January 2018

Fun-House Mirrors: The Problem With Blaming Libya for Refugee Abuse

Photo of Azza Maghur

By Azza Maghur, Sr. Associate, Perim

By Azza K Maghur

When CNN  ran a story about “slave auctions” run by human trafficking networks in Libya, the world decried not the perpetrators, but Libyans as a whole:  people who are, in the main, victims of the same agents of chaos, and who suffer continuous human rights violations at the hands of militias tied into foreign mafias and transnational crime.  Further, neither the foreign states intervening in Libya nor the UN, despite its ongoing operation to “fix” the country, have stood up to defend Libya’s reputation.  Nor have they taken steps to limit continued deep outside meddling in the country, itself a major factor in Libya’s predicament.

Due to accidents of history and geography, Libya sits on the main migration routes linking Sub Saharan Africa to Europe. On top of the political chaos resulting from the Arab uprisings, Libya bears the brunt of the problem of illegal migration.  But none of the countries whose internal issues led to these outflows, nor the countries who shut their borders to incoming migrants and refugees, are found to be responsible for contributing to the problem.

In a joint statement issued by the African Union and European Union at the end of a summit held in Abidjan last November on the migrant situation in Libya, Libya was singled out as responsible, and decoupled from its African context.  Although the statement claims to offer support to Libya through international cooperation, by “undertaking immediate actions to fight against the perpetrators of such crimes inside and outside Libya, and bring them to justice”, it seems to be making empty promises, and again putting the locus of responsibility on Libya.  In its last paragraph, the statement recognizes no responsibility for this “phenomena or its root causes” (which it never mentions), yet demands a “political solution to the persistent crisis in Libya”.

Libya is but one manifestation of the migration and refugee crisis—not its essence, nor its cause. Migrant-related atrocities are linked to human trafficking; a crime that knows no borders and can take place on land, sea and air.  The most politically expedient solution is to put the blame on a fragile state so that the supranational institutions  and states of origin or transit can wash their hands of their own responsibilities.

The illegal migration and refugee crisis demonstrates two critical points: First, the failure of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), signed under the auspices of the UN and its branch in Libya (UNSMIL) in December 2015.  Second, it highlights the fact that Libya is not a priority for the international community, but rather a scapegoat.

The Libyan Political Agreement’s stated objective was to install a strong, united executive power within Libya that will not only end political and institutional fragmentation, but also implement security arrangements and confidence building measures with the help of the international community (these measures form the longest part of its implementing text).  The text pledged that combating human trafficking and illegal migration must take place “through the concerted efforts of concerned states and in close cooperation with the international community and neighboring states”. Yet no action was taken towards that end, and as a result, Libya finds itself alone under the eyes and blaming fingers of that same international community, including neighboring countries and states involved with the influx of migration.

Two years after the Libyan Political Agreement’s de facto implementation, the Agreement has failed to become a Libyan constitution, and the Libya is further fragmented, with no prospect for a viable united government. Meanwhile, rather than facing the reality of the LPA’s collapse, the relevant states have found a solution to the migrant issue that serves their interests alone—that is, to declare the GNA an internationally recognized government and that the Agreement that created it is the only solution for Libya. But In accordance with the international recognition reflected In Security Council resolution 2259 of 2015, the GNA has actually lapsed as from the point of view of national legislation, it never acquired the vote of confidence from the Libyan House of Representative (HoR) required to become an acting government.

This hypocrisy is reflected in the world’s response to the illegal migration and refugee crisis:  one case is particularly egregious.  Last February, Italy pushed the GNA head, Mr. Faez Al Serraj  to sign, individually, a Memorandum that designates so-called Libyan “coast guards” as guardians for Italian (and by extension, European) shores and borders, and empowers them to stop smugglers’ crafts, and prevent NGOs from rescuing migrants at sea. Further, Italy has paid Libyan militias known for human trafficking to keep migrants under their custody and detention, in the appalling conditions that have been broadcast to the world media – of which the so-called slave auctions are but one part.

The aforementioned issues have reframed the migrant crisis from an “international or regional crisis”, requiring a coordinated international solution, to a “Libyan crisis”. As a result, Libyan civilians are painted as inhumane, while the countries that failed these migrants feign righteousness, and continue to meddle in Libyan politics.  These short sighted, and stop-gap measures will ultimately fail, and then what?  It may be too late to blame Libya.