access in order to document and prevent abuses, make sure hygienic and humane living standards are met, and see that adequate medical care is available. And more targeted funding for municipalities is needed.

On the national level, the three competing governments can be pushed to come together around the issue of migration. Cooperation on the migration issue might create a semblance of unity that could lend credibility to the reconciliation process. After all, Libya’s three competing governing structures manage to cooperate on oil production, which has increased in recent months despite Libya's internal divisions and chaos. The international community played a role in prodding the Libyan factions to keep the National Oil Company intact and the oil flowing, and there is no reason they can't do the same in combatting trafficking. For now, the infamous detention centers nominally run by each of the power centers consume valuable resources that could be better directed elsewhere, such as toward programs that restore infrastructure and strengthen community ties. UNSMIL, whose mandate includes human rights monitoring and reporting, will be critical in this regard. Ghassan Salamé, the newly-appointed special representative of the UN secretary general, should make dealing with human rights abuses against migrants a top priority in messaging and policy. The EU should attach specific conditions for human rights protection to any further agreements with the Libyan government, including enhanced human rights training and oversight for the Libyan coast guard.

International actors must come to terms with the massive push and pull factors driving the current migration wave.

On the international level, the various external actors (Egypt, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates) with interests, operations, and proxies in Libya need to recognize the centrality of the migration issue and exercise their influence over Libyan armed groups to compel them to include migration in their negotiations over a new political agreement. Given its leverage over those involved, the United States could work jointly with its European partners to pressure the Gulf states and Egypt to overcome their differences (witness the recent GCC-Qatar impasse), with migration as a central point of agreement. As some experts have suggested, cooperation on Libya could even be a way to bring the quarreling Gulf parties back together. Qatar and UAE have the financial resources to help fund humane migration centers, and more international attention on the plight of migrants in Libya could shame those countries into doing so. Furthermore, countries that buy Libyan oil have the potential power to influence the national economy by conditioning their purchases on the equitable distribution of oil revenues within Libya, thereby lessening the appeal of trafficking.

Finally, international actors must come to terms with the massive push and pull factors driving the current migration wave, and create more channels for legal immigration, including temporary work visas. The EU has backed recent proposed legislation by Italy that sets standards for NGOs attempting to rescue migrants at sea, but this very same legislation has been criticized by human rights organizations. Focusing on protecting the rights and lives of migrants before they leave Libya may offer a starting point for convening all sides: European governments that want to prevent migrants from entering, international NGOs who seek to assist them in their journey, and decision-makers from Libya’s competing governments who want to win over local communities.

With hundreds of thousands in peril every year, and with Libya’s political crisis far from over, such an approach has to be part of the solution. In 2011, international actors came together in an extraordinary show of unity to prevent mass slaughter by Qaddafi’s forces; today, they should show the same unity of purpose to protect the human rights of migrants