The Libyan context of the migration crisis

Merely attacking smugglers’ boats will not help; instead, the EU must address the civil war that lies behind the traffickers’ actions.

This article was originally published in German by Frankfurter Rundschau on 15 May 2015.

In the discussion about the refugee crisis, there is an elephant in the room: the Libyan civil war, which has, since 2013, dramatically accelerated the number of asylum-seekers and migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Libya on makeshift boats organised by traffickers.

There is no sustainable solution to this crisis without a realistic European policy that also addresses the Libyan ‎crisis. As long as migrants and refugees in Libya are caught between a deadly civil war and the rising threat of the Islamic State (IS), they will continue to try to cross the Mediterranean no matter how many boats Europe destroys. In fact, IS in Libya has been targeting mostly foreign workers so far, with the beheading of 30 Ethiopians being the latest in a long series of attacks. Moreover, reference to the success of the Atalanta operation against piracy around Somalia is misplaced. There is no demand for pirates. But there is a demand from refugees to cross the Mediterranean.

The response of many European policymakers has been to focus on border control and narrowly defined security measures. Since the fall of Mu'ammar al-Gaddafi, the European Union has been working on a border assistance mission, EUBAM. This came into action too late, when the intensity of the fighting in Libya made its work impossible. But it was also ill defined as a purely technical assistance, capacity-building programme meant to transfer customs and border security expertise to the Libyans. These are all important things, no doubt, but border security is first and foremost a political issue not a technical one. Border security comes with citizenship: for those who live close to the frontiers, it must be their border, not someone else’s. The question today is what kind of deal Europe can offer the border communities that are making a living from illegal traffics, including the smuggling of human beings? They must have a legal alternative or little will change. In April, another element of the same European approach came into play: the idea of destroying boats before refugees could board. But this would neither be easy nor effective and would have terrible consequences for the refugees themselves. First, how can fishermen’s boats be distinguished from smugglers’ boats? But also, such a policy would only push smugglers further underground, which would raise prices for refugees and make it more dangerous for them. In a worst case scenario, smugglers and jihadis would close ranks to protect their interests. Ultimately, as long as there is a demand for crossings, there will be a supply of boats. This policy sounds too much like the idea of destroying poppy fields to fight the war on drugs.

A different, more realistic policy is necessary, one that addresses the conflict in Libya, the root cause of this dramatic increase in asylum seekers. Pacifying Libya is not just in Europe’s interest, it’s also Europe’s responsibility. When NATO, in conjunction with the Arab League, implemented the Responsibility to Protect civilians in 2011, it also assumed a responsibility to rebuild Libya. But since the fall of Gaddafi, European efforts focused on “institution building”. In the absence of a political solution, however, institutions cannot survive.

Libya is now divided between two governments and two parliaments, the internationally recognised one sitting in Tobruk and another one in control of Tripoli, where government agencies are located. The United Nations, with declared European support, has been working for months on a national unity government, but this will not be successful unless two conditions are met. First, all factions must be on an equal footing. As long as the government in Tobruk enjoys international recognition, it will have no incentive whatsoever to share power. Moreover, this recognition has come without the Tobruk government taking on the responsibilities of actually ruling the country, and this refugee crisis has further demonstrated how ineffective and damaging it is to recognise a government that sits a thousand km away from the government structures in Tripoli. Second, Europe’s regional allies, first and foremost Egypt, have to choose between the two sides of their current policy: paying lip service to “dialogue” while in fact providing weapons and political support to Tobruk; this has only further decreased this government’s interest in power sharing.

A national unity government in charge of the state agencies (including borders, visas, and the treasury) would of course be only the beginning of the solution. Europeans will have to engage with local councils, which have more contacts on the ground and therefore have a better chance of addressing the security shortfall in the areas where human trafficking is taking place. Incidentally, the EU-led dialogue between Libyan municipal authorities is practically the only track of the political dialogue that is moving forward. The German tradition of local government would be an asset in this area.

Ultimately, in the fight against IS as well as on migration, Europe should not be manipulated by Libyan actors and regional powers that are using its concerns to achieve their own goals, namely eliminating their enemies rather than working on reconciliation. The truth is – as far as diplomatic recognition is concerned – in Libya, we have the wrong interlocutors who cannot deliver. But also, in its attempts to address the refugee crisis, Europe has it backwards: rather than negotiating with a wide array of Libyan authorities, it has gone straight to the UN Security Council to seek Chapter VII – which, if granted, would allow the use of force – and then started to look for Libyan interlocutors to help restore peace and security. Instead, Europe should engage with more actors and start putting real pressure to build a national unity government.

Franziska Brantner is a member of the German parliament for the Green Party and ECFR council member.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Parliamentary State Secretary, German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action
ECFR Alumni · Senior Policy Fellow

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