The fragmentation of Libya and the response of the European Union

More than one month has passed since Libyan rivals al-Serraj, the Tripoli government Prime Minister, and General Haftar, governor of the north-eastern regions, met separately with French and Italian governments mediators. In the fragmented country, the extortion and misuse of migrants continues.

Libya remains extremely fragmented with the north-western area under Tripoli government’s Prime Minister al-Serraj, which has a temporary ceasefire agreement with the north-eastern regions governed by General Haftar of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. In addition, the southern border region is ruled by different local tribes, many of which are under a fragile peace agreement.

Libya has a history of human trafficking and smuggling, which the EU is seeking to stop. As journalist Martin Plaut explains in one of his articles: “Qaddafi was able to regulate the flow of migrants into Europe and used it as a bargaining chip. In 2008, he signed a friendship treaty with Italy, which was then led by Silvio Berlusconi. In exchange for Libya’s help to block the migrants, “Il Cavaliere” launched the construction of a $5 billion highway in Libya. Crucially, however, Qaddafi’s regime provided paid work for hundreds of thousands of sub-Saharans, who had no need to cross the Mediterranean”.

The fragmentation after the fall of Qaddafi has transformed the smuggling and trafficking networks from state-controlled to controlled by smugglers militias, tribes and networks. It has since expanded and the human rights abuses have grown more severe. As Plaut states: “since 2011, Libya has become a much more dangerous place, especially for migrants. They are held and often tortured by smugglers on the pretext that they owe money and are used for slave labour and prostitution until their families can pay off the debt”.

In 2011, following the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, the regime of the Colonel Muammar Gaddafi started a civil war against the rebels of the regimes. This civil war included, among other atrocities, several airplane raids on Libyan civilian population. This eventually led to the March 2011 intervention by NATO states, launching air strikes at the Libyan army. As result of combined operations in October 2011 the regime fell and the Colonel himself was killed by rebels, after the last stronghold was taken by the National Transitional Council (NTC) in that same period. It ended the 42 year-old Libyan dictatorship and the end of the Libyan Civil War was declared. What was left was a political power vacuum and the large infrastructural and economic damage the war had caused. The NTC was dismissed and all the different militias which had previously fought against one common enemy started to claim a role in the new Libya. This division, after an apparent resolution which followed the 2012 elections, caused the second Libyan civil war in 2014. Unlike the previous civil war, this war was fought on three fronts. In May 2014 an Islamist armed group responding to the Islamic State started taking part in the conflict attacking the Benghazi region. The United Nations response to this multiple-fronts situation in Libya came in late 2015, when Bernardino Leon was sent by the UN to propose a national unity government. The project was initially approved by the Tripoli Government and by the Tobruk-based Libyan House of Representatives which at that time was fighting in the Islamic front on the eastern Benghazi region, and the 30th March 2016, the government was formed. The new prime minister announced was Fayez al-Sarraj.

However despite previous agreement, the Tobruk-based Libyan House of Representatives announced through its army general Khalīfa Belqāsim Ḥaftar in the summer of 2016 that following an internal vote, it was no longer willing to support and recognise the unified government based in Tripoli. It became the principal rival and this situation is still not completely solved. Indeed from 2017, Italy and France entered the mix, but supporting two different sides; The Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who was the Italian foreign affairs minister at the time that al-Sarraj was nominated, expressed his firm support for the Tripoli government and offered Italy’s help in solving Libya’s division during a private meeting held in Rome in February 2017. The aim of this meeting was to discuss and sign a document focusing on migration and the deployment of Italy’s navy in the Libyan sea. In response French President Emmanuel Macron organised and hosted a private meeting in July 2017 between al-Serraj and Haftar at the end of which a ceasefire agreement was announced. This caused anger in Italy, as it saw its plans to lead the peace effort overruled. As an immediate result of the French agreement, just two days after the meeting was held, al-Sarraj declared that no help from the Italian navy had ever been requested and furthermore General Haftar stated that any Italian military boat entering Libyan waters would be considered hostile.

Following what the EU views as a successful deal with Turkey, the EU and its member states continue to seek deals with countries such as Chad, Niger and Libya to stop migration and stabilise Libya. However, some fear that the EU is playing dangerous games that could see migrants and refugees trapped in the country, causing further destabilisation and human rights abuses.