An UN-affiliated body working in Libya has offered a bleak outlook of a country that remains gripped by armed militias. Federico Soda, who heads the Libya mission for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), described a vicious cycle of abuse in the country.

“We have really made no progress in years,” he told reporters in Brussels on Tuesday (24 May). “Not enough is being done to change or to try and influence change,” he said, noting that the EU cannot just stop migrant crossings and think the issue has been resolved.

Soda also said migrant smuggling and trafficking “is quite alive and well” in Libya. He did not implicate the Libyan coast guard in smuggling when pressed but said there is often a blurring of lines between state institutions and armed groups.

“That’s not unique to the [Libyan] coast guard, that’s just a little bit of the reality,” he said.

The European Commission intends to deliver more vessels to the guard , which it says are saving lives in the Mediterranean Sea.

The Libyans intercepted over 32,000 people at sea last year, it said. But once returned, many face horrendous conditions in detention centres.

Libya’s Department for Combating Illegal Immigration, or DCIM, run so-called official detention centres.

Impunity and detention centres

But now some are being run by the Stabilisation Support Authority (SSA), set up by government decree in 2021.

Amnesty International has described the SSA as a state-funded militia that operates with impunity.

The SSA not only runs detention centres, but also intercepts refugees and migrants at sea, says Amnesty.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) made similar assertions, noting that the SSA-run al-Mayah detention centre is off limits to humanitarian and civil organisations.

A former Libyan police lieutenant also told EUobserver last year that everyone takes a cut from the smuggling business, including the coast guard.

“Many of these boats are being recycled between the Libyan coast guard and the smugglers,” he said.

The issue remains contentious because the European Commission asserts it adheres to a ‘Do No Harm’ principle in Libya.

Francisco Gaztelu Mezquiriz, a senior commission official, says the EU institution hired an outside contractor to ensure compliance to the principle.

“So far, the contractor didn’t report any violations of the do no harm principle directly related to all costs by our Trust Fund programmes,” he told European lawmakers in April.

The EU fund has mobilised some €465.3m for projects in Libya. More than half has gone to protecting migrants, including voluntary returns, said Mezquiriz.

Most migrants in Libya don’t go to Europe

The vast majority of people going to Libya come from neighbouring countries such as Chad, Egypt, Niger, and Sudan.

Those four nationalities account for some two-thirds of migrants in Libya. Very few seek to go to Europe.

IOM estimates from 2020 suggest Libya had up to 680,000 migrants.

This dropped to around 500,000 during the pandemic and is now the rise again, hovering around 650,000 at the start of the year.

The IOM says the relative absence of conflict in Libya and gains in the economy is luring more people to the country.

It has also noted a reduction in the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs).


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