Libyans say EU and UN initiatives do little to truly curb people smuggling
As the EU sets new policies and makes deals with African nations to deter hundreds of thousands of migrants from seeking new lives on the continent, what does it mean for those following dreams northwards and the countries they transit through? From returnees in Sierra Leone and refugees resettled in France to smugglers in Niger and migrants in detention centres in Libya, IRIN explores their choices and challenges in this multi-part special report, Destination Europe.
While the EU and the UN channel funds into deportations, evacuations, and patrolling the central Mediterranean, the vast desert border in Libya’s neglected south remains largely unsecured, leaving people smugglers, stripped of other work opportunities, to operate with impunity.
Great attention has been focused on curbing the arrival of migrants to Europe by sea and repatriating those detained in Libya – especially as the Mediterranean death rate soars to levels not seen since the height of the 2015 crisis and militia violence flares in Tripoli, forcing detention centres to be evacuated.
Yet the real solution to the migration crisis, argue Libyan officials, journalists, and activists, is securing Libya’s south. Why, they ask, are the EU and the UN spending so much money on initiatives that can do little to truly curb migration if the country’s borders are allowed to stand open?
“Illegal immigration must be stopped in the desert, not just the sea, and all the world knows this,” said Captain Wajidi al-Bashir al-Montassir, the head of Tripoli’s Airport Road Detention Centre.
Yet in the economically devastated south, there’s little evidence of efforts to curb the only thriving business, people smuggling.
That business is focused on delivering people to Sebha, which since 2011 has been left to flourish as a central hub of goods and people smuggling, with a volatile security situation rendering it one of Libya’s most lawless towns.
Entire districts are no-go areas for rival tribes; free movement across the whole town is impossible; and it remains a hotspot for tribal violence that can erupt with little warning.
Major Mohamed Tamimi has worked for decades in Sebha and now runs a key checkpoint north of the town, from where he powerlessly watches smugglers gather migrants in a warehouse just 200 metres from his checkpoint.
Speaking to IRIN over the phone in May, he said that he was not aware of any representatives from the EU or the UN visiting Sebha to meet with security forces or illegal immigration officials, even directly after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, when security was adequate.
“We are completely on our own here. Immediately after 2011 we had a modest amount of support from the Libyan transitional government and then that stopped,” he said. “Some of us are at least being paid again now, but many, especially newer recruits, haven’t been paid for two years. Amongst our guys, there is a huge will to work, but this is a dangerous job that no one wants to do without a salary.”
Libyan border security and Coast Guard officials are fiercely critical of current EU and UN initiatives, including deportations, evacuations, and rescue operations at sea. Some even accuse the international community of encouraging rather than curbing migration.
“Based on the support we see here from the EU and its weak cooperation with us, we really think the EU does not want to stop illegal immigration,” said al-Montassir, the head of the Tripoli detention centre. “We need practical help and technical equipment, like satellite and tracking systems. We’ve been collecting smugglers phone numbers from migrant’s phones, but we need equipment to be able to track these numbers and catch them.”
Tebu country and southern neglect
Since official border guards fled their posts in Libya’s 2011 uprising, the country’s vast southern borders have stood wide open, facilitating unregulated illegal immigration in unprecedented numbers.
Every week tens of Toyotas packed with 23-30 migrants each speed across the Sahara near the Tummo border crossing with Niger, which local voluntary militia have manned since 2011.
Heading north, they follow tyre tracks towards a 600-kilometre stretch of weather-beaten, sand-strewn tarmac formerly known as “Qaddafi’s Road”, leading to Sebha.
The Toyotas weave on and off the road to avoid checkpoints, but apart from this token nod of respect to the region’s largely powerless local security teams, people smuggling here is conducted in the open.
This is Tebu country, mainly populated by members of this indigenous Saharan ethnic group, which, since 2011, has become one of Libya’s most marginalised minorities. The members of volunteer militias at Tummo and checkpoints up to Sebha are Tebu, as are nearly all the people smugglers working this route.
None of Libya’s faltering post-2011 governments have maintained control over or given support to this southern area for years. That has left the Tebu to become semi-autonomous, operating basic local governance and security systems that tribal elders preside over.
Daily life is tough. Staple goods, electricity, and fuel are often in short supply; fuel is only available on the black market at inordinate cost. Only the most basic education is available, and most young people have been unable to attend colleges or universities in Sebha since tribal conflicts erupted there in 2012.
Stripped of study and work opportunities and faced with rising poverty, local Tebu youth have increasingly turned to people smuggling, working what has become the busiest migrant route into Libya.
Ahmed, 24, started working the Niger-Sebha route five years ago, after his family’s financial hardship forced him to abandon his studies. Other Tebu say they were pushed towards smuggling after being displaced by civil conflict; Nori, 23, moved south from Sebha to the oasis town of Murzuq in 2014 after losing his home and possessions.
“The circumstances that have befallen our youth have pushed them into this activity and, in our current situation, we are unable to offer them anything else,” Hussein Shaha, a Tebu social activist from Libya’s southernmost town of Qatrun, told IRIN. “The Tebu are at the border and at the end of Libya, and we ask the international community to recognise this and look at us with new eyes.”
Little help from abroad
The situation at Libya’s borders, and in the south more broadly, has been largely ignored not only by the various post-Qaddafi governments but also by the international community.
Tens of millions of euros have been poured into the EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM), established in 2013 to support Libya in improving and developing the security of its borders. Headquartered in Tunisia since mid-2014 (recently with an “enhanced presence in Tripoli”), the mission has so far accomplished little in terms of boosting the security of Libya’s land borders.
EUBAM Chief of Staff Peter-Bastian Halberg described the EU initiative, which has an operational budget of €31.2 million, as a civilian mission currently finalising its planning for an operational mission.
“More effective border control and security is a technical aspect of implementing the Libyan migration management, and essential to stop transnational criminal networks that put lives at risk,” Halberg told IRIN, clarifying that the EU’s aim isn’t to stop migration but to ensure it that it takes place in a safe way and as a choice rather than a last resort.
However, a former EUBAM employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IRIN that the organisation should be investigated for wasting public funds, while a senior Libyan source close to the UN described EUBAM as “a totally unacceptable institution”.
“They are doing absolutely nothing, and are lying to the international community saying they are helping secure Libya’s borders,” the Libyan said. “They’re working in Tunisia, not Libya, just making long reports but actually doing nothing on the ground.”
One of Tripoli’s most senior officials in the Anti-Illegal Immigration Agency, or AIIA, said Libya urgently needed direct and practical border support, pointing out that, before 2011, borders were monitored by twice-weekly land and air patrols.
“The first thing is to reactivate agreements and treaties, especially the treaty signed in 2007 and 2008 between Libya and Italy to protect Libya’s borders, erecting cameras and using modern electronic methods to monitor and control the southern borders,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said. “None of this happened, none of these agreements were ever put into practice.”
Helped through Niger
Some migrants do cross the Algerian and Sudanese borders, but the Libya-Niger border attracts the largest number by far.
Louise Donovan, a spokeswoman in Niger for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, praised the Nigerien government for allowing evacuations from Tripoli, saying it showed “huge solidarity” as it also hosts more than 108,000 Nigerian refugees and over 57,000 Malian refugees.
“By expanding its asylum space and enabling UNHCR to temporarily evacuate refugees to Niger, the government of Niger is already providing a huge amount of support – which is not necessarily forthcoming from other countries,” Donovan told IRIN.
Due to access challenges, IRIN was unable to reach the south during a recent reporting trip to Libya in May, but smugglers on the ground said they had seen no changes since IRIN was last there in 2015. “The Nigerien army are still escorting smuggler convoys and the numbers of migrants we are transporting has not decreased at all,” said Ahmed, the Tebu smuggler from Murzuq.
Four or five military trucks escort convoys of 40-80 vehicles every week along the most dangerous 670-kilometre stretch of Niger desert, from Agadez to Dirkou. The Niger military says this is to protect the vehicles from bandits who attack convoys and try to steal vehicles, migrants, food, or fuel. Smugglers have a different view. One told IRIN the military rarely intervenes when bandits drive into convoys looking for faltering vehicles to attack.
This military escort, underway since 2013, is free (to Nigerien smugglers), but bribes must be paid at each Niger checkpoint by non-Nigerien smugglers and passengers, smugglers say. These bribes not only bolster the meagre wages of Nigerien troops manning desert outposts but also pay for the military’s basic necessities, including fuel. Some female migrants unable to afford the bribes reported being raped by Niger checkpoint guards, saying that incident was the start of a cycle of sexual abuse that often characterises women’s illegal journeys towards Europe.
Suspicion of foreign motives
The migration crisis, al-Montassir stressed, is a transnational problem that requires transnational solutions. “For example,” he said, “current African protocols allow extensive freedom of movement without papers, which has made it easy for people to come in their thousands, and this should be controlled and monitored. Neighbouring countries should also secure their borders and deploy greater restrictions on entries.”
Ordinary citizens in southern Libya who regularly witness people smuggling and are familiar with the latest trends also criticised current initiatives. “Everyone is making money from migration, and I see the sending back of migrants also like a business. Everyone is using migrant numbers on paper to get more money,” said Shaha, the Tebu social activist. “Migration is a chain, and the Tebu are just one link in that chain, and if there was no demand further up the chain there wouldn’t be so many migrants.”
A tribal elder in southern Libya told IRIN the EU isn’t serious about stopping migration and attacked its policy of giving millions of euros to Niger to encourage it to crack down on people smuggling.
“The [Nigerien] government takes photos of security forces in the desert and maybe curbs migrant numbers for a month, then lets the numbers return to normal until they get more millions, and [then] reduces it again for another month,” the source said. “Qaddafi did the same. He’d get money and just close the borders for a few months. But it’s not in the interests of the Niger government to stop illegal immigration because, if it actually stops, they won’t get any more money.”
Libyan Navy Spokesman General Ayoub Ghassem went further, suggesting there was an international agenda to increase migration.
“The EU and UN want to send a message of encouragement to Africans that, if they get to Libya, they will be rescued in the sea. None of this should happen, but Africans have been brainwashed into just dreaming of living in this land of promise – Europe,” he said. “These migrants are victims of some larger plan we do not fully understand, to empty African lands of their people, and Libya is a victim of its location.”