Smuggling activity in Libya is nothing new. However, many big changes were brought on by the 2011 revolution. A research report released in March 2017 by author Mark Micallef from the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime highlights several consequences that emerged from smuggling activity in the aftermath of the Libyan Revolution.
The report, mostly based on face-to-face interviews, gives voice to brokers, smugglers, migrants, diplomats, politicians, security agents and activists. The report shows that under the Qaddafi regime, the human smuggling and trafficking activity was part of the state’s entrepreneurship. The networks were protected by the state and were used as an instrument of control. With the fall of a centralist structure of power, the nodes of the network became looser as well, letting other actors enter these systems. First, the smuggling activity underwent a process of industrialisation and soon became central to the regional economy. Secondly, the absence of a single security system and the fragmentation of interests let the militias take control of different parts of the country. New internal borders and check-points were created. Meanwhile, the militias infiltrated the smuggling business both directly and indirectly through their protection and blackmailing. Detention centres were integrated into the new systems and the majority of them are now under the control of kidnapping gangs who use torture practices and demand ransom from migrant families. Sums ranging between $ 3,000 and $ 5,000 are demanded for release. Failure results in the concerned family member being sold to a brothel or to another kidnapping gang, where they are subject to forced labour, or even face death.
The report goes on to explain that the situation was exacerbated after the EU launched its operation, Mare Nostrum, which brought the military vessels as close as twelve miles to the Libyan coast in order to avoid future tragedies. This created a safety net for smugglers and incentivised them to take greater risks. Micallef concluded that these operations became a pull factor since they shortened migrants’ journeys.
In fact, what is emphasized throughout the report is the lack of understanding of the Libyan situation underlying solutions being put in place, including the Italy-Libya Agreement of 2009 and the EU’s recent support to the agreement.
Presenting the report, Micallef quoted a smuggler who said “Right now in Libya, either you are in the smuggling business or you are in the anti-smuggling business”. Given the centrality of this activity in the country, the two positions currently overlap. In a context of run away inflation and an economy driven by such practices approaching the fight against smuggling with a tunnel vision may end up pushing the security apparatus into the hands of the people that are running the trafficking and smuggling businesses.
Finally, the author emphasised that a dialogue is needed since it is only through increased mutual understanding that solutions will be found that will be beneficial to local communities. Municipalities remain the sole democratically elected institutions and should be seen as a starting point for pursuing initiatives that can follow the example of the city Zuwara. The coastal city, following the shipwreck causing the death of 650 people and the public shock related to this, started several anti-smuggling efforts. Based on an empowered and resilient local community and actions undertaken by civil society organisations, this city is the sole example of grassroots mobilisation against human trafficking which has reportedly led to a complete stop of vessels leaving its shore.