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  • Writer's pictureDr. Alexander Greenberg

Clandestine immigration from Libya to Europe: perspectives and solutions

Updated: Feb 11, 2021


Immigration from Sub-Saharan Africa has been continuing since the collapse of the Libyan state after the fall of Qaddafi. Thousands of immigrants from various Sub-Saharan countries are heading to Libya with the goal to arrive to Europe.  Libya became an important hub for clandestine immigration due to the ongoing civil war between the West and the East (or between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica) and to the lack of control over porous borders and loose or non-existent state structures.

Data & Status quo

As late of December 2019 at least 654,081 migrants from 40 countries of origin were identified in Libya. Most migrants identified (65%) were from countries neighboring Libya, especially Niger (137,544 migrants), Chad (102,754 migrants), Egypt (99,938 migrants) and Sudan (74,609 migrants). It is noteworthy that not all the immigrants are heading to Europe, some of them remain in Libya given that the country may offer some jobs and occupation.  Immigrants to Libya are exposed to all kinds of maltreatment including abductions, extortion, tortures, slavery and even sporadic murder. The routes of immigration pass from Niger and Algeria to Libya’s West. Thereupon immigrants attempt to embark on boats at the coastal cities of Tripolitania, such as Tripoli, Zawiya, Sabrata and Misrata. Those who manage to cross the Mediterranean arrive to Italy.


To date European policies turned out to be neither effective nor efficient. Measures such as training of Libyan costal guard are ineffective because rampant corruption is widespread in Libya; the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli is important and does not wield real power anywhere. Of course, it cannot control the migration flows in the country.  Smugglers and traffickers in Libya (not only on the seashore) are intertwined with various Libyan tribes. Libya is a tribal society; therefore, any plan must take into consideration the tribal factor. The only possible method that works is paying handouts to a concrete tribe that controls a specific area so that the tribe in question controls the immigration route. European ships cannot control territorial waters of Libya, as a result they cannot prevent the departure of overcrowded boats with immigrants, whereas the boats are operated by smugglers.  Italy feels abandoned alone as other members of the European Union don’t make any efforts to help Rome to face the crisis. In addition to that, Paris and Rome are on collision course in Libya because of their contradictory interests-they support two respective parties of the conflict. France is interested in more effective control of Sahel through Libya whereas it pays little attention to Italian interest in the country that was an Italian colony in the past and where Italian interest are crucially vital. In order to come up with an effective solution, the EU has to undertake some tough measures:

1) Given that Italy is the first country to suffer from the repercussions of the migration crisis, the EU ought to be attentive to Italian requirements and problems. Absent this attention, Euro-sceptic tendencies in Italy will only grow.

2) Italy must elaborate a coherent and coordinated policy on Libya, first of all aiming better coordination of actions between various Italian government bodies.

3) Both Italy and the EU must realize that no political solution (that would also stop the migration flow) is impossible for the moment in Libya because of the intensity of the ongoing civil war and due to the implication of foreign players in the conflict. One can never make guns silent by publishing plans or by calling to reason and restraint. Practically it means that the EU must make it clear to Turkey that the EU will not accept Turkish involvement in Libya. If Turkey becomes more involved in Libya, it could potentially use the flow of immigration in Libya as another leverage on Europe, in addition to the Syrian channel. Naturally, only clever but firm threat of resort to military force can be effective.

4) As mentioned above, the GNA can hardly control even Tripoli. Italian or other European countries can set a choice before the GNA: either its affiliated militias control the immigration flow or Italian and European ships will control Libyan territorial waters and even the shore.

To sum it up, European and Italian decision makers ought to realize that it is impossible to successively cope with the immigration crisis from Libya while respecting mutually contradictory demands of all the involved parties.

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