Over the past several years, thousands of people have boarded boats in Libyan waters intent on crossing the Mediterranean and landing on Italian shores. The number of people illegally headed towards Europe has been a financial boon for human smugglers in Africa.
This has caused concern in Italy where the parliament voted to deploy naval patrol ships to deter immigrant-laden boats from making the perilous journey.
While Italy and Libya seem to have come to some sort of agreement, the fractured state of Libya and its government’s attempts to gain international assistance are complicating the issue.
“Libyan politics is toxic,” Jonathan M. Winer, former US special envoy for Libya and a fellow with the Middle East Institute in Washington, said. “When [international actors] try to help they get drawn in. Libyan factions are manoeuvring against one another and will reject what they agree on [with foreign partners] even though they need their help.”
Ever since the “Arab spring” uprising led to NATO bombings in Libya and the overthrow of long-time autocrat Muammar Qaddafi, the country has been embroiled in political fracture and civil war.
“The most fundamental problem that has characterised the Libyan crisis since 2011 is absence of monopoly of the control over the use of force,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a doctoral candidate in geopolitics at Paris 8 Université whose research focuses on Libya. “Said simply, you have thousands of armed groups across the country following their own agendas.”
The decentralisation of force and power has led to “protection economies,” Harchaoui said, in which a migrant must pay a fee to pass through each militia’s territory. “Once you have that kind of illicit economy somewhere, it is very difficult to get rid of it,” he said.
About 95,000 immigrants have landed on Italian shores so far this year, most having set sail from Libya. The new arrivals have become a major campaign issue for politicians in Italy facing elections in 2018. To dissuade more people from crossing the sea, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said his government would answer a request from Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
Italy’s parliament approved a plan involving six Italian naval vessels coordinating with Libyan forces to counter human trafficking. The plan was scaled back, however, after popular protests from Libyans who recall the Italian’s colonial history in their country.
Time magazine reported: “Libyans have reportedly been posting images of Omar al-Mukhtar, a national hero who battled Italian rule in the early 1900s, on social media in response to the Italian presence — reflecting the widespread unease over a former colonial power intervening on domestic affairs.”
Other competing factions cast a shadow over the agreement. Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army controls eastern Libya, purportedly ordered his forces to attack Italian ships entering Libyan waters. Italian officials reportedly said the threats were unfounded and unreliable.
Just days after he supposedly sent Italy a request for aid, “Sarraj denied that he had requested Italian ships enter Libyan waters, saying that Libyan sovereignty was a red line that could not be crossed,” reported Stratfor, a US-based intelligence consultancy. “But later that same day, Sarraj and the Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti discussed possible Italian assistance and managed to overcome domestic resistance in Libya.”
Sarraj is stuck in the middle, trying to please international actors who will provide Libya — and his government — with much-needed aid and legitimacy while trying to win over a divided populace. Receiving foreign aid should go a long way towards providing services and gaining loyalty in Libya.
Justin Salhani is an Arab Weekly correspondent in Washington.