Libya's Border Management System: Mission Impossible

Libyen border
Teaser Bild Untertitel
Lack of facilities and resources, geographical and socio-economic reasons make Libya’s border management system a “Mission Impossible”


by Mustafa O. Attir

The European Union is busy these days trying to develop an adequate system of border surveillance aiming to reduce illegal migration entering undetected the EU across the Mediterranean. The majority of those who attempt entering Europe using this route start from Africa. They are from both North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and from a number of countries from South East Asia who entered Libya legally. Libyan citizens do not participate in such activity. On the other side, Libya, according to the international media, is today the major exporting country of illegal migration to EU. Many questions come to mind:


How has this happened? What are the variables which made Libya play such a role? When did playing such role begin? Is it a direct result of conflicting foreign policy decisions which led to so many social problems, illegal human trafficking being just one of them? Are such activities part of international criminal organizations involved in migrant smuggling? If so, are there Libyan officials involved? If so, do those Libyan officials act according to official policy or do they act in this way because of wide spread of corruption? Did Libyan authorities understand that uncontrolled movement of illegal immigrants to and through Libya has reached the level of a national crisis? If so, will Libya be ready to co-operate with EU on illegal immigration?

It is very important to develop answers for such questions before asking the most important question the European Surveillance system agency may raise: How can Libya play a positive role to help the agency fulfilling its major goal?

Libya with its 1,759,540 sq km is the fourth largest country in the continent. Its borders extend to 6118 km.; first 1115 km. with Egypt, then 1055 km with Chad, 982 km with Algeria, 459 km with Tunisia, 383 with Sudan, 354 km. with Niger, and 1770 km. as a costal border. Because the country is mostly desert, has no lakes or rivers and its annual rain fall is very low, its population does not exceed six millions. Thus the country is under populated. However, this size of population is the largest in the history of the country. In addition to the country's geographical characteristics, the country before the discovery of oil has no important natural resources. Therefore poverty has been the main characteristic of Libya for so many centuries. During those centuries foreigners do not seek entrance to Libya, instead Libyans looked for income in other rich regions. This situation changed dramatically, and Libya became one of the most attractive countries for work or investment.

Illegal migrants may enter using any of the international borders. However, according to the most recent official statement on the issue the majority of sub-Saharan Africans enter Libya via Niger, the country which has the shortest land borders with Libya. It should be emphasized that families living on any side of the international land borders belong to the same tribes. Therefore, members of these families have through history moved freely across borders. But they usually did so to visit relatives and stay for some time and then go back. However they may stay just for few weeks, few months or even years.

Oil makes Libya a country of destination

The commercial search for oil began during the fifties of the last century. By 1961 Libya exported its first barrel of crude oil. Revenues from exporting crude oil were modest, but they grew larger every year. Within few years the country became one of the world’s most important oil producing countries, with the largest per capita income in Africa, and began playing the role of a country of destination. Because the country lacks expertise in every field and skilled and unskilled workers, a law was passed under the title of Number 17 of the year 1962 which regulates the procedures foreigners have to follow to enter the country to work and reside. It is expected that foreigners - when their contracts expire - go back to their home counties. However there are those who preferred to extend their residence. Some of them stayed for few years, others for ever. Because from the first few days of political change which took place on the first of September, the new rulers declared Libya is the land for all Arabs. It followed that Arabs did not need official entry visas, in the case of Egyptians they did not even need to have a passport; it was enough to have any type of identification card. Soon the number of non Libyans exceeded one million and talk was that there were even more than two millions. The majority were Egyptians but there were citizens from Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, and Sudan.

The policy of Pan-Arabism did not last for ever, and has been exchanged by Pan-Africanism. Almost the same procedures were followed. And the country became full with sub-Saran Africans. They did not come only from neighbouring countries; instead they came from every corner of the continent.

Sub-Saharan Africans came to Libya to work and save money to send to their families. Many cross the borders not through official land border checkpoints, stay mainly within the Southern boundaries, then return to their towns. There is no way to know how many entered, and how long they stayed. But human movement across borders does exist, and has to do with trade or performing certain tasks. Some continue the trip up North. They, too, look for work, save money to support their families or/ and start private businesses. Members of this group are illegal migrants, but only in relation to Libya. EU officials do not talk about members of this group, nor are interested to discuss the so many social problems inflected on the Libyan society.

Libya's experience with illegal migrants is not a new phenomenon, its history stretches over the last forty years. Lately some of these migrants come with Europe on their mind deciding to use Libya as a transit country, and some Libyans learnt how to play the role of migrant smugglers. According to EU officials dealing with illegal migration, Libya's contribution to the problem of illegal migration across the Mediterranean Sea is rather large.

A mixed perception

There are almost daily boats fully loaded with Africans attempting to reach European shores illegally. Usually these boats get into trouble because they are poorly equipped, hundreds of the passengers drown. When these accidents are reported in the news there reference is made to Libya as the country of departure. On the other side once a while there will be reference to Libya as the country which harbours international criminals who deal in the trafficking of illegal migration. In many cases one may infer from the news as if certain Libyan officials are part of such criminal rings, and working in accordance with official polices.

Many variables played important roles in developing such an assumption. Certain accidents involved more one explosion of a commercial airplane and in entertainment places. International media referred to Libya as behind all those accidents. The country was classified by the West as one which harbours terrorists and is involved in terrorist activities all over the World. The United States and European countries argued in the United Nations Security Council for sanctions against Libya. The council did so in 1992. Sanctions included air embargo, and the country was excluded from many world activities.

On the day the UN implemented the sanctions Libya sent its commercial planes to Arab airports. All Arab neighbouring countries closed their air space to the Libyan airplanes, and all had to return to Tripoli. Planes already in other airports were grounded, and their staff had to leave them and return home. From that day Libya turned its back to Arab countries and the road towards sub-Saharan Africa began. Instead of Libya as land of all Arabs, the new slogan became “Libya is part of Africa”, and the international boundaries of the African continent the outcome of colonial policies. This became part of past history, Africans should move freely within Africa. In order to make such a slogan practical, an open door policy has been applied to sub-Sahara Africa. In no time the number of black Africans reached hundreds of thousands. Officials were instructed not to stop Africans for identification checking. Many entered the country legally, while others entered the country not through official checkpoints. Accordingly, there is no way to know at any given point in time how many black Africans are living in the country.

It is a fact that boats stuffed with illegal African migrants leave from certain Libyan ports. That so many human tragedies happen every day and every week is also a fact. Is this all because of Libya's lack of cooperation? If so, the reasons behind this behaviour are worth pursuing, and to be discussed in detail. Those who are dealing with this problem on the European side refer to certain Libya's polices such as the open-door policy toward foreigners. But it should be emphasized that such policy has been in place during he last forty years, while illegal migrants trips from Libya's shores is a new phenomena. Therefore, one should look for other reasons rather than the open door policy. Variables worth to look at include cooperation between all neighbouring countries, adequate equipment and facilities to enhance border management effectiveness, the EU’s role in developing such facilities, socio-economic situation in sub-Saran Africa, means for implementing the Libyan law which has been passed in 2004 and has strong penalties for illegal immigrants and those who facilitate their illegal entry, stay, and help in their attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Until all previous variables are dealt with adequately, which looks today as a mission impossible, boats carrying illegal migrants and attempting to enter EU using Libya's shores will continue to operate.


Bild entfernt.

Mustafa O. Attir is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Sustainable Development Research at the University of Tripoli, Libya, as well as President of the Arab Sociological Association.