Survivors of Misrata / Photo by European Commission DG ECHO / Via Flickr

Why migrants choose the Libyan route

Ines Kohl | 25 November 2015

For the last two decades Libya has been the main starting point for African refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean. Between 65,000 and 120,000 Sub-Saharan Africans enter the Maghreb each year, of which 70–90% migrate through Libya and 20–30% through Algeria and Morocco. [i] The reason why Libya has become the most popular springboard for migrants and refugees entering Europe is manifold and has to do with the country’s unique circumstances.

The Sahara, and Libya in particular, is a space of passage, agency and connectivity: for merchants and explorers in the past and for refugees and migrants today. The routes through the Libyan Sahara are used for small-scale trade and smuggling. Although changing transport methods and colonial borders dealt the final blow to major trans-Saharan trade in the late 1800s, the connection to the Tripolitanian coast went on until the beginning of the 20th century, as it was simply the quickest route. [ii]

Al-Qadhafi’s pan-African policy, Libya’s oil wealth and the need for foreign workers to maintain Libya’s socioeconomic status resulted in an increase in Sub-Saharan immigration by the end of the 1990s. Networks of migrants provided their countrymen with shelter, information and support in the migration process. In cooperation with Libyans, immigrants started providing transport by boat to Europe. Zuwara, for example, a Berber village 110 km west of Tripoli and 60 km east of the Tunisian border, developed into a major hub for migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

Poorly implemented EU projects

Since 2004, the EU has introduced a number of cooperative projects in Libya to fight illegal migration (such as Across Sahara I, II, SaharaMed, TRIM, AVRR, TAIEX), financed border surveillance, the repatriation of migrants, technical assistance, and training on human trafficking, and supported the erection of detention camps. [iii] According to the Global Detention Project, 15 detention camps were in use in 2014. Deportation campaigns, called hamla, have been common in Libya since 2004, but this has not stopped migrants. These campaigns are often well known in advance, so that potential illegal migrants can hide or Libyan employers can protect their African workers, on whom they are dependent for labour.

Despite Libya committing human rights violations in their brutal and inhumane treatment of refugees and migrants, for the EU, the cooperation with Libya worked well. The EU’s dependence on Libya’s oil and its crucial role as a barrier to stop unwanted migrants from entering Europe were the reasons for Europe’s double-standards in dealing with Libya. Al-Qadhafi instrumentalized this situation and profited from European subsidies, strengthening his position. The former ‘enfant terrible’ of a ‘rogue state’ became a fully-accepted member in international political arenas.

In Libya, everything is possible

But in fact Libya was not effective at preventing irregular migration to Europe. Based on the local motto ‘fi Libya kull shay mumkin’ (in Libya, everything is possible), inefficient controls, incapable and uncooperative officials, changing national policies within a chaotic Libyan administrative system, and al-Qadhafi’s changeable sensibilities all facilitated the development of strategies of circumvention and evasion. The connection for Sub-Saharan migrants and refugees from Ghat in the southwest to Sebha in the middle and further on to the north, for example, was locally referred to as ‘at-tubbu’ (the tube). On this route traffickers did not use roads, but Saharan tracks, bypassing or bribing their way through military checkpoints.

Missing state border controls through ethnic empowerment

The condition of Libya’s southern border with Niger and Chad have contributed to its ongoing popularity among migrants and refugees seeking passage to Europe. It comprises about 1,400 km of uninhabited desert and continuous surveillance is almost impossible. Since the fall of Al-Qadhafi, the borders have been wide open. In December 2012, governmental representatives officially announced the closure of the southern border.[iv] But, in the meantime, Tebu and Tuareg groups have increased their control in Libya and taken over its southern region.[v] The Tebu control the whole south-eastern region from Sebha, to Murzuq, Al-Gatrun, and Kufra. Their influence has even spread to Niger, where they have installed a quick connection between Agadez and Sebha using Toyota Hilux along the already institutionalized migrants’ truck-route (called transa). Both ethnic groups are politically and economically neglected minorities; working in transportation through the Sahara offers an economic niche and generates an enormous income.

Even the civil war in Libya, which has been going on since 2011, has not significantly reduced Sub-Saharan migration to the Libyan coast. The brutal force of rival groups and the overall insecurity makes the trip through Libya dangerous, but it still is more attractive than traveling through neighbouring countries like Algeria where migrants and traffickers face heavy fines and prison sentences if apprehended.

Future prospects

The fragile political situation, internal conflict between rival groups and security vacuum in Libya, combined with the prevailing poor economic and social situation in migrants’ home countries, makes measures aimed at controlling migration useless at this point. The general strategy of the EU, which involves treating the symptoms and inventing hypocritical measures in order to prevent migration from Africa to Europe – be it in Libya or Niger with the EUCAP’s planned detention camp in Agadez – has no future.

The EU would be better off fighting the root causes of migration. Instead of powering its neo-colonial position, what is needed is true support for West African states by curtailing European and multinational companies (such as the nuclear energy giant Areva in Niger) and strengthening democratic structures (instead of flattering compliant dictators). The Valetta summit in November 2015 posed an opportunity, but after decades of misguided politics with an eye only on the bottom line of Europe’s economic advantage, future repressive measures will not change anything, even if Libya cooperates.


[i] de Haas, H. ( 2006) Trans-Saharan migration to North Africa and the EU: historical roots and current trends, MPI, Migration Policy Institute

[ii] Pliez, O. Le Fezzan, mutation d´une region saharienne, Bulletin IRMC, 67: 3–9

[iii] Brocza, S and Jäger, M (2015) ‘EU-finanzierte Internierungslager in Libyen.’ In Brocza, S (ed.) Die Auslagerung des EU-Grenzregimes. Externalisierung und Exterritorialisierung. Promedia: Wien, 145–157

[iv] RFI, Radio France International, 17 December 2012

[v] Kohl, I (2014) ‘Libya´s 'major minorities'. Berber, Tuareg and Tebu: multiple narratives of citizenship, language and border control.’ In: Middle East Critique, Vol 23 (4): 423–438

Photo credit main picture: Survivors of Misrata / Photo by European Commission DG ECHO / Via Flickr

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Ines Kohl

Dr Ines Kohl is social anthropologist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

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