Current Affairs

The search for solutions

The search for solutions
  • PublishedFebruary 1, 2018

After turning a blind eye to the plight of migrants for years, some African governments have now been stung into action and are working with other organisations to try and find a solution to the crisis. By Tom Collins

Short of the EU offering safe passage to Europe for African migrants, there is no magic wand which will stop the existence of slavery in Libya. So far the core of the response has been to improve the conditions of detention centres on the ground; and support the Tripoli government’s capacity to govern, investigate and convict cases of slavery, and to repatriate African migrants stranded on the ground.

Realistically, however, without an established and able government, smugglers and slavers face little accountability and until Libya stabilises, the situation will likely persist.

Efforts must therefore be focussed on solving the political crisis and working with the UN-backed government to increase their capacity and authority. The EU must also rethink its policies which work to trap migrants in Libya.

All other efforts, although unable to address root causes, must be increased and sustained, as the suffering of African migrants stuck in Libya is grave.


The EU-Africa summit in Côte d’Ivoire late last year – occurring shortly after the CNN video was broadcast to the world – was dominated by talks aiming to find a solution to the enslavement of African migrants in Libya.

“Our summit must be the starting point for broad action towards finding a response to this tragedy and to the source of our youth anguish,” said Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission.

Since that date, a co-ordinated response has been taken along the lines of repatriating African migrants in Libya. The EU together with the African Union and United Nations set up a joint Task Force, to accelerate the programme of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) for assisted voluntary returns from Libya to countries of origin and the emergency transit mechanism of the UNHCR (the UN refugee agency), to evacuate people in need of international protection.

Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs, outlined the successes of this initiative at a European Parliament plenary session on Libya late last year: “We have assisted over 15,000 migrants, who were trapped in Libya just in this year of work. They have now not only been able to go back home – with assistance of voluntary returns by us and practically, operationally done by the IOM – but to start new lives.”

Nigeria quickly pledged to repatriate 250 migrants a week and has identified 5,037 stranded citizens. 1,300 were brought home last November. Senegalese President Macky Sall has also called on ECOWAS member states to repatriate its citizens being trafficked in Libya, and with the help of IOM began repatriating Senegalese nationals in June last year. Rwanda offered refuge to around 30,000 African migrants immediately after the CNN video was published.

Indeed, the video has ramped up responses to the situation in Libya, explained Raphael Shilhav, EU Migration Policy Advisor for Oxfam. “There are definitely increased efforts to relocate and to evacuate people from detention centres, which is very welcome.”

Yet large numbers of migrants remain in Libya, the IOM needs more funding, and while useful, this response will only scratch the surface.

The UN-backed government

The UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli and led by Fayez al-Sarraj, must do more to combat slavery where it can, and must be given the support and the backing it needs to extend its control over Libya.

In the aftermath of the CNN video, Libya’s Interior Minister, Aref al-Khodja said: “There have been direct instructions issued to form an investigative committee so as to uncover the truth and to capture wrongdoers, and those responsible, and put them before a judiciary. We are now currently waiting for the results of the investigations, which I believe are coming to a close.”

The reality, however, is very different. To this date, not one investigation has been completed and no one has been brought to justice. “It is not good enough to just say we [the government] will conduct an investigation,” said Hanan Salah, Libya researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Not a single investigation started by the GNA has ever been completed, [or] at least, no one has ever published any conclusion and it would be very important for them to follow through with at least one investigation on the ground.”

Although the Tripoli-based GNA government has multilateral backing and funding – the EU alone has given Libya close to €120m for projects supporting governance and security – it has been unable to seriously tackle the issue.

The government has stalled because it is strained under the weight of civil war, and also because an investigation into slavery and smuggling may well lead back to GNA members. Yet as Salah contends: “If they [high profile GNA officials] are capable of travelling all around the world to secure funding and attending all the important and not-so-important meetings and workshops, then investigations should be possible.”

The importance of a strong government is paramount in establishing any long-term solution to the emergence of slavery in Libya.

Jakub Sobik, Communications Manager for Anti-Slavery International, relates the issue to work the charity is doing in Mauritania, Niger and Mali and argues the need for strong governance.

Slavery in these countries has a more historical and cultural element, in which different ethnic groups are born into slavery and owned by others. Although slavery is slowly being overturned in these countries, Mauritania, for example, only introduced a law in 2007 that allowed slave owners to be prosecuted.

However, as Sobik argues, humanitarian organisations and the international community can at least have some effect, by lobbying authorities and applying pressure to change legislation, which will lead to an eventual downturn of slavery. “The problem with Libya is that it’s a pretty lawless country, the government governs very little territory and so there’s very little that can be done in terms of anti-slavery policies,” he said.

Although international actors and African governments are mobilising to tackle some of the darker by-products of civil war in Libya, more needs to be done, and the root causes of slavery in Libya will not be addressed until the country and the international community can find a way to overcome the political crisis. NA

Written By
Tom Collins

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