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Debates on migrants heat up in Libya
Newly elected government wants to establish legal channels for guest workers, but people smuggling continues.
Last Modified: 22 Jul 2012 18:17
The Libyan army organised a mass deportation from Murzuq prison last month [Rebecca Murray/Al Jazeera]

Almost 200 migrants crouch in a sliver of shade in Murzuq's prison yard, sheltering from the harsh Saharan sun. Since late last month, when Libya signalled its intent to crack down on cross-border migration by deporting an estimated 800 Chadians back to the border, conditions are markedly less crowded here.

"This is one of the first major government operations," said Jeremy Haslam, head of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). "There have been deportations out of Kufra and Benghazi. But this is the first significant deportation operation of 2012."

Since the July 7 elections ushered in a new Libyan national congress, discussions around migration and border controls have heated up. Both the outgoing transitional government and foreign interests say they held off implementing policies until an elected government was in place.

The isolated town of Murzuq lies in Libya's volatile southwest, bordering Algeria, Niger and Chad. Two major smuggling routes from sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean coast run through Murzuq, its neighbouring city of Sabha, and Kufra to the east.

A massive illicit trade of weapons, petrol and food goods move south across porous desert borders, while drugs, alcohol and people are smuggled in.

Searching for work

These Libyan hubs are also resting points for migrants - most from Chad, Niger, Mali, Nigeria, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia - who have survived the gruelling cross-border trek. While some choose Libya as a final work destination, most look to fund the final 600-mile (1,300km) journey north to the coast, and across to European shores.

Neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt enjoy special labour agreements with Libya. Tunisians fill service industry needs, while Egyptians will dominate the upcoming boom in construction.

Hassan Senussi Takar oversees Murzuq's prison, one of the official, under-resourced migrant holding pens scattered across the country. Part of a militia called "Guardians of the Oil" that are affiliated with Libya's defence ministry, Takar explained their task has doubled. Besides providing security for southern oil facilities, they also apprehend and imprison migrants.

"There is a massive illegal trade - including slaves. I saw a Sabha farmer sell 20 Somali women recently. You can buy one African man for 500 Libyan Dinar [$394]."

- Ibrahim Ali Abu Sharia, professor

"Sometimes we catch them walking 100 kilometres away in the desert, and sometimes we catch them in cars," he said. "The traffickers are Libyan so we don't hold them for a long time, because this could cause problems."

Mohammed Adam Lino, Murzuq's local council head, added that the government has given them no support for border control, or development. "There is a university here, but the youth have no jobs. So people from Murzuq and Sabha earn money from smuggling," he said.  

Inside the prison's fetid cells, three sick men lie on dirty mattresses and vomit into buckets. "There is little food, no water and beatings," whispered 23-year-old Adid from Mogadishu. He has been a refugee for five years and owes $1,500 to smugglers. He said he's lost touch with his family.

Although Libya is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, unofficial dictates exempt Somalis and Eritreans from deportation to their war-torn countries.

Hope for change

Emmanuel Gignac, the head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Libya, believes policy will change. "The Libyan government will sign the 1951 Convention eventually. They have indicated their willingness to do so. Although it is not on the agenda of the new parliament's first session, it will happen eventually."

Before the revolution, migrants made up over 30 per cent of Libya's work force and demand has not diminished. Summer is the peak time for migration flows through Libya, when sea crossings to Europe are at their calmest.

In-depth coverage during the vote for General National Congress

Outgoing Minister of Labour Mustafa Rugibani explained that a critical priority was to require employers to document their migrant workers by last April. After extended deadlines came and went, Rugibani insists they prefer to legalise, not deport.


"Migrant labour is very important to Libya because of our manpower shortage, especially in agriculture, construction and manual labour. Libyans are looking for better jobs - there is a mentality here that there is some work Libyans will simply not do."

The broken streets of the neglected city of Sabha are lined with garbage, wilted trees and migrants seeking day labour. But there is a grimmer side to the exploitation.

"The European Union and United States should be concerned," warned Ibrahim Ali Abu Sharia, a Sabha University professor. "There is a massive illegal trade - including slaves. I saw a Sabha farmer sell 20 Somali women recently. You can buy one African man for 500 Libyan Dinar [$394]."

"We are aware that migrants can be purchased for between 270 and 800 Libyan Dinar," confirmed Haslam. "It depends on the nationality, what type of work and what they are willing to pay."

IOM, funded by the European Union (EU), pointed to what they say are current positive steps to forming Libya's migration policy, including the new Prime Minister's inter-ministerial working group on illegal migration, and the Interior Ministry's Department to Combat Illegal Migration.

Libya's defence ministry, ultimately responsible for securing nearly 6,400km of land and sea borders, has borne the brunt of public criticism for a hopelessly under-resourced effort.

"It is encouraging to see how active these departments are since the elections," Haslam said. "The challenge is operational activities… There is significant room for improvement for the treatment and care of migrants, and systems and procedures for handling migrants. The two go hand in hand."

Haslam believes in a visa quota system. This would enable migrants to work within Libya on a specific job and for shorter periods, since they could save money otherwise paid to smugglers.

"If you couple this with regulation and monitoring, then you quickly have a system where the employers are accountable," explained Haslam. "So there is better treatment of migrants in the workplace, and there is less of a tendency to overstay because they are being monitored."

But how effectively ministries work together to knit a comprehensive migrant policy, inclusive of international human rights law, remains to be seen.

On Italian shores

In the opulent surroundings of the outgoing transitional Prime Minister's office, Chief-of-Staff Mohamed-Idris Mahmoud Traina adamantly declared: "We consider illegal migration a problem for Libya and Europe. It should be solved together."

The Prime Minister's inter-ministerial committee proposes international help in establishing border control systems, equipment, training and maintaining detention facilities.

 Migrants descend onto Italy's Lampedusa

Michael Mann, an EU spokesman, said the EU would seek to engage more "as soon as conditions allow", with a focus on preventing "irregular" migration while improving "regular" channels, addressing root causes and consequences of migration and protecting migrant rights.

"The interim government has been overwhelmed dealing with urgent situations almost on a daily basis since its formation and up until the recent elections," explained Mann. "It has therefore been unable to engage in policy dialogue, due to lack of time and human resources. They have also been reluctant to engage in mid-term policies, holding back from regulating matters that could be considered going beyond their mandate."

In April, Italy produced an agreement that sketches a willingness to provide Libya with aid to block migrants from Italian shores. Italy vehemently denies resuming its controversial practice of "pushing back" migrants to Libya - declared illegal by the European Court of Human Rights in February - and says they have not brokered an official policy yet.

But Amnesty International has doubts. "There should be a long number of steps that the Libyan government should take before an agreement between Italy and Libya should be put in place," says Libya researcher Diana Eltahawy.

"Libya should become a signatory to the 1951 Convention, they should have an asylum system, put detention facilities under central government control, prevent mistreatment and abuse," she said. "And to stop detentions and deportations without giving migrants a hearing."

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