The dual face of migrant smuggling in Libya

The dual face of migrant smuggling in Libya
In Libya's northwestern city of Zawiya, where migrants make up a quarter of the population, those involved in human smuggling and trafficking present themselves as the solution to the very crisis they helped create, write Lubna Yousef and Tim Eaton.
7 min read
A group of migrants at a detention centre in Zawiya, 45 kilometres west of the Libyan capital Tripoli, on 17 June 2017. [Getty]

The UN fact finding mission to Libya this week stated that the European Union had “aided and abetted” the commission of the crimes in Libya as a result of its support to Libyan authorities to crack down on irregular migration. Their conclusions echo long held allegations made by human rights organisations.

The international narrative on migration in Libya – like the migrant experience itself – is one of abuse and exploitation. Despite the numbers of Mediterranean crossings from Libya remaining lower than the heights of 2016, many migrants and refugees still lose their lives as they attempt to reach Europe.

Yet, criticism of those engaged in human smuggling and trafficking rarely includes the voices and perceptions of Libyan society, where local smugglers and traffickers burrow. How do Libyans feel about the sector? And how can they reconcile themselves to what is going on?

To help answer these questions, Chatham House researchers have spoken to residents of Zawiya, a city in the country’s northwest.

"Criticism of those engaged in human smuggling and trafficking rarely includes the voices and perceptions of Libyan society, where local smugglers and traffickers burrow"

Zawiya manifests all the challenges of the post-2011 period: it has an unruly and competitive security sector that has mushroomed in size, its public services and infrastructure have declined, and its licit economy has stagnated while its illicit economy has grown uncontrollably due to human smuggling and trafficking.

 It has also seen a new set of actors come to dominate the city through their control of armed groups.

Local perceptions of migration

With an estimated population of 186,000, Zawiya’s 46,000 migrants are impossible to miss. As the number of migrants have increased over the past decade, local perspectives on migration have started to shift.

Zawiya’s residents are torn between sympathy for the plight of migrants and hostility towards them for being different. Their sentiments are often influenced by colourism, historical racism against foreigners from Africa, and factors like nationalism and religion – Arab Muslim migrants are typically better accepted due to shared values.

Locals struggle to differentiate between trafficking and smuggling, claiming that trafficking in humans does not exist in the city. This difficulty in identifying human trafficking as a separate illegal act is perhaps wilful.

While residents recognize the role smugglers play in their city’s current situation, their anger is mostly directed towards the migrants themselves, who are viewed as unwanted temporary guests.

And although some locals understand the circumstances that push migrants and refugees to flee their homes, they fear foreigners might compromise the fabric of their conservative community.

Apathy has grown in Zawiya over the past few years, said Mariam, a stay-at-home mother. The sight of dead bodies, including children, washed up on the shore has left a lasting psychological impact on locals.

“It is painful to see them, but we have also gotten used to it,” she admitted. Zawiyans are aware of the danger migrants endure and the risks they take, but in a country rife with violence and political divide, there is little capacity to dwell on migrant experiences.

The presence of migrants in public spaces has further unsettled locals, as entire migrant neighbourhoods have cropped up in their city. This has fuelled anxiety among residents, who are uncomfortable with their city’s changing face.

Creating a local narrative

Arguably, the most significant factor influencing local sentiments towards migrants is pervasive information asymmetry. Knowledge of the migration sector mostly circulates among men, some of whom work in the migration space, during informal gatherings where stories are exchanged between acquaintances or family members.

Despite their informality, these social interactions are where narratives on migration develop. The storytellers themselves may be security officials, armed group members, coastguards, aid workers, activists, or civilians who have heard second-hand accounts related to migrants.

The result is that the narratives they create infiltrate the wider community and help influence local perspectives in their favour.

It can be difficult to label those involved in the migration ‘business’, as they often wear many hats. They can be part of state-affiliated security forces while also maintaining an outward appearance in the community as civil servants, humanitarians, and community leaders.

"Zawiya’s residents are torn between sympathy for the plight of migrants and hostility towards them for being different"

Having a legally and socially legitimate public profile is critical in enabling these actors to shape the narrative on migrant smuggling in two ways.

First, it allows them to improve their standing in the communities where they operate by presenting themselves as the solution to the migration crisis – even when locals know they helped smuggle migrants into Libya in the first place.

With no solutions offered by the Libyan government or the international community, smugglers and traffickers are often the only option for migrants to reach Europe. Locals therefore tolerate smuggling for its perceived benefit: getting migrants out of the city.

Second, these actors use their resources and influence to present themselves as job providers for local youth, usually through their armed factions. They also help facilitate public service provision.

Local perceptions versus international narratives

The international community does not share this local narrative. The EU in particular has taken several steps over the past decade to combat trafficking and smuggling networks. It has provided support to Libyan state agencies, such as the Libyan Coast Guard and the Department for Countering Illegal Migration while also supporting aid and humanitarian work for local and international NGOs in the country.

However, these same state agencies are the ones that stand accused of being involved in human rights abuses and smuggling activities. Some state-run detention centres have benefitted from EU-sponsored capacity-building support, lending them more legitimacy and a cover for some of the human rights violations – and trafficking activity – that take place there.

The result is a fragile equilibrium: the number of migrants leaving Libya from the northwest coastline is reduced but not eradicated, while state-affiliated armed groups and officials are now regulating the sector rather than seeking to shut it down.

This has led to the establishment of informal rules of conduct, including setting quotas among rival smuggling networks. Meanwhile, the treatment of migrants differs by their country of origin and how much they pay the smugglers.


Some are exploited for forced labour and have their documents confiscated, while others are treated well and even offered snacks and beverages on their boat trips to Europe. The ‘business’ has become highly regulated.

In such circumstances, it is unsurprising to find significant differences between local perceptions and international narratives of human smuggling and trafficking in Libya. Zawiya’s new elite have found a way to bridge the gap between the two.

Western policy currently offers no alternatives and doesn’t even extract a political price from Zawiya’s elite – who hold significant interests and influence in political negotiations for high office in Libya – for its double dealing.

Lubna Yousef is the research associate for the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Tim Eaton is a Senior Research Fellow within the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. His research focuses on the political economy of conflict in Libya and the broader MENA region. They both work on Chatham House’s Cross-border Conflict: Evidence, Policy and Trends (XCEPT) research programme, funded by UK Aid from the UK government.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.