Tarek Megerisi

Human Traffickers: The Maritime Face of Mafiaisation

The result of the mafiaisation of Libya is a country where the government controls very little of what goes on, leaving its borders, and the management of key issues such as migration, in the hands of non-state actors or powerful international players. This in turn shaped the consolidated, mafiaised state which Libya eventually settled into.

The opportunities created for people traffickers and armed groups on the western coast of Libya by migration policies led to their ultimately successful attempts to be co-opted by official bodies in order to institutionalise themselves. This often occurred working alongside the burgeoning counter-smuggling industry to mutually maximise the benefits resulting from European interests and activities.

This means that today the Libyan government is unable to effectively control its maritime borders, or its policy tools for migration which remain in the hands of armed groups who have official uniforms without official control. This co-option affects not only the Libyan government’s ability to control this issue, but also that of other countries’ governments.

By making themselves official components of the interior ministry whilst shirking any responsibility or obligation that accompanies that role, Libyan militias positioned themselves for receiving continued training and equipment provided by Europeans to counter smuggling. However, Europeans gained no oversight or influence over either the people trafficking or counter-people trafficking businesses that these militias thrive upon.

So, despite the great cost and effort of multiple counter-migration policies, Libya’s migration trails have not been shut down but have only been made more convoluted.

In eastern Libya, Haftar took a different approach. Worried about the relationships with individual units, and about access to areas under his control which could be gained through cooperation on migration, Haftar pushed back against Tripolitanian agreements with Italy by threatening6 to attack any Italian vessels entering Libyan waters. This has resulted in less visibility over maritime and migratory dynamics in eastern Libya.

It has also helped Haftar and his backers craft a false narrative that his securitisation and control over Cyrenaica has allowed them to control migration. Many factors lead to less migration from Cyrenaica than Tripolitania, but it is a persistent phenomenon and more recently appears to be spiking, as can be seen from the increased number of Egyptian migrants – who often depart from Cyrenaica to reach Italy and, to a lesser extent, the Greek island of Crete.

By effectively scaring off European counter-migration activity, Haftar has allowed himself the space to craft his own narratives, but crucially retains the threat of increasing migration as leverage over Europe – much like Gaddafi once did.

Conclusion: Highly Security-Focused Policies Only Empower Libya’s Armed Groups

Libya’s mafiaisation has been the product of the environment of anarchy and narrow minded political contestation that has developed since the 2011 revolution. This was evident in the mindset of armed groups who progressed from profiteering towards institutional and economic domination. They have often been helped along the way by international actors, some of whom actively work to maintain this environment, believing that eventually they and their local proxy will win.

For Europeans, a hyper-focus on key interests like migration or counterterrorism has inadvertently resulted in a boomerang effect, securing very short-term goals at the expense of a stable long-term policy. In other cases, Europe’s reluctance to confront the role that its choices have played in Libya’s corruption and the dark money being continuously pumped from Libya across the Mediterranean means, for Europeans, to lose a key piece of leverage over Libya’s elite.

This behaviour neglects a key faultline which must be reckoned with if the country is to stabilise, especially given the trickle-down nature of Libya’s multifaceted corruption.

Given the problems previously created through hyper-focused policies, and the fact that mafiaisation and its symptoms are the product, rather than the cause, of any one particular dynamic, Europe must take a big picture approach if it is to stabilise the heart of the Mediterranean.

This means shirking narrow partnerships with particular armed groups or political proxies, and instead supporting a broader policy of political transformation. Whilst this may sound a daunting goal, it can simply involve more active support for the long-established United Nations’ goal of instigating political change in Libya through elections.

Moreover, Russia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and others have shown they are far more effective than Europe at playing the game of proxies, so it behoves Europe strategically and tactically to play on its strengths instead.

Through more active management of Libya’s elite, including utilising key financial mechanisms to incentivise them to hold elections, and supporting Libyans to craft a strong mandate for the next government, Europe can help Libyans take a big step towards reforming the environment of anarchy into one that can support the reconstruction of a state.


Tarek Megerisi is a Senior Policy Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa programme of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), where he works on cohering more strategic, harmonious and incisive policy-making from European countries towards the Maghreb and Mediterranean regions – with a long-term focus on Libya. Megerisi has worked across the spectrum over the last ten years, with various Maghrebi, European, and multilateral authorities on providing reform and stabilisation assistance to transitional states in the region. This has included working on a diverse range of projects from post-conflict stabilisation and rebuilding, Libya’s domestic and international political processes, economic reform in Tunisia, and the eastern Mediterranean disputes. He has also commentated on regional developments for a range of publications including Foreign Policy magazine to the Guardian newspaper and contributed to a variety of think-tank programming across the US, Europe and MENA regions.


Source: “Warlords to State-lords: Armed Groups and Power Trajectories in Libya and Yemen”, edited by Eleonora Ardemagni and Federica Saini Fasanotti.

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