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Illegal Immigration across African Coasts: Libya as a Model

Illegal immigration is one of the most complex issues given its multidimensional repercussions on security and the political, economic and social fronts. It is a problem that involves relations between African countries and the relationship between the continent and its European neighbors, since African migrants take one of the longest routes to travel from the depth of African countries to the Mediterranean coast.

Libya is now one of the most important starting points for African migrants to Europe. Libya has suffered years of security deterioration amid sharp political divisions, an armed struggle for power and a war on terrorism. The state has lost its ability to effectively control its borders. The crisis is exacerbated by the country’s big size and long borders of 4,333 km with Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, Chad, Sudan and Egypt. This led to the availability of various paths for African migrants to enter Libyan territory.

Complicated Migrants’ Routes 

Migrants often come from Nigeria, West Africa, Sudan, Ethiopia, Chad and Somalia, crossing the southern Libyan border. There are also Egyptians who come from the eastern border and Tunisians from the west, because of difficulties in crossing to Europe from the coasts of the two countries, according to the International Organization for Migration.

The illegal immigrants who have succeeded in penetrating the southern border of Libya follow one of two main routes. The first is from the east of Kufra, south of Libya, to Ajdabiya on the Mediterranean coast, and the west from Qatroun to Sabha where migrant groups are scattered. Some of them go to Bani Walid and then to Tripoli or to Sabrata and Zuara and then to the sea to Malta or to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Because local militias control the border areas, especially in the west of the country, cross-interest networks emerge to enhance the chances for migrants to reach the Mediterranean, where local militias play an important role in facilitating the passage of migrants for money.

Migrants captured by Libyan forces holding ID cards are placed in Tripoli and Benghazi detention centers and deported home on direct flights from Libya in cooperation between the Libyan authorities and the International Organization for Migration. Despite the difficulty of the experience, many migrants who have failed to reach the Mediterranean coast give it another try, while quite a few remain in Libya illegally. Despite the deteriorating security, economic and living conditions in Libya, many African migrants prefer to stay there to escape the dire poverty and the worsening living conditions from which they fled in the first place.

Digital Indicators

The illegal immigration of Africans across the Libyan coast is a phenomenon that can be assessed through a group of numerical indicators summarized as follows:

1- Number of immigrants: There are no accurate statistics for migrants from African countries who cross the Libyan territory, especially since the journey of many does not end in reaching the destination they want. Many remain in Libya. Overall, the International Organization for Migration documented more than 432,000 migrants in Libya in five years. Since the beginning of 2018 more than 55,000 migrants escaped by sea, compared to 111,000 people in 2017, and more than 250,000 people in 2016, according to the UN. It is estimated that 100,000 migrants enter Libya annually, and the number of transients from Sudan to Libya is between 10,000 and 12,000 immigrants per month.

2- The destination of illegal immigrants: Italy is the main destination for illegal African migrants from the Libyan coast to Europe. It is estimated that more than 90 per cent of migrants cross Libya to Europe and arrive on the coast of Italy. This made Italy one of the countries most interested in containing the phenomenon of illegal immigration across the Libyan coast, which was reflected first in the change in the Italian voter’s direction to choose a right-wing government aimed at protecting the country from refugee influxes, and secondly in Italy’s deep involvement in playing roles on the ground such as training the Libyan Coast Guard to combat the smuggling of migrants, and monitoring the implementation of the Security Council resolution banning the supply of weapons to Libya.

3- The cost of illegal immigration: The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that smugglers make between $760 million and $1 billion a year. The value of what migrants pay to smuggling gangs varies depending on the country of departure and the transit areas that they will pass by in order to reach their destination. Passengers through Eritrea, Sudan or Ethiopia pay about $4,000, while those wishing to pass through Somalia and Sudan pass through Libya for between $2000 and $3,500. The migrants pay the gangs between $500 and $2,500 from Libyan coasts to Italy.

 4- Victims of illegal immigration: According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 2018 was the deadliest for migrants from the Libyan coast, as 1,500 migrants died while trying to cross the sea into Europe. Although the figures show a significant drop in the number of migrants by sea by 80 per cent, the death rate is rising, with one out of every 17 going to Italy and one out of every 70 going to Spain. This large number of victims of illegal immigration prompted the UN Security Council in June 2018 to impose sanctions on six smugglers who head human trafficking networks in Libya. The sanctions include freezing their funds and imposing a travel ban to all UN member states.

The solution

The crisis can only be tackled by addressing the security and economic problems in African countries exporting migrants. Libya is a transit country and not an exporter of migrants. Even if Libya’s political and security turmoil ends, this will not prevent African migrants from looking for other borders that can be traversed to reach the shores of Europe.

The situation in both the Horn of Africa and the African Sahel is the root cause of the rising waves of migration, with problems such as terrorism and armed conflict, deteriorating environmental conditions and disruption of development. Providing jobs and a decent living is a good starting point to solve the problem.

Libya has suffered since 2011 from the absence of the central government and the loss of control over its borders. The current situation underscores the urgent need to reach a tangible agreement to end the Libyan crisis that ensures the unification of security and political institutions by forming a strong government, dismantling of militias, seizing unlicensed weapons, and the support of the military to control the country’s borders. The success of these efforts depends to a large extent on the seriousness of the international community. 

This article was first published in: Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies, Africa 2019… Equilibrium Severs … Promising Future, Cairo, March 2019. 

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