By Daniel Howden

The central Mediterranean is now the busiest mixed migration route into Europe. The geography and the politics of the region have dictated roles for the main actors from the E.U. to member states Italy and Malta, as well as Libya and the countries on its southern borders in the Sahel.



South of Rome, beyond the Aurelian walls, stands a medieval watchtower in the grounds of the Lancellotti estate. The family are “black princes” – aristocrats who remained loyal to the Vatican after the Kingdom of Italy entered Rome and ended the millennia-long reign of the popes.

Their estate, an unheralded right turn off a drab suburban road flanked by boxy industrial units, is a pastoral idyll of rolling lawns, Roman pines and an archery range. Over the past year it has also been a favored hideaway of the leaders of the Tebu and the Awlad Suleiman, two of southern Libya’s most powerful tribes, whose homelands in the Sahel include the main people-smuggling routes.

The watchtower is the home of Nicoletta Gaida and the headquarters of her peace organization, Ara Pacis. Named after the famous altar to Pax, the Roman god of peace, the group rented the aristocrats’ torretta to lend some pathos to their ambitious peace-building efforts.

The former actress waded into the aftermath of the Fezzan conflict in southern Libya where tribal factions fought each other after the fall of Gadhafi. Gaida and her team brokered an unexpected reconciliation between the Awlad Suleiman and the Tebu signed in March 2017, in the presence of the leaders of another tribe, the Tuareg.

The Ara Pacis leader is now pushing a wider settlement among the southern tribes centered on a development plan written by grassroots groups in the Fezzan. It contains practical proposals such as the renovation of the pasta factory and university dorms in Sebha, the southern city through which most of the people-smuggling trade flows.

Gaida, who refers to herself playfully as “some lady in a tower,” said she had been surprised by what seemed to be an international free-for-all over Libya: “I would have thought international politics was more organized than this,” she said.

Peacemakers, Proxies and a Power Vacuum

Ara Pacis, and its watchtower, is only the most baroque of a host of competing peace efforts in Libya, whose foreign sponsors have jockeyed for position with seemingly little regard for stability in the country itself. The greatest obstacle to the stalled U.N. peace process, relaunched at the general assembly in New York in late September, is the abundance of rival initiatives. Egypt is pushing a plan to reorganize the former Libyan army, while Russia and the United Arab Emirates have been accused of supporting the armed militia under the leadership of Haftar, the powerful warlord in eastern Libya.

The diplomatic vacuum of the last year resulted in too many competing initiatives that have created confusion among Libyan factions, or were exploited by them,” said Claudia Gazzini of the International Crisis Group.

Ghassan Salame, a U.N. special envoy to Libya, found his leadership of peace efforts challenged by the African Union, which convened a mini-summit in early September. Italy and France, rivals for influence and oil in the Sahel, have let their rivalry infect peace talks.

A high-level meeting of Haftar and Serraj, the head of the Government of National Accord, took place in Paris without Italy’s knowledge, according to Italian officials. The French effort followed a July statement from President Emmanuel Macron in which he said France would staff and run “hot spots” – E.U. asylum processing centers – on the ground in Libya before the end of the summer. The statement was retracted later the same day.

A similar lack of consultation occurred before Italy and Germany’s interior ministers made a call in May for an E.U. police mission on the border between Niger and Libya. Security analysts said the move would be reckless, and the initiative was shelved. But unilateral actions and unrealistic expectations from E.U. member states have exhausted European and U.N. diplomats working on Libya.

It has reached the stage where embassies are calling each other and saying ignore what this minister or that leader just said, it’s never going to happen,” said an E.U. diplomat. “It is the professionals inside the institutions that are restraining the politicians from doing the crazy ideas.”

The desire among European leaders to be seen to control migration in the short term has overwhelmed a more patient and responsible approach to Libya. Improving conditions for migrants inside Libya has been left to the U.N.’s migration and refugee agencies who are well funded but unable to operate effectively.

Cochetel, the UNHCR special envoy, said his agency was under pressure due to “considerable expectations from the E.U.” that take little account of the reality on the ground in Libya.

Libya is not Turkey; there is no sustainable peace and order and there is no quick fix,” he said. “It’s not at this stage about putting more resources as some countries believe.”

In Brussels senior E.U. officials privately admit that the sharp reduction in sea crossings is “unsustainable.” On the ground in Sabratha, the Italian deals have been the catalyst for serious clashes between rival armed groups, that have escalated to the point where they threaten the balance of power in Libya. The recent fighting has pitched the Anas brigade against forces including the Operation Room, originally formed to fight ISIS militants, and the al-Wadi brigade, which runs a rival smuggling network. All sides claim to be legitimate government forces even as heavy weapons have been deployed in civilian neighborhoods and the Libyan Red Crescent has been fired on.

The new arrangement for migration has been the catalyst for the latest fighting,” said Libya analyst Mark Micalleff. “But it is rooted in more complex historical tribal and ideological rivalries.”

Many locals are angry at the legitimacy handed by outsiders to people they see as armed thugs. A Sabratha businessman, who asked not to be named, complained that it was “a battle between one militia who got paid and another who wants to get paid.”


Top Photo – Migrants intercepted and returned by the Libyan coast guard in Tripoli in August, 2017 (AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD TURKIA).


Daniel Howden is a senior editor at Refugees Deeply. A contributor to the Economist and the Guardian, he was previously the Africa correspondent and deputy foreign editor at the Independent.

Credits: Research by Nancy Porsia. Photography by Alessio Romenzi and agencies. Art direction by Ali Figueroa. 


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