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.


2. Living with undetermined legal status

Having discussed the historical context of undetermined legal status, this section looks at its practical implications: who has been affected by the issue, and how it has impacted their livelihoods and living conditions.

People affected At present, it is possible to distinguish two categories of people affected by the citizenship issue, both of which arguably fall under the definition of undetermined legal status.

The first category consists of people who have not been able to obtain a national number due to their type of registration and lack of vital documentation.

They are Sahelian Tuareg, Arab returnees from exile, or foreign nationals who used to benefit from Libyan Arab Citizenship status.

There are records of over 14,000 Tuareg families awaiting naturalization since the 1980s, and some say they are now more than 16,000.

Most of them reside in Ubari, Sebha, Uwainat and Ghat. As for Arab returnees from exile, data is more dispersed and difficult to obtain.

Nearly 27,000 families from across the Fezzan are listed in the civil register in Sebha as Arab persons of undetermined legal status or “files in progress”.

The majority of them are Awlad Suliman, Hasawna and Mahamid, living predominantly in the Sebha area. This category also comprises smaller numbers of Tebu who are without valid documentation.

The second category of undetermined legal status are people who have in fact been able to obtain national numbers, but whose naturalisation is disputed by other Libyans and parts of the state administration, and who therefore risk having their status revoked.

This pertains primarily to Tebu, with estimates ranging between 3,000 and 9,000 families.

Livelihoods and living conditions

This section examines how unresolved citizenship claims have affected people in different ways, including how it can cause livelihoods and living conditions to fall.

Gadhafi-era: appeasement and selective benefits Without going into details on policies shifts and administrative discrepancies, the practical implications of undetermined legal status during the Gadhafi era can be summarized as follows.

People were usually registered and given some proof of identity (ID cards, birth certificates…), but denied proof of citizenship (family booklets).

They faced greater bureaucratic hurdles – and sometimes harassment – when registering changes in civil status (births, marriages, deaths) or requesting documents for other purposes such as education, work, or travel.

In some instances, temporary documents were issued collectively, such as in 2005 when a large number of Sahelian Tuareg obtained ID cards.

Aouzou registrants were excluded from administrative dealings altogether between 1996, when their citizenship was revoked, until 2011, when this revocation was lifted.

Even without proof of citizenship, people of undetermined status could work in the public sector, and many were part of the army and police corps.

On this basis, they had access to salaries, social security pensions, subsidised food items, and free basic health care. This was

generally not the case for Aouzou registrants, although access to services varied by location, and some successfully reclaimed pension payments through the courts in 2006.

Beyond the basics, people of undetermined status were not guaranteed full access to education and employment opportunities.

For instance, an inability to present a family booklet could result in being denied enrolment in school and university.

Certain professional domains and police or military ranks were generally reserved for citizenship holders.

Ethnic discrimination allegedly diminished opportunities further, with Tebu from Kufra reporting reduced access to education, jobs and ranks even for those who were not from the Aouzou population.

People’s level of access to documents, services, jobs, as well as various other social services, depended greatly on their personal contacts within the regime apparatus.

This not only restricted social mobility but also reinforced patterns of clientelism. For instance, Tuareg and Arabs enrolled in elite paramilitary forces had better chances of regularising their status and becoming citizens than those enrolled in the regular army.

Based on Tebu and Tuareg accounts, living without proof of citizenship brought a multitude of day-to-day challenges, which were not always attributable to regime policy.

As one interlocutor explained, structural problems created a permissive environment for violence and exploitation, leaving people of undetermined legal status at the mercy of individual officials and law enforcement agents, and with no means of recourse.

At checkpoints, for example, the mere mention of a foreign place of birth on one’s ID could result in public humiliation or extortion.

Although tribal dynamics have changed since 2011, this pattern of behaviour persists nowadays.

Post-2011: collective recategorisation

Since the Libyan Revolution, undetermined legal status affects people’s lives in more ways than it did under the former regime.

This is primarily the outcome of the 2013 national number reform, which divided the population into people with numbers and people without.

Salaries, pensions, subsidised food, and most public services became tied to the national number, leaving people of undetermined status and their families without access to these.

The introduction of the administrative number for those ineligible for national numbers brought only partial relief, as salaries paid through this system are frequently delayed and reportedly withheld at bank branches in South Libya.

Travel restrictions have prevented numerous Tuareg with serious illnesses and combat injuries from seeking treatment abroad.

Aouzou registrants who have obtained national numbers are now better off than before 2011, although they continue facing administrative hurdles and harassment, including incidents of passport holders being denied international travel.

In the South, systematic neglect and shortages – in terms of public services, subsidised food items, fuel and cooking gas, and cash supplies – affect all residents; however, not having a national number further reduces peoples’ ability to cope with decreased living standards.

People of undetermined legal status not only have fewer means to generate formal income but are also excluded from humanitarian assistance to vulnerable families.

Long-term consequences

Lack of citizenship has had a lasting impact on people’s lives, from gaps in education and poor professional qualifications to health issues due to reduced access to medical facilities.

Being legally barred from owning property or setting up a business reduces people’s social and physical mobility; they cannot easily move outside their city or tribal area, let alone travel abroad legally.

Their living conditions tend to be sub-standard, with some living in social housing blocks, while others make do in makeshift dwellings on abandoned construction sites, on the outskirts of Sebha, Ubari, Ghat and Kufra, and in Wadi al Shati.

3. Repercussions on peace and stability

Unresolved citizenship drives instability and hinders peace efforts. While this manifests itself primarily in the South, the resulting communal tensions, militarisation, and lack of investment in the national political process have implications at the national level.

Communities destabilised Southern Libya is a patchwork of tribes and ethnic groups that have maintained fairly distinct identities. Past migration patterns have had a massive impact on how these groups view one another.

The notion of originality – who originally lived somewhere – and the distinction made between “natives” as opposed to “immigrants” and “returnees”, remain central to present-day narratives. There is little consensus on what these notions mean.

During the Gadhafi era, the South was destabilised by policies that involved state-sponsored mass-immigration, as well as targeted discrimination and manipulation of political and tribal loyalties.

The regime supported immigrant families, providing schooling, state employment and housing for many of them.

In Sebha and other southern towns, social housing blocks mushroomed in the 1980s to accommodate the biggest waves of returnee and immigrant arrivals.

These people were dependent on the state, and – as a result – often zealously loyal to Gadhafi. Yet they were not necessarily well-off.

Over time, the gradual decay of their neighbourhoods became emblematic of the regime’s lack of commitment to them.

Dutiful service to the state and loyalty did not guarantee them access to citizenship, and without citizenship they did not have equal opportunities.

The perceived “special relationship” between the regime and the immigrants nevertheless stirred resentment amongst other residents, who were left feeling neglected.

Despite tribal ties to host communities, the immigrants often integrated poorly in society, living and marrying amongst themselves, remaining united by their foreign provenance.

The mutual resentment lives on today, as immigrants feel unfairly treated – second-class citizens at best – while native Libyans may perceive them as foreign profiteers and unwanted relics of Gadhafi’s policies.

Views are most extreme when ethnic and cultural differences are at play: Arabs with a narrow conception of national identity may view Tebu and Tuareg as having no legitimate claim to “Libyanhood”, while Tebu and Tuareg at times dismiss Arabs collectively as foreign invaders of their ancient homeland.

The native-foreign paradigm also runs through tribes and ethnic groups. Many southerners dispute the right to return of diasporas, including that of their own tribe, or believe that this right was illegally utilised by people without ties to Libya.

There is a common belief that the “cultural differences” between natives and immigrants that previously impeded social integration have prevented peaceful coexistence after 2011.

Tebu representatives say that their community was weakened by differences of opinion between Libyan and Aouzou Tebu, which Gadhafi exploited during his rule.

These social rifts form the backdrop to the communal violence and warfare that has engulfed the region since the revolution, from Kufra to Ubari. Whenever tensions flare, negative perceptions surface in the form of mutual accusations and slander.

The advance of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (or Libya National Army) into the Fezzan in January 2019 exacerbated tribal tensions between Tebu and Arabs/Ahali, unleashing a cycle of violence in Murzuq.

Social media channels instantly resorted to derogatory name-calling that saw frequent references to other groups’ “foreign origins”.

The inflow of Chadian, Sudanese and other foreign fighters through Libya’s porous southern borders in recent years has further undermined the position of residents who have been naturalised or are awaiting a settlement of their citizenship claims.

Different circumstances and periods of arrival are conflated in the public and media discourse.

Tebu, Sahelian Tuareg, and Arab returnees are often branded mercenaries, although only a small portion of their overall populations likely qualify as such.

At the same time, fluid identities and alliances blur the lines between Libyan and foreign actors, and armed groups in the South tarnish the reputation of their tribes.

Generations militarised

The Libyan state’s flawed approaches to immigration and citizenship have fostered violence among southern communities over several generations, contributing to today’s tribalism and militarisation.

Gadhafi left a heavy legacy in this regard. Between the 1970s and 1990s, the regime recruited heavily among immigrants to boost armed forces and networks of social control, and also trained foreign fighters in Libyan military camps.

Up until the uprising in 2011, Gadhafi relied on paramilitary forces, some predominantly manned by Sahelian Tuareg and Arab returnees.

Gadhafi’s fall left these combatants without a state patron. It also left their communities stigmatised. Notwithstanding the ambiguity of this patronage, its absence augmented their sense of insecurity, which in turn spurred armed mobilisation along tribal lines.

Soldiers and policemen who had not obtained citizenship were left without pay or pension in 2013 as a result of the national number. Resentful for years of service going without recognition, some joined the burgeoning militia scene.

Today’s tribal armed groups in and around Sebha are said to be heavily manned by returnees and blamed for much of the urban violence.

As these groups seek recognition and money from central governments, the presence of members without national numbers and military accreditation constitutes an obstacle, and this has led to blockades of state facilities.

In Ubari, the repercussions of the national number have been a key rallying point for protests at the Sharara oil field since 2013.

The rise of Sahelian Tuareg, who began using their military influence in Ubari to pressure the state for citizenship and pay, led to tensions with long-established Tuareg clans.

This also played into the 2014-2016 war between Tuareg and Tebu. Most Sahelian Tuareg have since been given administrative numbers as part of a set of concessions, but persisting payment issues have led to further anti-state action.

A recent blockade at Sharara (December 2018 to February 2019) involved oil guards demanding their outstanding salaries.

Similarly, the Tebu community has become heavily militarised since 2011, compensating for Gadhafi-era marginalisation and challenging Arab dominance.

The territorial expansion of Tebu armed groups and their control of trade and smuggling routes has caused friction with their Arab and Tuareg neighbours.

These examples illustrate how the absence of rights and opportunities heightens the temptation of resorting to violence, and how armed groups thrive among disenfranchised populations.

Moreover, North-South military alliances and recruitment patterns since 2014 show that southern armed groups have been pulled into the national-level conflict, suggesting that combatants who as a result of their legal status are not on an official payroll have been rewarded in other ways.

Limited inclusiveness of political processes

The citizenship issue also impacts political processes. People of undetermined legal status cannot presently take part in formal political life as they are not eligible to vote or stand for elections.

This further reduces southern communities’ investment in democratic processes and bolsters informal decision-making.

In the 2012 general elections, people of undetermined status were mostly able to participate as voter registration was handled with some flexibility.

However, over one thousand Tebu voters in Kufra were disqualified after a district court ruled that, as Aouzou registrants, they did not qualify as Libyan citizens.

The ban extended to non-Aouzou Tebu, singled out on the basis of their Tebu names, and no chance was given for appeals.

By 2014, participation in general and local elections had become tied to the national number, barring all those without numbers.

In 2018, Tuareg rights activists appealed to the electoral commission to reopen voter registration for Tuareg with administrative numbers to be able to take part in the next round of elections, but their efforts were in vein.

This means that the 2019 municipal elections that have already taken place in several southern constituencies are not inclusive of these groups.

While citizens in the South are entitled to vote, the exclusion of large segments of their tribes or communities reduces their overall political clout.

The lack of political participation is also problematic for the planned referendum on the constitution, which will have direct implications for people of undetermined legal status, as discussed below.

Aside from elections, populations of undetermined legal status have not played a visible role in national-level peace talks and lack a common platform to bring forth their demands and influence decisions.

Instead, they rely primarily on social actors, such as tribal elders and councils, as well as elected representatives of their tribe and community to advocate for their cause.

Without passports, people of undetermined status are unable to attend events held abroad where Libyan issues are discussed.

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

Related Articles