January 10, 2018

In 2018, Libya made headlines for the horrific conditions endured by migrants and refugees detained in the country, but what the media drew less attention to was the prevailing security conditions and political dynamics in Libya that facilitate human trafficking. Following the deposal of the country's former leader, Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi in 2011, Libya was plunged into a chaotic political environment in which competing groups vied for power. Security conditions were exacerbated when these groups raided weapons stockpiles of the former regime and were subsequently transformed into well-armed militias that formed alliances along political and tribal lines. Many such armed groups were incorporated into Khalifa Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), which presents a powerful and influential opposition to the United Nations (UN)-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Prime Minister Fayez Al-Serraj in Tripoli. Yet, while armed groups maintain divergent national alliances, they also compete on a local level for influence and control. Much like oil facilities in Libya, human trafficking hubs represent strategic points of power due to the lucrative nature of human smuggling. On a broader level, controlling the flow of migrants also affords legitimacy in a politically competitive environment.


Clashes Among Militia Groups in Sabratha

Until recent months, the city of Sabratha represented a major hub for smuggling migrants from Libyan territory into Europe. Before October of 2017, the city was controlled by members of the Martyr Anas al-Dabashi Brigade militia. Ironically, the militia was given control of the city by the GNA in order to thwart attempts at illegal migration. Yet, the Dabashi Brigade obtained greater power and influence by actually engaging in the human smuggling trade than it would have by ceasing the operations at the request of the GNA - which yields little authority, even on a national level.  It was only when the Dabashi Brigade militia's activities began to threaten the wider community in Sabratha that enough forces joined together to oust them. The militia upset the local population with its violent suppression of what it saw as any potential threat to its smuggling business, including the attempted murder of a local aid worker reporting on migrant abuse. The Operations Room militia - also allied to the GNA - led the fight against the Dabahsi Brigade, and violent clashes between the two militias and their allies ensued for weeks before control of the city was finally seized from the Dabashi Brigade. Many of those who joined The Operations Room militia in their fight were former smugglers whose business was affected once the Dabashi Brigade assumed control over migrant flows.


Governance a Continued Challenge in Fight Against Human Trafficking

The circumstances in Sabratha serve as a microcosm of the broader political and security environment in the country. Thwarting human trafficking in Libya is dependent on the ability of a unified governing force to subvert the authority of local militias, who often place greater importance on their fight to control local centers of power and influence than they do on maintaining national political allegiances. However, Libya continues to lack a centralized government capable of instilling the rule of law. The GNA represents the government with the broadest recognition internationally, but domestically it lacks constituents or only maintains tacit alliances in opposition to the leadership of Haftar, who is backed by the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk.

In September 2017, the UN announced details of a strategy to facilitate Libya's political transition, including a plan to elect a transitional government to oversee Libya through national elections. It remains unlikely that even democratically elected officials would have the capacity to control rival militia groups, as the proliferation of arms - rather than unified support - remains the greatest obstacle to cohesive governance in Libya. Until such political and security issues can be resolved, human trafficking will likely remain a lucrative profession in the country, and trafficking hubs similar to Sabratha can be erected at the will of heavily armed militias.

After other countries in the region, especially bordering countries like Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia, took additional precautions along their borders with Libya to mitigate spillover violence in the period following the 2011 revolution, the prevalence of human trafficking in Libya further demonstrates the abilities of local armed groups to engage in criminal activity across borders. This accentuates the need for business continuity planning and risk management protocols for organizations with personnel located or traveling in the region.

This blog was modified Jan 2019.

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