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How to Make Libya a Place to Live and Work for Migrants

Development programming can make some cities in Libya livable for migrants again, say development experts Paul Clewett and Pernille Goodall. They also offer a noncoercive means to reducing people flows across the Mediterranean.

Written by Pernille Goodall, Paul Clewett Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A Bangladeshi worker prepares bread loaves at a bakery in Misrata, Libya, on March 3, 2015. Misrata has emerged as one of the country's most wealthy and influential cities amid the discord that followed the violent ousting of long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. Sam Tarling/Corbis via Getty Images

The situation for migrants in Libya can seem hopeless. Since the end of the Moammar Gadhafi regime, law and order has deteriorated in a society that was never kind to black Africans. Physical and sexual assault are common, while kidnappings and on occasion murder are also risks.

Eritrean refugees leave squalid detention centers or smuggling connection houses at their peril, as smugglers see them as walking dollar signs due to the ransom money that can be earned from their capture. Video footage that surfaced recently on social media shows violence is just as often gratuitous as it is strategic.

Yet in towns such as Ghat, Ghatrun and Sabha in southern Libya, many migrants live stable, if difficult, lives. Migrants in this group have often spent years in Libya, successfully saving and sending money home. For them, the impact of rampant inflation eating away at the foreign exchange value of wages weighs as heavily as the deteriorating security environment.

Migrants in this position often choose to travel to Europe because they think this offers greater hope in the long run, and because they fear reproach from family and friends if they squander the opportunity and return home. They are often disappointed to find deteriorating reception conditions in Italy. Even among the lucky few who find work, it is often the case that they are able to send home less money than they did from Libya.

Making life in Libya more viable for this group would better serve the interests of many than onward movement to Europe. Investing in local integration can seem controversial if it is seen as reneging on the international obligation to protect. But regardless of Europe’s openness or otherwise, some migrants will need to remain in Libya. If that proves to be a stable and prosperous Libya, even more will do so.

The international community can help foster better conditions for migrants by expanding livelihood opportunities, addressing wage theft in sectors such as agriculture, construction and domestic work, and signposting places of safety and support. Reviving derelict Gadhafi-era commercial farms in the south, for example, would generate more low-skilled jobs than Libyans would be able to (or willing) to fill. Such an approach would constitute a sustainable, noncoercive means to reduce demand for smuggling services – an approach that is more resistant to Libya’s fast-changing geopolitics than recent militia-led deals.

Such support must take into account Libya’s hyper-diversity. While parts of the country are riven with conflict, towns such as Zuwara and Misrata are talking of foreign investors and development. The limits of dialogue with a limp and fractured state underscore the importance of engaging people and communities.

On migration, upcoming research by Seefar, an international social enterprise, shows communities in Ghat and Sabha view unregulated migration and people smuggling negatively. Residents are concerned about the public health risks of a transient population without health care, and perceive few economic benefits for the local community where migrants work informally without paying taxes.

Yet there is a willingness to work with the international community to address these issues. Surprisingly often, Libyans accept the need for migrant labor and, by extension, the need to live alongside migrants. If development and humanitarian actors can engage communities on their own terms, popular local support would make the integration of migrants a real possibility, even while a unified state looks far off.

Red lines must not be crossed. Libyans are determined not to become a dumping ground for migrants. They fear that Europe’s success in stemming migrant flows will be their humanitarian catastrophe. Facing an uphill struggle for their own survival, many expect international funds to support needy local populations before migrants. Ignore local concerns and risk the ire of local communities. As the International Crisis Group reported recently, the local community threatened to evict International Organization for Migration staff from its Sabha offices after the organization accused locals of running slave markets.

Europe has focused its migration crisis response on departures from Libya’s northern coast. Yet, as the Italian government has realized, Libya’s southwest holds the key to regulating the flows. Arrivals from Niger and Algeria invariably pass through either Ghatrun, Ghat or Ghadames, with flows shifting in response to E.U.-influenced Nigerien and Algerian migration management.

These border towns are home to migrants who have not yet committed to Europe but who decide to go there when life in Libya becomes untenable. Strategic spending in these waypoints has the potential to change migration dynamics constructively. Europe has no shortage of funds to tackle migration concerns in Libya – the E.U. Trust Fund for Africa alone allocating around 90 million euros ($104 million) in 2017 – while communities are ready to collaborate on good ideas.

The route to effective intervention starts with two crucial steps. First, the international community needs to see local Libyan actors as partners in the protection of migrants and regulation of migration flows. Second, more research needs to be carried out into the attitudes and practices of communities at sites of intervention, so that action can be both well-informed and timely. This base will allow the design of community-owned pilots that improve outcomes for migrants, Libyans and international donors.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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