The mass drowning of refugees en route to Italy from Libya as their large boat capsized off the coast of Greece underscored Libya’s ongoing power vacuum and the inability of its divided leaders to deliver on their promises to stem the lucrative people-smuggling trade. Shockingly, the ship set sail from the eastern port of Tobruk, the city where local leaders launched a campaign against illegal immigration.
On 4 May, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni awarded eastern Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar a meeting in Rome where she offered to invest in eastern Libya – since 2015 For years, the country has been divided into two rivals, east and west – in return for action against smugglers.
Haftar appears to be trying to cash in on his deal. On June 4, his allies imposed a temporary night-time curfew to deter smugglers. Security forces have carried out raids on towns bordering Egypt. They claim to have found 1,000 people in farms and houses waiting to be taken to the Mediterranean. Ships and ports used by smugglers were destroyed.
Deputy Interior Minister Faraj Egaim, one of Libya’s power brokers, urged the public to report smugglers and appealed for help from the tribes that control Libya’s borders.
Some of those arrested earlier this month – as many as 4,000 – were forced to walk across the Egyptian border to Musaed on the grounds that they were there illegally. The violence involved, including the death of a young boy, has sparked outcry.
Thousands of migrants and asylum seekers, including pregnant women and children, were subjected to mass “arbitrary arrests and deportations” across the country by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) on Monday without identifying culprits. ’ expressed concern that they were allegedly detained in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. The statement said the movement “is accompanied by a disturbing rise in hate speech and racist rhetoric against foreigners online and in the media.”
But the harrowing boat trip from Tobruk shows that Haftar and his sons have not stopped the smuggling trade. A better way to stem the flow, many say, is to monitor incoming Syrian civilian flights carrying Syrians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis.
According to the Egyptian media, Haftar’s difficulty lies in the fact that his cruel order was not issued to the Butnan area where the port of Tobruk is located, which reflects that the Libyan National Army he leads is actually an ideologically flexible and loose alliance of militias. . Butnan is primarily home to the Obeidat tribe, which used to be Haftar’s supporters. Though adept at dealing with Libya’s many tribes, Haftar and his sons have encountered fierce resistance in their crackdown on smuggling and border posts.
The United Nations estimates there are 680,000 migrants in Libya, some hoping to take a boat to Europe while others work full-time in Libya. The United Nations International Organization for Migration said nearly 3,800 people died in and on migration routes from and within the Middle East and North Africa region last year, the highest number since 2017. Around 105,000 migrants and asylum seekers will arrive in Italy by sea in 2022. From this year to June, there were 54 000 people who just arrived in Hong Kong, double the number in the same period last year. A growing number are coming from eastern Libya.
The continued absence of an authoritative unified national government has diminished the chances of the Europeans finding an effective Libyan ally to control the flow. The two rival governments, East and West, have existed since 2015. A last U.N.-brokered attempt to strengthen the two sides to hold unified presidential and parliamentary elections failed ahead of the December 2021 election date. This existed long ago with no national reconciliation process, empowered civil society, finalized constitution or agreement on the allocation of Libya’s vast resources. Neither the House of Representatives, Libya’s parliament in the east, led by veteran Aguila Saleh, or its broad counterpart, the Council of State in the west, can make the necessary compromises over order or candidacy, especially since the election risks losing power and patronage.
A fresh attempt to agree on the basis for this December’s elections, just brokered in Morocco, also looks likely to fail, putting pressure on the latest UN envoy, Abdoulaye al-Batili, to come up with a plan to break the impasse. But ultimately he needs a collective European leadership to engage Libya again, rather than relying on malign actors and schemes to criminalize those trying to claim asylum.