Beyond war and peace: migration management in Libya

Migration,Sahel Watch19 Oct 2016Julien Brachet

The reframing of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) during the Libyan refugee crisis of 2011 as an organization with humanitarian aims needs to be understood in the context of a broader trend towards the international management of migration. Indirectly, this management allows governments to operate outside their borders in places where, and at times when, this would otherwise be impossible. The resulting dilution of state responsibility with regard to policy and implementation is undesirable, as such policies can have devastating effects on the ground.

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One of the largest migration crises in modern history” – this is how IOM described the displacement of people in Libya during the 2011 war. This conflict, which began with the uprisings in Benghazi in February, followed by the intervention of NATO forces from March to October, indeed caused impressive population movement. Out of the total Libyan population of less than seven million (among whom 1.5–2.5 million were foreigners), more than 600,000 Libyans and 800,000 foreign nationals were counted as they fled the country between February and November 2011.1 To these figures should be added those who left by their own means without being recorded and the more than 200,000 internally displaced.2

In an increasingly xenophobic Europe, these displacements were easily used to stir up longstanding and largely unfounded fears of invasion. At the very beginning of the conflict, the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs predicted “a wave of 200,000 to 300,000 immigrants” arriving in Italy if the Libyan system fell, claiming that there would be a “biblical exodus”. Although wildly exaggerated (in fact, less than 26,000 refugees from Libya arrived in Italy during the whole conflict), his predictions were repeated by several other European ministers, creating the need to ‘manage’ these population movements. Hence, began the international management of the ‘migration crisis’, even before it had begun.

Redefining migration management

IOM was one of the most active organizations in the management of migration, participating in the evacuation of about 250,000 foreign nationals from Libya in 2011. Like all international organizations, IOM knew how to stage and value its activities in the eyes of the international public through the distribution of regular reports, photos and press briefings with suggestive titles, such as ‘Despite Heavy Shelling IOM Rescues Several Hundreds of Migrants’.

The assistance offered by IOM to people fleeing the fighting was unanimously welcomed abroad and its humanitarian emphasis might lead one to believe that IOM had specifically intervened to remedy the crisis. Yet the organization had been active in Libya for several years and, upon a closer look, changes in their policies on the ground seem to have been slight, beyond publicly redefining them in humanitarian terms. In fact, IOM does not specifically intervene in emergency situations. A leader in the field of migration management on all levels, IOM adopts a model akin to consultancy: it offers a diagnosis, develops projects ad hoc with precise purposes, dispenses advice, and estimates the efficacy of its actions on the ground with regard to the objectives stated. In this, it is part of a broader trend towards international migration management.

Diluted government responsibility

The wealthiest and most diplomatically-powerful governments are increasingly active in this worldwide management of ‘migration crises’ and, in particular, in controlling the movement of populations considered undesirable. This they do through supranational organizations and their specialized agencies (the EU and Frontex, for instance), as well as international organizations which they finance or whose policies they guide (such as the UNHCR and IOM).

This indirect ‘internationalization’ of state activities through the intermediary of international organizations, which is not specific to migration, ultimately dilutes state responsibility for policy and its implementation. This means that states cannot be held to account even if implementation on the ground results in illegitimate or illegal activities. This allows governments to avoid criticism, both abroad and at home, and to intervene outside their borders in places where, and at times when, this would otherwise be impossible.

IOM is one of the leaders of this increasingly global and permanent system of surveillance and control – or ‘management’ – of populations that are considered both vulnerable and invasive, victimized and dangerous, refugees and illegal immigrants. This system takes shape in places where material devices are set up to further it (machines, tools, vehicles, arms, buildings and personnel) and through the anti-migration rhetoric circulated by experts, the media and politicians, which influences both elite and popular notions of migration.

Managing migration for whom?

As a result, physical and social spaces, such as the Sahara are transformed, as travel becomes increasingly difficult, expensive and risky – at least for those defined as ‘undesirable’ because their mobility is defined as ‘illegal’. At the heart of this process of ‘flexibilization’ of regimes of citizenship and of the ‘hierarchization’ of the right to mobility – between the two unattainable ideals of total freedom of movement and space hermetically closed – emerges a rugged terrain that varies based on whom is travelling and when and according to political, economic, social and cultural criteria.

It is in these unconventional spaces of government that the effects of interaction between international organizations and Western states come fully into view, including in their darkest aspects. The militarization of border regions, the presence of foreign operational police agents in third countries, the deployment of considerable technical means, preventive information gathering, the spread of propaganda through the media, and the creation of laws of exception have all resulted in the arrest, deportation and death of thousands. This is the reality of the implementation of European migration policies in Libya and the Sahara.3 These policies pay little heed to international law (conventions on the protection of refugees and asylum seekers, on the rights of migrant workers, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, to name just a few) and their managers and agents deny responsibility for the effects they might have on the ground, hiding behind the need to respect orders and administrative obligations.

Humanitarian rhetoric, such as that deployed by IOM in 2011 to legitimize its activities during the war in Libya, contributes to this general drive towards migration management – despite the fact that such management at the international (state) level has never been effective in preventing migration. This transforms local and regional patterns of exchange and territorial ordering, often with devastating effects on the ground. At the level of the Saharan migratory system, the Libyan conflict is only an additional tragic phenomenon, aggravating the already critical situation that preceded it and which is ongoing.


  1. Over half (55%) of these were from neighbouring countries (Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, Chad and Sudan). In the language of international organizations, those ‘mixed migratory flows’ were composed of ‘refugees’, ‘returnees’ and ‘migrants’. These categories do not reflect their varying status during the journey (people often move from one category to the other, according to context).
  2. At least 30,000 people were killed and 50,000 wounded in the conflict (The Guardian, 26 October 2011).
  3. See Brachet, J. (2009) Migrations transsahariennes. Vers un désert cosmopolite et morcelé (Niger). Paris: Le Croquant, and Brachet J. (2011) ‘The blind spot of repression: Migration policies and human survival in the central Sahara.’ In: Thanh-Dam Truong and Des Gasper (eds), Transnational Migration and Human Security. The Migration-Development-Security Nexus. Berlin-New York: Springer.