Southern Libya, a human trafficking hotspot, has long been overlooked. Italy is now trying to tackle the problem, but faces the region’s political vacuum and its booming black market.
Typically sidelined in most Libya-related discussions that revolve around the east and the west, for the first time the south has been brought to the table as European powers scramble to contain the flow of migrants from Northern Africa across the Mediterranean.
Unless all the tribes are united in a joint effort to fight illegal migration, and have equal power, nothing will materialise on the ground.
Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti earlier this year pledged to invest in the southern Libyan communities at the heart of migrant smuggling. The Italian plan moved a step forward in August when Minniti met mayors from southern Libya in Rome, underscoring his commitment to fighting human trafficking as part of an agreement signed earlier this year between Rome and the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.
The meeting, which explored economic alternatives to people trafficking and contraband smuggling in Libyan towns, was viewed as a long overdue response to the troubled south of the country.
“Until now, the attention was on stopping migration flows from the north, which is rather absurd since most migrants enter through the country’s southern border. It was time to start looking at the root of the crisis,” Tayeb Al Khaiyl, an adviser to Sabha’s mayor Hamed Rafeh Alhiali, tells zenith.
It’s a view echoed by Karim Mezran, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “It’s good that Italy is giving due consideration to south Libya. If the south is not tackled, the situation there may be soon completely out of control.”
Mezran believes that enabling an entente between the different tribes and clans of the south is necessary to control Libya’s southern border and combat the trafficking of migrants.
On the other hand, in his view, a pact in the south cannot be reached without a comprehensive agreement in the north, as part of Italy-Libya’s effort to fight illegal human smuggling.
“If an agreement is put in place whereby the migrant trade is blocked in the north, the south will adjust accordingly – since it will not have a demand to supply – and stop the flow of migrants heading for Europe,” the researcher argued.
Nevertheless, some locals are more critical of the approach. Insecurity and political uncertainty on the ground render any deal nearly impossible to implement, according to Youssef Moussa Marda, a human rights activist in southwestern Libya, who says the mayors who met the Italian Interior Minister are not real ‘’representatives’’ and simply lack the power to deliver.
“Today in southern Libya, we don’t really have municipalities that represent us on the ground,” he says. “The municipal building in Murzuq, where I live, is empty. Our mayor lives in Tripoli.”
Libya’s southwest, known as the Fezzan, has neither a central state authority nor functioning institutions. Rich in natural resources, the region is in the hands of rival factions fighting over control of its strategic sites. With large incentives to smuggle weapons, oil, gold, drugs and people, the legal economy is paralysed while an illicit one booms.
A second obstacle to reducing people trafficking is divisions among and within tribes. Far from being monolithic entities, the tribes of the Fezzan are fraught with division. There are quickly shifting alliances between those who support the Tripoli government, those who side with Khalifa Haftar and those who remain neutral.
“Unless all the tribes are united in a joint effort to fight illegal migration, and have equal power, nothing will materialise on the ground,” says Marda.
Sadly, the government is after what benefits Tripoli, not Libya as a whole. Historically, Libya’s southwest is a transit zone between sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean coast, and is the main gateway for major migrant routes from Chad, Mali and Niger to Europe. The Fezzan in particular has a lucrative illegal trade in migrants. Given the depressed economy and widespread insecurity, offering alternatives to the black market in people trafficking appears fraught in the short term.
Al Khaiyl says Italy has discussed reviving the local economy by reactivating factories – especially five major industrial plants – restarting agricultural production in the south, and promoting free access to education to help sub-Saharan African youth bring knowledge to their home countries.
He says an initiative to better patrol the border is another important step towards “securing Libya’s southern frontier, including providing funding and training for the country’s border guard services to combat illegal trafficking”.
It is hardly thinkable that these local actors will stop human trafficking in exchange for the promised investment without tangible incentives, which implies that Italy has possibly struck deals in southern Libya. The Italian Interior Minister Minniti has denied bribing tribes and militias.
While experts welcome the idea of stabilising the Fezzan and reviving its economy to help curb migrant flows, plans were only tipped to succeed if they are inserted into the wider framework of nationwide stabilisation and implemented via the GNA, otherwise Italy would not have a central authority to interact with. A report from International Crisis Group said that any effort to address governance, economic and security issues in the south should be coordinated with the UN-recognised government in Tripoli, headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, and linked to wider initiatives to tackle the country’s problems.
However, Marda argues that the GNA will be reluctant to sign off on agreements for projects in the south. “In order to give a legal framework for these projects to be implemented, approval is required from the central government. Sadly, the government is after what benefits Tripoli, not Libya as a whole.”
The internationally-recognised government has little influence in the Fezzan, the EU and other international organisations have a limited presence on the ground, and access to the region remains difficult, hampering progress in the fight against human trafficking. Some also have doubt about Minniti’s genuine long-term commitment to the issue, arguing that the deal could be a political move, as the migrant crisis is a highly sensitive issue in the run-up to Italy’s 2018 general election.
Italy has been the first point of arrival for many migrating to Europe, with 181,436 people arriving last year, according to the International Organisation for Migration. The country already trains and equips the Libyan coastguard to try to cut down on migrant crossings of the Mediterranean.
If Libya’s south continues to be ignored, human smuggling will stay with the risk of pushing migrants to take more perilous routes to reach Europe, and both Italy and the EU facing hard challenges in managing the migratory flows.
Although the latest Italian plan has limitations, human rights activist Mezran says dealing with southern Libya must remain a priority, in order to curtail the human tragedy. “The south needs to be regulated so that we don’t have millions of migrants coming in, dying in the desert or mountains or ending up in detention centres.’’