Traffickers and Smugglers benefit from the dire migrant situation in Libya

By: Sona Movsisyan

“The largest flow of modern African migration funnels through a single country– Libya,” creating a very vulnerable and dangerous situation for migrants.[1] Libya is the gateway country because it serves as the most accessible portal to the Mediterranean Sea and then Europe.[2] Libya is not only utilized because of its convenient geographic location, but also due to the instability created when its previous dictator, Mu’ammar Qhadafi, was removed.[3] The chaos and volatility have “allowed smuggling networks to thrive, suddenly opening up a lucrative market designed to profit off trading humans like other goods and commodities.”[4] Due to the conditions in Libya, it has severely prevented the justice system from properly functioning, which has left many human rights violations and abuses by State and non-state actors unaddressed.[5]

Libya is not only a destination country for many migrants from bordering countries, but it is also a transit country. Even though reliable statistics are difficult to find, there are estimates that the number of foreign nationals in Libya range between 700,000 and one million.[6] Many of these migrants are nationals from Sub-Saharan and Northern African countries.[7] Additionally, the most recent statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimate that there are about 53,285 registered refugees and asylum seekers.[8] However, that number is believed to be much higher since UNHCR was unable to fulfill its mandate in Libya due to the constraints placed.[9] In 2017, approximately 119,300 migrants and refugees reached Italy from Libya through the Mediterranean.[10] At least 2,382 of those individuals died during their journey.[11] A downward trend has been identified in 2018 of the number of migrants arriving in Italy and Malta, however, the journey has become more dangerous.[12] In 2017, “one in 43 people died crossing the Mediterranean Sea; in 2018 one in 18 people died crossing the Mediterranean Sea, more than doubling the risk of perishing at sea.”[13]

The death tolls in this region are increasing and gaining international attention. Individuals noted, “it wasn’t just migrants arriving in Italy by the thousands – a disturbing number of corpses were also washing up on shore.”[14] The situation for the migrants is worsening because of the methods utilized by the smugglers and traffickers. The captives often hold migrants and refugees in “makeshift detention” centers, including hangars, warehouses, unfinished buildings, apartment units, or farms.[15] Those held captive live in dire situations until they are transferred to the next location.[16] However, the transfer usually occurs once the captor is paid off by family members or if the captive individual pays off their debt through forced labor.[17] Those who manage to survive the abuse and exploitation, and make it to the Mediterranean crossing, are often intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard. Instead of assisting the migrants who are seized, Libyan authorities place them in detention centers, where thousands remain indefinitely and arbitrarily.[18] U.N. staff visited 11 detention centers and documented torture, ill-treatment, forced labor, and rape.[19]

Survivors interviewed by U.N. workers described their conditions as “unfit for human habitation, overcrowded and unhygienic.”[20] Most of the detention centers had no running water and no washing facilities, forcing the migrants to use buckets as toilets.[21] Additionally, the migrants had to procure their own food or starve to death.[22] These horrific conditions led to “a proliferation of scabies and other skin infections, respiratory problems and gastro-digestive ailments.”[23] More shockingly, survivors shared stories of the “complicity of some State actors, including local officials, members of armed groups formally integrated into State institutions, and representatives of the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense, in the smuggling or trafficking of migrants and refugees.”[24]

Furthermore, migrants described experiences of being exploited by abusive traffickers, i.e. being held captive for several years, paying multiple ransoms, or being physically abused.[25] The most frequently described methods of abuse included “beatings with various objects, suspension from bars, pouring petrol, boiling water or chemicals on victims’ bodies, electric shock, stabbing, pulling nails, application of heated metals to flesh, and shootings, particularly the legs.”[26] Furthermore, an overwhelming number of migrant women and young girls reported either being raped by smugglers or traffickers in Libya or witnessing others be assaulted.[27]

So, what is being done or should be done to address these problems?

One suggestion came from the European Union- the leaders proposed “regional disembarkation platforms” in North Africa, that would essentially help agencies screen migrants who have genuine asylum claims and help resettle those who do not.[28] The purpose of the plan was to “break the business model of people-smuggling gangs by processing refugees and migrants outside the EU.”[29] However, all the North African countries rejected the proposal, according to Mohamed al-Taher Siala, who serves as the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Libya.[30] Instead, Mr. Siala explained that Libya was “trying to improve security along its southern border by striking agreements with Chad, Niger, and Sudan.”[31] Instead, Libya prefers that the EU help protect the borders by providing technical support, such as “patrol vehicles, ‘drones, helicopters and . . . few light weapons.’”[32] Additionally, the EU and Arab League leaders will be having talks in Egypt in February, with illegal migration as the main focus.[33]

What is occurring in this region consists of grave violations of international and national laws. Based on the U.N. Report, in order to address these horrific and systemic violations of human rights suffered by migrants, “Libya’s approach to managing migration must be overhauled, with human rights protections placed at the centre of response plans.”[34] Primarily, Libya needs to reinstate a rule of law in order to prevent armed groups, gangs, traffickers and smugglers, from exploiting desperate and vulnerable populations and enriching themselves from such abuses.[35] Additionally, the U.N. Report calls on “European States to reconsider the human costs of their policies and ensure that their cooperation and assistance to the Libyan authorities respectful of human rights, and in line with the international human rights and refugee law, so they do not, directly or indirectly, result in men, women and children being trapped in abusive situations with little hope of protection and remedy.”[36]


[1] Amanda Sakuma, Damned for Trying, MSNBC, http://www.msnbc.com/specials/migrant-crisis/libya (last visited Jan. 13, 2019).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Desperate and Dangerous: Report on the human rights situation of migrants and refugees in Libya, U.N. Support Mission in Libya & U.N. Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner 10 (Dec. 18, 2018), https://unsmil.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/libya-migration-report-18dec2018.pdf [hereinafter U.N. Report].

[6] Id. at 11; see also IOM, UN migration agency moves to relieve plight of migrants trapped in Libya. Backing AU, EU plan (Dec. 1, 2017), https://www.iom.int/news/un-migration-agency-moves-relieve-plight-migrants-trapped-libya-backing-au-eu-plan.

[7] U.N. Report, supra note 5, at 11.

[8] Id. 

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at 12.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id. at 13.

[14] Sakuma, supra note 1.

[15] U.N. Report, supra note 5, at 27–28.

[16] Id. at 27.

[17] Id. at 28.

[18] UN report sheds light on ‘unimaginable horrors’ faced by migrants and refugees in Libya, and beyond, UN News (Dec. 20, 2018), https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/12/1029031.

[19] Id.

[20] U.N. Report, supra note 5, at 28.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id. at 6.

[25] Id. at 28.

[26] Id.

[27] Id. at 31.

[28] Migrant Crisis: Libya opposes EU plan for centres, says minister, BBC News (Oct. 18, 2018), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-45914534.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] U.N. Report, supra note 5, at 55.

[35] Id.

[36] UN report sheds light on ‘unimaginable horrors’ faced by migrants and refugees in Libya, and beyond, supra note 18.