From Abuse to Cohabitation: A Way Forward for Positive Migration Governance in Libya

Written by | Friday, November 29th, 2019

Libya has historically been a migrant-receiving country, and migrants form a significant portion of the Libyan workforce. Since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, however, the situation facing migrants in Libya has deteriorated. Powerful human-smuggling networks have emerged that have taken the exploitation of migrants to grueling new levels. In response to pressure from the European Union and individual European states to contain migration across the Mediterranean, Libyan armed actors are increasingly turning to migrant detention as their main business model. The situation for migrants in Libya continues to deteriorate and the abuses they suffer are rampant.
Thus, we need to ask what can be done at the local level to promote positive migration governance in Libya. From a humanitarian point of view, the scale of abuse that migrants face in Libya today requires an urgent international response. From an economic point of view, migrants have historically contributed substantially to the Libyan economy and attempts to improve their position would be likely to result in economic gains for migrant and host communities alike. And from a normative point of view, the international community has a moral obligation to address the negative human-rights consequences of its migration policies.
Using the migration management in the municipalities of Ghat, Bani Walid and Zawiya as a case study, there is no evidence of formal migration governance efforts – either at the national or the local level – that seek to improve the situation of migrants in Libya with the final objective of their normalization or integration in society. Libya’s national approach to migration governance is underdeveloped and mainly prosecutorial in nature – in other words, migration management equals detention and deportation.
Libya’s municipalities are not officially mandated to develop or implement migration governance policies and they generally suffer from chronic underfunding, the ubiquitous involvement of central institutions at the local level as a consequence of how municipalities are structured, with non-state actors asserting their authority, high expectations placed on municipal councils by Libyan citizens and an unwillingness to improve migrants’ position in local host communities. Given that this lack of capacity is not a technical defect, but reflective of a larger, structural process of formal governance decay at the local level, it is unlikely that greater financial or technical support for local governments in Libya would automatically result in improvements in the situation for migrants.
There are also some civil-society organizations that have taken on a role in migration governance. In the case of Bani Walid, civil society has stepped in to take care of migrants who suffer from illness or injuries, and to recover the bodies of deceased migrants. In Zawiya, civil society works together with the local authorities to improve the circumstances for migrants within detention centers. These efforts are a first step towards improving the situation migrants endure in Libya, but are still very much tied to a general sys- tem of migration management that is abusive and focused on cordoning migrants off from society.
Whereas civil-society efforts in these three municipalities are of a more reactive nature, the business community shows more promising signs of being able to become a driving force for positive migration governance. The key reason for this is that migrant labor has always been, and continues to be, crucial for the (revival of) the Libyan economy, where the livelihoods of Libyans have steadily declined with the disintegrating ability of the Libyan state to control oil rents after the 2011 revolution. For decades, the employment market for Libyans has been heavily skewed towards public-sector jobs in a rentier state that distributed oil profits among the Libyan population, who, for that reason did not have to work in low-paid jobs. As a result, the Libyan economy became reliant on the migrant labor force for private-sector development.
With limited government revenues post-2011, liquidity became strained, as insufficient cash was available to pay out promised wages and subsidies. This increased the prices of goods and services, while constraining the cash available to citizens – both adversely affecting Libyan household incomes. With nearly a third of Libyans considered to be living below the poverty line, many have sought alternative sources of revenue. This has resulted in the proliferation of entrepreneurial efforts at the local level, ranging from construction activities to smaller-scale farming and light industries. These kinds of enterprises all depend to a substantial degree on migrant labor.
The increased relevance of migrant workers for the livelihoods of ordinary Libyans has allowed well-positioned migrant workers to negotiate better economic agency for themselves. Unskilled and semi-skilled migrants who stay longer in the country have seen an improvement in working conditions compared to less stable migrants, including an increase in wages up to the level of those earned by Libyan wages. The reliance of agriculture and industrial sectors on migrant labor has resulted in community pushes for local migrant registration schemes to ensure there is a supply of foreign labor to local businesses. These efforts could be further capitalized upon to improve positive migration governance in Libya.
There is a number of broader recommendations that should be taken into account when developing specific programming that aims to support local initiatives to improve conditions for migrants and Libyans alike: Firstly, programming (by programming entities like the EU) in support of local migration governance should be based on a solid understanding of the needs and ‘agendas’ of local stakeholders and migrants. Secondly, the EU should also focus its attention on local governance as an interplay of key local stakeholders, with a specific focus on civil society and private-sector actors. Thirdly, it is also important to take into account how local-government actors can capitalize on the needs and priorities of the other stakeholders in order to strengthen their position – and ultimately to enhance their ability to design a positive migration governance structure.
For external actors, like the EU, recognition of the existing national framework and the formal division of responsibilities comes down to a question of ‘do no harm’: as the formal mandate for migration governance lies with the Ministry of Interior, municipal efforts to improve migration management may not be automatically endorsed by national entities, and bypassing the central sphere of government in support of local migration management is not advisable. However, the EU can support municipalities in developing practical pilot projects in migration governance. If the municipalities can demonstrate success here, this could serve as a basis for advocating for policy changes within the national framework for migration governance.

‘From Abuse to Cohabitation: A Way Forward for Positive Migration Governance in Libya’ – Study by Floor El Kamouni-Janssen, Nancy Ezzeddine and Jalel Harchaoui – Clingendael / The Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

The Study can be downloaded here

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