Greek shipwreck highlights divided Libya’s inability to stem flow of refugees
The mass drowning of refugees heading from Libya for Italy as their large boat capsized off the coast of Greece underlines Libya’s continuing power vacuum and the inability of its divided leaders to deliver on their promises to stem the profitable people-smuggling trade. It is striking that the ship sailed from the eastern port of Tobruk, a city where local leaders have mounted a campaign against illegal migration.
On 4 May, the Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, granted Libya’s strongman in the east, Khalifa Haftar, a meeting in Rome at which she offered to invest in Libya’s east – the country has been divided into a rival east and west since 2015 – in return for action on the smugglers.
Haftar appeared to try to deliver on his deal. On 4 June, his allies imposed a temporary night-time curfew to stop the smugglers. Security forces conducted raids in towns bordering Egypt. They claimed to have found 1,000 people in farms and houses waiting to be taken across the Mediterranean. Boats and a harbour used by the smugglers were destroyed.
The deputy interior minister, Faraj Egaim, one of Libya’s power brokers, urged the population to report the smugglers, and called on tribes controlling the borders into Libya to help.
Some of those rounded up at the beginning of the month – as many as 4,000 – were forcibly marched on foot to the Egyptian border towards Musaid, on the basis that they were there illegally. The violence involved, including the death of a young boy, led to an outcry.
On Monday, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), without identifying the culprits, expressed concerns about the mass “arbitrary arrests and deportations” of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers across the country, including pregnant women and children, who it said were being detained in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. The statement said the campaign was “accompanied by a disturbing rise in hate speech and racist discourse against foreigners online and in the media.”
The Egyptian press has claimed that Haftar’s difficulty is that his brutal writ does not run to the district of Butnan, where Tobruk port is located, reflecting that the Libyan National Army that he leads is in reality an ideologically flexible and loose coalition of militias. Butnan is largely the home of the Obeidat tribe, past supporters of Haftar. Although skilled at dealing with Libya’s many tribes, Haftar and his sons met fierce resistance over the crackdown on the smuggling and border posts.
The UN estimates there are 680,000 migrants in Libya, some looking to travel by boat to Europe and others working full-time in Libya. The UN’s International Organization for Migration said nearly 3,800 people died on migration routes within and from the Middle East and north Africa region last year, the highest number since 2017. About 105,000 migrants and asylum seekers reached Italy by sea in 2022. From the start of this year to June, just over 54 000 arrived, double the number in the same period of the previous year. A growing proportion are coming from the east of Libya.
The chances of Europeans finding effective Libyan allies to control the flow is reduced by the continued absence of a unified national government with authority. The two rival governments in east and west have existed since 2015. The last UN-brokered attempt to strongarm the two sides into holding unified presidential and parliamentary elections fell apart just before the December 2021 election date. The writing had been on the wall long before, since there had been no process of national reconciliation, empowerment of civiil society, finalised constitution or agreement about the distribution of Libya’s considerable resources. Neither the House of Representatives, the Libyan parliament in the east headed by the veteran Aguila Saleh, nor its broad counterpart in the west, the High Council of State, were able to make required compromises about sequencing or candidate eligibility, especially since elections risked them losing power and patronage.