Risks, Responses and Border Dynamics

HPG Working Paper

This Working Paper focuses on the situation of Libyans displaced since 2011, both within Libya itself and in Tunisia.



The Armed Conflict in Libya

A- From political ‘revolution’ to internal armed conflict

1- Political revolution and the first Libyan civil war

The crisis in Libya began in 2011 with the growth of a popular and initially peaceful revolt against Colonel Gaddafi, Libya’s leader of some 40 years and, from the 1980s onwards, an international pariah.

A crackdown by the security services on a civilian protest in Benghazi in February 2011 rapidly escalated into a campaign of armed repression by security forces and the military.

By March, attacks against civilians had become ‘widespread and systematic’, and may have amounted to crimes against humanity.

A full-scale civil war developed between forces loyal to Gaddafi, later known within Libyan circles as the ‘September group’, and anti-Gaddafi forces (the ‘February group’).

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) responded by referring the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and, under Resolution 1973, authorising the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to ‘take all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi’.

Operation Unified Protector was launched on 31 March to implement Resolution 1973 and enforce a Security Council-authorised no-fly zone and arms embargo.

With the assistance of Western and Arab states, Libyan rebel forces captured the capital, Tripoli, in August 2011.

Gaddafi fled, but was captured and killed the following October.

The National Transitional Council (NTC), formed in February 2011, published a Constitutional Declaration in August outlining its intention to establish a democratic Libya.

The following month UN Security Council Resolution 2009 established the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) to assist the transitional authorities in restoring public order and promoting the rule of law, political reconciliation and electoral processes, strengthening state institutions, promoting and protecting human rights and supporting economic recovery.

With support from UNSMIL and other international actors, the NTC held national elections in July 2012 to form a General National Congress (GNC).

2- The second civil war

Conflict resumed in May 2014 following political disagreements between different power-holders across the country.

The GNC was given an 18-month deadline to craft a democratic constitution. When it failed to do so a new House of Representatives (HoR) was elected, replacing the GNC in August 2014.

The HoR, headquartered in Tobruq in eastern Libya, is supported by armed groups that came to be referred to as ‘Libya Dignity’.

A minority faction of former GNC members rejected the HoR and instead declared a National Salvation Government (NSG) based in Tripoli in the west, supported by a coalition of groups known as ‘Libya Dawn’.

Each coalition has its own parliament and government. In a bid to resolve the conflict between the two camps, a UN-led initiative, the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), helped form a Government of National Accord (GNA) in December 2015.

This interim administration is recognised by the international community as the legitimate executive authority in Libya, but has struggled to secure public support or exert control over the country.

While the HoR declared its support for the LPA in December 2015, the NSG publicly rejected it the following March.

The resulting political impasse sparked renewed violence in Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya’s two largest cities, and the continued absence of a functioning, legitimate central government.

The conflict across the country has since deepened among and between the various political factions involved. This pattern of violence has continued into 2019.

There were armed clashes between 26 August and 4 September 2018 in Tripoli, with tanks and heavy artillery operating in the city, looting by armed gangs and prison breakouts.

A ceasefire negotiated by UNSMIL on 4 September brought a temporary halt to the violence and some stability in the city (Salame, 2018).

In early 2019, fighting continued, particularly in the south, where the LNA has been advancing its forces: in Derna, for example, the UN and other international organisations have warned of the dire situation of civilians trapped by fighting between conflict parties in the old part of the city.

3- A governance vacuum

Libya remains torn between its multiple ‘governments’. Both the eastern-based HoR and the western-based NSG have remained intransigent in their claim to legitimacy despite their mutual inability to govern.

Meanwhile, the GNA has been described as a ‘Frankenstein type creation with zero legitimacy’. Dialogues in Italy, Switzerland, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, France, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt have made little substantive progress, and in any case these governments represent very few of the parties actually engaged in the conflict.

The consequent lack of central authority and state security and justice institutions has allowed a state of lawlessness to prevail across the country.

4- International terrorist groups

Libya has been ‘a major hub’ for the global jihadist movement for several decades, but after the fall of the Gaddafi regime its position became particularly strategic.

For several years, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has used the country as a base for its fight elsewhere in the region and as a training ground for new fighters. It has also gained control of large areas of territory.

While the group’s brutality sparked a backlash from Libyans, including in its ‘proto-state’ in Sirte in central Libya, ISIS remains active across the south, with smaller operations in the west and coastal areas.

Home-grown armed Islamist groups including the Derna-based Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade and the now-disbanded Ansar al-Sharia in Libya also flourished in the post-revolutionary period, with some reportedly establishing links with Al-Qaeda.

The UN Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) and head of UNSMIL, Ghassan Salamé, has expressed fears that Libya ‘may become a shelter for terrorist groups of all persuasions’.

5- Economic insecurity and the war economy

The economic situation in Libya has deteriorated. Oil production – the country’s primary source of income – has declined as a result of attacks on oil infrastructure by militia and armed groups, creating a fiscal crisis, while general insecurity, a liquidity crisis, rapid price inflation and black market speculation has seen the Libyan Dinar crash from 1.4 to the dollar to between six and ten.

According to the World Bank, ‘Libyan households … [have] lost almost 80 percent of their purchasing power’ due to the cumulative impact of rising inflation, and that this has ‘almost certainly pushed more Libyans into poverty and hardship and worsened inequality’.

By 2017, many basic commodities were no longer easily accessible or affordable for many Libyans: the price of bread, for example, increased five-fold between 2014 and 2017.

Youth unemployment was 40% in 2016, and livelihood opportunities are limited. This economic deterioration is part and parcel of a ‘pervasive’ war economy, where powerful individuals, militia and criminal gangs use violence to gain control of oil, gas, transport, the import and export infrastructure and highly lucrative smuggling routes.

Cross-border smuggling was rampant even before 2011, with Gaddafi frequently leveraging the profits to reward loyalists and communities that owned land along the border.

This cross-border economy continues to thrive, with the illegal trade in cigarettes, fuel and, to a lesser extent, arms and drugs worth an estimated half a billion dollars in 2015.

There are geographical differences in how the war economy functions in the east, west and south of the country but the key characteristics of the war economy include ‘the direct sale of commodities/goods through smuggling; the generation of rents and use of extortion; and predation on state resources’.

In addition, control of the smuggling trade and other aspects of the war economy are fundamental to the political power of the various conflict parties.

The overall impact of the last eight years of armed conflict, political instability and the war economy on poverty rates among Libyan families and communities is assumed to be profoundly negative, particularly in those areas of the country, such as the south, which already had high poverty levels.

B- Libya and Tunisia– historical relations and the spill-over effect of today’s armed conflict

1- Historical relations

Tunisia and Libya have old historical links; the border between the two countries has always been permeable due to the historic relationship and deep-rooted connections between communities on either side of the border as well as between the two nation states.

Prior to the French colonial invasion of North Africa in the 19th century, the Jefara region encompassing the northern border region between Tunisia and Libya enjoyed stability under the control of the Werghemma tribe in the west and the Nwayel in the east.

The arbitrary division between French and Italian colonial powers destroyed that stability as well as the region’s economy. Ironically, the regional economy was later revived when political tensions between the governments of Tunisia and Libya in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in a flourishing black market based on cross-border tribal alliances.

2- The spill-over effects of Libya’s armed conflict

Reflecting the history of their shared border, stability on the Tunisian side is intrinsically linked today to that on the Libyan side. The government has faced difficulties in securing the physical, economic, social and ideological ‘border’ between the two countries, resulting in a growing spill-over effect, including increased insecurity.

At the outset of the conflict the Libyan government border control collapsed, with the National Guard and police withdrawing from these areas. Rival militia from nearby towns in Zuwara and Zawiya clashed over their attempts to exert control of the crossing at Ras Jedir, including the lucrative smuggling trade.

The Tunisian authorities have sought to counter insecurity spilling over the border, including through building trenches and a 200km barrier, enforcing a military buffer zone and on at least one occasion closing the official crossing at Ras Jedir.

As elsewhere in the world, extremist ideologies have effectively ignored the physical border between the two countries.

Since 2015 ISIS has successfully expanded its reach across into Tunisia, exploiting its home-grown jihadist militancy as well as the institutional and ideological vacuum which was left following the demise of the radical Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) and the weakening of the former state security structures in the aftermath of the country’s own political crisis.

Their expansion into Tunisia has also been facilitated by a stagnant

economic situation in which marginalised Tunisian youth have turned to joining armed groups for perceived financial benefits as well as by the friction between Islam and the forced secularisation overseen under Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali over the previous five decades.

3- Migration and people smuggling

Prior to the conflict Libya was already both a major destination for migrants from elsewhere in Africa and a key point on the route to Europe.

The volumes of migrants passing through Libya en route to Europe have increased dramatically over the last eight years as traffickers take advantage of the collapse of law and order in the country.

Many of these migrants sought refuge on the Tunisian border when the conflict broke out in 2011.

UNHCR set up four camps in the south-east of Tunisia to accommodate these populations, with more than 200,000 individuals from over 120 countries receiving some form of assistance.

The vast majority of these people were quickly repatriated, though some 4,500 have refused to return due to fear of persecution in their countries of origin.

By 2014 the Tunisian authorities had stepped up control of the country’s ports, and while the number of smuggling boats leaving from the Tunisian coast has reduced, the Tunisian Coastguard continues to intercept and rescue boats off the coast of Libya.

Those rescued – the rescapés – are often handed over to the Tunisian Red Crescent Society (TRCS), and frequently end up in the Tunisian cities of Zarzis and Ben Guerdane.

to be continued



Sherine El Taraboulsi-McCarthy is an Interim Senior Research Fellow with the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG).

Ghada Al-Bayati is an independent consultant.

Victoria Metcalfe-Hough is a Research Associate with ODI and independent consultant.

Sarah Adamczyk is a Research Fellow with HPG.


The Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) is one of the world’s leading teams of independent researchers and communications professionals working on humanitarian issues. It is dedicated to improving humanitarian policy and practice through a combination of high-quality analysis, dialogue and debate.


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