Since February 2011, protests, and then fighting in Libya have resulted in hundreds of thousands of
migrants fleeing towards Egypt and Tunisia, and, to a lesser extent, Chad. The IOM and UNHCR has
organized their repatriation to their country of origin, as well as the evacuation of other migrants trapped in
Libyan towns as the war has evolved (Benghazi, Misrata).
This large movement of migrants is reminiscent in terms of scale of the migration that resulted from the
1990-1991 Gulf war, which was the first large scale conflict to take place at a major crossroads of global
migration. Therefore, it underlines Libya’s crucial role in the Transaharan and Mediterranean migration
systems: as a country of destination for Arab, African and Asian migrants attracted by its flourishing labor
market; and as a transit country for migrants willing to reach the coasts of Italy and enter Europe. However,
these two categories of migrants are extremely blurred, because migrants often modify their projects
according to the constraints and opportunities they encounter en route.
The socio-political framework of migration to and through Libya raises, therefore, various and complex
issues in relation to Libyan migration policy and the control of the southern borders of the EU in the face of
Moreover, Libyan out-migration is disregarded here because it represents a marginal
phenomenon whose sociopolitical consequences are very limited.
The evolution of Libyan migration policy depends, to a certain extent, on the need of workforce for an
economy boosted by gigantic oil and gas wealth. But hosting, or expelling, foreign workers has been one of
the key instrument of Libyan foreign policy since the 1970s, in order to influence diplomatic relationships
with Arab neighbors, then sub-Saharan neighbors, then later on, European neighbors. In other words, the
Libyan migration policy, driven by multiple, and sometime contradictory interests and logics, is
characterized by its versatility and by a large gap between strongly ideological political discourses, and the
reality of migration to and through Libya.
In the 1970s, Libya first opened its borders to Arab migrants, mainly Egyptians and Tunisians, in the
name of pan-Arabism, which Muammar Gaddafi claimed to inherit after the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser.
In parallel, however, migrants were expelled on a massive scale from Libya: in 1974, above all, Tunisians
were driven out; in the middle of the 1980s, meanwhile, when the oil revenues decreased and relations with
Egypt deteriorated it was the turn of Egyptians. However, in the 1990s, normalization of relations with Egypt
led to the return of Egyptian workers to Libya.
In the meantime, migration flows from the Sub Sahara to Libya were increasing significantly: Malians
and Nigeriens first, then Western and Central Africans afterwards (Senegalese, Ghanaians, Nigerians,
etc.). This movement, along with the end of the Tuareg rebellions in Niger (1995) and Mali (1996),
contributed to the augmentation of trans-Saharan migration and circulation, in other words the development
of the trans-Saharan migration system. Again, in 1995, the Libyan regime expelled foreign nationals on a
massive scale, mainly because of the economic consequences of the international embargo, targeting in
particular Palestinians and Mauritanians under the pretext of the normalization of the diplomatic ties
between Israel and their countries in the framework of the peace process.
In the second half of the 1990s, while the international community imposed a severe embargo on Libya,
Muammar Gaddafi choose pan-Africanism as the new spearhead of his foreign policy. The CEN-SAD
(Community of Sahelian-Saharan States) was created with the aim of suppressing all obstacles to African
unity and, in particular, authorized the free circulation of persons. However, the venue and the stay of the
migrants in Libya have remained largely informal and subject to the arbitrary decisions of the Libyan police.
The year 2000 marked a new turn in Libya’s migration policy with the signature of an agreement with
Italy to fight terrorism, drug trafficking and irregular migration, at a time when the relations between Libya
and the international community was normalizing. This agreement responded to the interests of both the
Libyan and the Italian government. In Italy, the centre-left government of Massimo d’Alema faced strong
political and media pressure because of the arrival of increasing number of irregular migrants on the coast
of Sicily. Then in Libya, inconstancy in migration policy and the presence of large numbers of foreign
workers contributed to the deterioration of relations between the migrants and the locals, while
unemployment was becoming more and more an issue among the second group. In the autumn of 2000,
xenophobic unrest led to the death of hundreds of sub-Saharan migrants.
In the following years, Italy signed several bilateral cooperation agreements with Libya. In 2003, an
agreement dealt with the readmission of irregular migrants arriving on the island of Lampedusa, of whom
3,000 migrants were deported between 2006 and 2008. Then, in 2007, another agreement was signed to
create a common maritime patrol, but only a few operations were held in 2009 resulting in the refoulement
of 900 migrants. Ultimately, and most importantly, Italy and Libya signed a treaty of friendship, in August
2008, according to which Italy would pay Libya five billion euros over twenty years, as reparation for the
damages caused by colonization.
In parallel, Italy demanded that the EU assume a greater role in the fight against irregular migration.
After the European summit of The Hague in 2004, which marked the beginning of the implementation of the
European policy of externalization of border control, the European commission developed cooperation with
Libya, focusing on the fight against irregular migration.
However, Italian and European cooperation with
Libya was criticized by human-rights organizations denouncing: first, the Libyan authorities’ arbitrary tactics
and their corruption (collusion between police and smugglers, abusive detention of migrants, mistreatment,
expulsion at the Libyan border in the desert without any resources, etc.); second, the refoulement by Italy of
migrants in the sea, in contradiction of the 1951 Convention on refugees; and third, the lack of firmness of
the EU which did not impose any condition on Libya when calling for the respect of the rights of the
migrants and the refugees.