Libya’s Migrant-Smuggling Highway: Lessons for Europe

Written by | Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

Mattia Toaldo (European Council on Foreign Relations)

Although Libya is not the main source country of the migrants heading to Europe, it has for long embodied a key transit node of the so-called Central Mediterranean route, which had been frequently used by migrants before the outbreak of the civil war in Syria. With a little exaggeration, one could say that it is a major transfer point for the vast majority of African migrants heading for the Old Continent. While before the escalation of the situation in Syria, the local population of the destabilized Libya accounted for a significant part of the total number of migrants, it was then largely replaced by Syrians who were benefitting from this migration route due to cheaper illegal commissions for smugglers, and also because the Eastern Mediterranean route across Turkey was at that time not yet sufficiently established. Currently (since 2014), the Syrians have given their preference for the above-mentioned Anatolian route but their numbers have been replaced by the migrants mainly from Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan who have now used the Libyan migration hub even more. The Eritreans are, however, represented the most in the long term.

Since smugglers’ vessels transporting migrants from the shores of Libya to Europe are still not safe, hundreds of castaways die in the sea every month. April 2015 was the most alarming month when, according to available data, 1,246 migrants drowned in Central Mediterranean. The Union needs to review, refine and expand its system of border control and migration policy because the current system that is focused largely on strengthening border security and rescue operations at the sea brings along many negatives (eg. there have been cases when boats were not even provided with enough fuel as smugglers relied on the intervention of rescue missions on the high seas). The urgency of this need only fuels the conflict between the Tebu and Tuareg tribes in the south of Libya, which in turn contributes to the increasing numbers of migrants.

The legalization of the previously illegal trade in oil or tobacco in Libya, which would lead to a reduction in the number of smugglers, is among possible measures to improve the situation of the central Mediterranean route. Smugglers would in fact turn their attention to this, thanks to criminalization far less profitable, sector. The Union should continue its cooperation with the Libyan municipalities and intensify communication with the central government in Tripoli. The Libyan detention centers for migrants would be supervised by international supervisory teams and the Union could become a facilitator of the dialogue between two warring tribes in the south. From a general point of view, a lesson can be taken from the Libyan case that the legal means of migration to Europe (eg. the so-called humanitarian visas for those migrants who, albeit do not meet the qualifications of a refugee, are fleeing famine) need to be better institutionalized and expanded.

(The study can be downloaded here:

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