Undetermined legal status and implications for Libya’s peace process
By Valerie Stocker
This policy paper aims to provide an overview of citizenship-related grievances in Libya and approaches to address these.
Amid Libya’s ongoing crisis, unresolved disputes over citizenship haunt society and the fragile state. A significant number of people in Libya – presumably several hundred thousand – are not formally recognized as citizens, despite considering themselves as such.
Commonly referred to as “persons of undetermined legal status”, the majority are first- or second-generation immigrants whose naturalisation process is on hold.
A smaller amount consists of native inhabitants who have not been recognised by the state, as well as a group of people whose citizenship was revoked.
Although they are registered with the authorities, their status does not guarantee them civil rights, thus curtailing their access to essential paperwork, public services and employment.
The issue is of national concern and there are people affected by it across the country; however, it is of particular magnitude in the South of the country, where it feeds instability.
After being on hold for decades, the citizenship file has recently been reopened through the draft constitution, and administrative authorities have taken a renewed interest.
This provides a window of opportunity to revisit the causes of disputed citizenship and promote a problem solving approach based on consultations and social dialogue, to mitigate the risk of further destabilisation.
This policy paper aims to provide an overview of citizenship-related grievances in Libya and approaches to address these.
Focussing on the situation in the southern region, it explains how citizenship disputes relate to Libya’s troubled transition.
The first section retraces the historical circumstances that led to undetermined legal statuses.
Section two provides an overview of affected groups and the obstacles they face.
This is followed, in the third section, by the ramifications of the issue in terms of security, peace, and political processes.
Section four outlines how the proposed constitution intends to tackle undetermined legal statuses, how this has been received, and what obstacles there are to implementing provisions.
The fifth section presents conclusions and challenges that lie ahead, after which the paper proposes recommendations to current and future Libyan authorities and international community actors on how to best address undetermined legal status.
1. A brief history of disputed citizenship
Libya’s contemporary citizenship conundrum cannot be dissociated from its modern history. The disagreement over who qualifies as Libyan citizen is rooted in the colonial past and the 1951 state creation, and was later exacerbated by Gadhafi’s use of citizenship for political ends.
Libya’s borders were originally drawn on the basis of territorial acquisitions and treatises between competing empires, which split indigenous populations’ homelands.
The repercussions are particularly visible in the southern region, where borders remain porous and cross-border ties strong. Independence struggles and tribal wars also led to mass displacement, with hundreds of thousands of Libyans forced into exile during the Ottoman and Italian occupation.
When people claiming descent from exile settled in Libya in the latter half of the 20th century, it was framed as a “return to the homeland”.
Libya is by no means unique in terms of complicated colonial legacy, but these factors require mentioning as they are of direct relevance to the subject matter.
The monarchy (1951-1969): birth of Libyan citizenship and undetermined status
As the Kingdom of Libya achieved independence, the foundations for citizenship were laid by the 1951 Constitution and the 1954 Citizenship Law.
These texts defined who was to be considered Libyan among the people inhabiting the territory, as well as those connected to it through ancestry.
The date on which the Constitution was adopted – 7 October 1951 – was set as “point zero”. Citizenship was granted to people residing in Libya on this date if they had been born in Libya, born abroad to a parent born in Libya, or had been living there for at least ten years (or five years for Arabs).
Taking into account the aforementioned historical factors, the law also offered the possibility of obtaining citizenship to people residing outside Libya at the time, if they could prove “Libyan origins”: having been born in Libya or to a parent or grandparent born in Libya.
As for subsequent generations, citizenship became contingent on birth to a Libyan father, or on the territory if no other citizenship applied at birth. Further provisions regulated the naturalisation of foreigners with no Libyan origins.
In 1954, the royal administration conducted a national population census, which generated the civil register. The census takers did not, however, reach all rural settlements, especially in the far South.
People with nomadic lifestyles were not necessarily present during the census: others did know or care about registering.
In the late-1960s, local committees were instructed to review and update census lists, and to register Libyans who had not been counted before.
However, not everybody was able to present proof of birthplace and residence, and committees tended to work on the basis of tribal declarations, with little guarantee of impartiality.
As a result of these factors, a first set of Libyans fell outside the system, particularly among the Tebu and Tuareg in the South.
Without civil registration they could not obtain essential documents. The most common document they lacked was a family booklet, which lists members of a family and domestically serves as proof of citizenship and identity.
Off to a difficult start, the situation was further complicated after Gadhafi came to power in 1969 and used citizenship as a political tool.
The Gadhafi era (1969-2011): citizenship instrumentalised
Under Gadhafi, manipulative and inconsistent naturalisation policies left further groups of people with undetermined legal status.
Immigration to Libya had begun during the monarchy, spurred by the development of the oil industry. It accelerated after 1969 as a result of the new regime’s open-door immigration policy and its calls on Arabs with Libyan roots to return to the homeland.
The possibility of “return from exile” for people of Libyan ancestry motivated large numbers of people in neighbouring countries to relocate to Libya.
Immigration was largely organized along tribal lines, with returnees settling in areas dominated by their respective tribe.
In the East, they were usually from the Awlad Ali and Jawazi tribes, which straddle the Libyan-Egyptian borderland and many of whom had been pushed into Egypt during the Ottoman era.
In the Fezzan region, this pertained to Gadhadfa, Warfalla, Awlad Suliman, Hassawna and Mahamid – tribes with a historical presence in Libya as well as extensions in the Sahel region, primarily Chad and Niger. The regime also welcomed Tuareg from Niger, Mali and other Sahel countries, as well as labour migrants from “brotherly Arab nations”.
Arrivals peaked in the 1980s, a period in which the regime invested great resources in transforming the Libyan state and society.
The added manpower was absorbed by large-scale public sector recruitment and ambitious infrastructure projects, as well as by extensive military recruitment and training.
In exchange for labour and loyalty to the regime, immigrants were promised opportunities and swift naturalisation. Immigration was also tied to Gadhafi’s geopolitical ambitions and regional policies.
Starting with the Islamic Legion in the 1970s, he had young men from disenfranchised communities across the Sahel-Saharan zone recruited, trained in Libyan camps, and sent to fight on foreign theatres of war, from Chad to Lebanon.
With Libya as their rear base, many of the Tuareg legionaries went on to join rebellions in Niger and Mali. Encouraged by Gadhafi, Sahelian Tuareg brought their families to settle down in Libya.
The vast majority of them were registered in Libya but failed to obtain citizenship.
Libya’s protracted war with Chad also created cases of undetermined legal status. The regime’s annexation of the Aouzou strip on the border with Chad in 1975 entailed the naturalisation of Tebu residents.
In 1994, when Libya lost sovereignty over Aouzou and withdrew, inhabitants of the isolated territory had no control over their collective destiny. Many of those registered as “Aouzou Libyans” had already left to Libya proper, and others followed after 1994.
This was initially welcomed by the regime, which allowed people to transfer their civil registration to Murzuq or Kufra. Within a few years the official stance changed.
With Circular 13 of 1996, “Aouzou registrants” were collectively declared foreigners. This included not only natives of Aouzou but also a number of Tebu from other parts of Libya whom the regime had pushed to register in the strip when it was under Libyan administration.
Henceforth, these people no longer enjoyed civil rights, and many had their documents confiscated.
In theory, Libyan legislation offered formal pathways to citizenship. From the early 1970s onward, people claiming citizenship based on Libyan ancestry were registered on special lists parallel to the citizen register, pending approval.
But ever-changing laws and regulations subsequently obscured requirements and procedures for naturalisation. In a sheer endless loop, the regime formed committees to collect and process claims, only to dissolve them later.
Even the definition of citizenship was changed. In 1980, the 1954 Citizenship Law – though not repealed until 2010 – was de-facto overruled with Law 18, which re-baptised Libyan citizenship as “Arab citizenship”, henceforth applicable to all Libyans and available to anyone from the Arab umma (nation) coming to live in Libya.
While stipulating the “same rights for all”, Law 18 resulted in a two-class system. Arab immigrants and returnees from exile were able to obtain Libyan Arab citizenship but were left stranded when the status was abolished through the 2010 Citizenship Law, which replaced previous legislation.
As these people applied to become “regular” Libyan citizens (possible for those with Libyan origins), another round of procedures started, no less opaque than previous rounds.
The discrepancy between the Gadhafi regime’s pro-immigration discourse, on the one hand, and the hurdles imposed on people seeking naturalisation is perplexing.
Interviewees attributed it to a variety of factors, including political calculus, societal resistance and institutional dysfunction.
Undoubtedly, convoluted bureaucracy posed a challenge to applicants and administrators alike. Based on circulars, letters or memos with unclear legal validity, administrative practice was arbitrary, and enforcement varied between districts.
Tribal rivalries and communal tensions played into national decision-making, as many “native” residents rejected the idea of immigrant groups being naturalised.
For instance, some of the decisions targeting Tebu originated in Kufra, where they were drafted by local officials from the Zway tribe. When committees were set up at the local level to evaluate claims, they were influenced by such rivalries.
Naturalisation was also curbed by favouritism and discrimination on tribal and ethnic grounds. Personal connections often determined whether a family was naturalised.
Returnees from certain tribes, in particular the Gadhadfa, were privileged through their place within the ruling system. The regime’s Arab nationalist prism left non-Arab ethnic groups sidelined.
Sahelian Tuareg immigrants, who tend to define themselves as returnees from exile and natives of the land but are not considered as such by others, were required to present proof of “Libyan Arab origins”.
Beneath this rhetoric, the approval of a claim ultimately hinged on regime security services, which based their decision on other criteria.
According to one interpretation, Gadhafi deliberately stalled citizenship claims in order to utilise the sizeable Sahelian Tuareg community residing in Libya as a bargaining chip in Libya’s relations with Algeria, Niger and Mali, and for his pursuit of regional clout, including through the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD).
The regime went as far as to threaten neighboring states with mass expulsion of Libya-based Tuareg, playing on their fear of internal destabilisation.
Ultimately, the role of Gadhafi and his inner circle in creating and maintaining undetermined statuses is a matter of speculation. At the very least the regime did not prioritise resolving the issue, keeping tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of people in a legal limbo.
Some, such as the Aouzou residents, lost access to documentation and public services. Others had access to temporary paperwork, were allowed to work, and benefited from public services.
Some had their status regularised, but in 2011 a large number of cases remained “in progress” – a term still used by the administration today.
Post-Gadhafi (2011-present): the uprising and its fallouts
During the uprising, the Gadhafi regime hastily tackled several outstanding issues in order to garner support among southern communities.
In March 2011, a cabinet decree approved the citizenship claims of over 5,600 Tuareg, which had been pending.
Overturning Circular 13 from 1996, the cabinet also re-categorized Aouzou registrants as Libyan citizens and instructed administrative bodies to reactivate their files.
It has also been alleged that citizenship and identity documents were handed out to foreign mercenaries in reward for backing up regime forces against the rebels.
These measures demonstrated the regime’s discretionary power to grant and withhold citizenship and had problematic implications for the aftermath. Many Tebu, in particular, were able to regularise their status between 2011 and 2013. There are now plans to reverse this process.
Overall, populations of undetermined status saw their situation deteriorate after 2011, as a result of administrative reform and changing patronage networks.
Aside from the draft constitution, which is yet to be passed, post-Gadhafi national authorities made no attempts to tackle the core of the matter, arguing that doing so would destabilise the transition.
Instead, they resorted to short-term measures, curtailing and granting rights in response to social pressure.
In 2012, for example, the National Transitional Council’s (NTC) government suspended the processing of existing citizenship claims (“in progress” files) and the accepting of new claims.
In 2013, the General National Congress (GNC) implemented the “national number” system. Under this system, every Libyan is meant to have a unique personal identification number, which became the new hallmark of citizenship.
People that were registered on parallel lists (pending naturalisation), unregistered, or with cancelled documents were not eligible for a national number.
Their situation changed from legal ambiguity with varying degrees of de-facto recognition to unambiguous exclusion from citizenship and its associated rights.
There was a severe backlash to the creation of the national number from groups that were excluded. For instance, Sahelian Tuareg expressed their outrage through sit-ins at oil facilities.
The GNC’s Interim Government responded by introducing the administrative number – a temporary form of registration – to enable people ineligible for a national number to continue accessing salaries and services.
In 2014 and 2015, administrative numbers were allocated to registered Tuareg and Arabs of undetermined legal status, as well as to foreign nationals employed by the Libyan state.
The system brought some relief to registrants but lacked oversight and was partially suspended after a period of time. As it did not tackle the underlying legal and historical issue, it was widely seen as an inadequate appeasement strategy among affected populations.
Meanwhile, the debate about undetermined legal status became overshadowed by claims that large-scale citizenship fraud had taken place since 2011 and constituted a threat to national security and Libyan identity.
In addition to the alleged naturalisation of mercenaries recruited by the Gadhafi regime during its final months, Libyan officials claimed that certain civil registry offices, especially in Al-Bayda and Murzuq, have carried out registrations in violation of higher instructions, and that this contributed to inflating the national number database to 7.5 million people – far more than the previously estimated 6 million Libyans.
There are also reports that documents attesting eligibility for citizenship (such as “returnee cards”) have been offered for sale in Egypt and other countries, and that civil registry officials have knowingly registered foreigners as Libyan citizens based on forged documentation.
These concerns over illegal obtaining of Libyan citizenship and demographic change have heavily influenced the draft constitution, and have thereby shown the relevance of unresolved legal status to the wider political process.
to be continued
Valerie Stocker is a researcher focusing on Libyan affairs since 2008. Covering a range of subjects including conflict dynamics, reconciliation processes, and migration, she has conducted fieldwork around the country and developed a particular interest in the southern region. She lived in Tripoli for most of the period 2008-2013 and returns regularly
European Institute of Peace