Matt Herbert | Rupert Horsely | Emadeddin Badi

Human smuggling and trafficking not only endanger the lives of vulnerable individuals but also contributes to the erosion of human rights and the perpetuation of violence in Libya.

Organized criminal networks involved in human smuggling and trafficking exploit and abuse migrants, subjecting them to inhumane conditions, physical violence and, at times, forced labour. Further, disputes over smuggling routes often escalate into armed conflicts between rival groups, destabilizing communities and undermining stability. Beyond their contribution to overt violence in Libyan communities, these networks’

empowerment is often at the expense of state authority, as they pose a direct challenge to government.

Average prices paid by key nationalities for smuggling services:

Pakistani: €5850–€8360

Egyptian: €1000–€1935

Bangladeshi: €3850–€5770

Libyan human smuggling networks often seek to perpetuate an ecosystem where the rule of law is consistently weakened, and where they can secure institutional titles and affiliations that enable them to masquerade as migration enforcement stakeholders.

This allows them to financially profit from human smuggling and trafficking, as well as reap financial dividends for artificial efforts meant to counter the illicit market.

Tackling human smuggling is essential not only for protecting the rights of migrants but also for restoring peace, security and stability in Libya.

Since 2021, the number of migrants departing Libyan shores for Europe has increased year-on-year, ending a spell of subdued activity that lasted from the end of the last crisis in mid-2017 to roughly 2020.

This increase has been driven by the re-emergence of transnational networks offering a hybrid travel package to migrants from Egypt, Bangladesh, Syria and Pakistan. These packages include regular entry permits and flights to airports in both the west and east of the country.

Benina, the main airport in the east, remains the most popular, apparently due to the lax policies of the LAAF, which benefits from the increased airport traffic by often imposing a separate entry fee. Many packages include transport to the coast and the sea crossing.

This is a revival of the sophisticated networks that linked client populations with overland and maritime smugglers, which drove the previous crisis of 2015–2017.

The elements allowing for such a revival largely link to the post-2020 peace. The operations of sophisticated networks are underpinned by cooperation between a variety of different stakeholders throughout Libya and abroad. This requires trust, both between the network organizers and local actors, and between local actors whose activities for the smuggling network intersect.

Such trust, which was limited during the 2019–2020 conflict, has gradually bounced back, allowing for sophisticated smuggling networks to move large numbers of migrants across nominal lines of LAAF and GNU control.

Human smuggling involving migrants from African countries has continued but now comprises only a fraction of total departures. This has not been manifestly changed yet by the conflict in Sudan.

Interviews suggest that between mid-April and early July 2023, several thousand Sudanese refugees have transited through the southern cities of Kufra and Um al Aranib. An unclear, though reportedly limited, number have also transited from Egypt into Libya along the coastal road.

This itinerary could intersect with the evolving migrant smuggling ecosystem in eastern Libya, raising the possibility of a sharp increase in Sudanese embarking for Europe in the medium term.

Since the start of 2022, departures from eastern Libya centred on the city of Tobruk have risen sharply. Previously marginal to human smuggling, the east saw, as of mid-2023, roughly as many embarkations as coastal Tripolitania, the historic centre of gravity for Libyan smuggling.

Departures from the east carry an inherent risk due to the usage of large vessels, the high numbers of migrants crammed on each vessel and the complexity of the nautical journey to Europe. This danger was underscored by the sinking of the migrant ship Adriana in June 2023, killing hundreds.

Rising levels of migration from the east have been fuelled in large part by networks previously involved in drug trafficking. These are tied into the sophisticated transnational networks detailed previously, which enable the supply of large numbers of migrants directly to eastern Libya.

The rise in departures also appears to have benefitted from the apparent tacit allowance of multiple elements within the LAAF.82 Complicating the situation, many of these elements have, at times, also cracked down on migrant departures, though the larger smuggling networks have been primarily untouched and the overall situation does not appear to have changed.

Tobruk should not just be understood quantitively as the addition of a new potential embarkation point, but as a qualitative game changer, with the potential to drive departures from Libya to levels last seen in 2017.

Finally, the abuse of migrants is an ongoing challenge, though some aspects of such predation have changed in recent years.83 In the 2010s, Libya became notoriously dangerous for migrants, with kidnap for ransom, physical violence, extortion and sexual violence a recurrent phenomenon.

These abuses were linked to smugglers and owners of warehouses used to store migrants, as well as officers of detention centres used by the Tripoli-based government to hold migrants intercepted on land or at sea.

Since 2020, reports of abuses in warehouses and kidnap for ransom have oscillated. Security gaps in the immediate aftermath of the Tripoli war opportunistic predation continued, particularly in areas south of Tripoli, including Mizdah, Shwayrif and Bani Walid.

More recently, reports of warehouse abuse have become less prevalent, though they continue. This may be because warehousing and extortion do not seem to be part of the sophisticated smuggling model seen at present, which has occupied a dominant share of the present human smuggling market. Lack of reporting on abuse may also be due to the displacement of warehouses to remote areas of the south and south-west, limiting access to information.

Detention centres affiliated with law enforcement in the north-west continue to see abuse and extortion, with migrants often viewed as resources to be exploited for bribes or government spending. However, a key danger area is the Fezzan. There, armed groups affiliated with the LAAF have increased abuse and predation of migrants, in part under the guise of a law enforcement campaign countering irregular migration.

In late 2021 and early 2022, this led to the mass expulsion of several thousand migrants into Niger.84 Migrants interviewed reported that these deportations involved abusive conditions, robbery and offers of release in return for bribes.

While deportations have ceased, the same groups reportedly continue to routinely detain migrants, mainly at facilities in or near Sebha.

Interviewees have noted recurrent instances of physical abuse and violence during detention. The sharp rise in human smuggling levels since 2020, and the dispersal of human smuggling to new areas such as eastern Libya, underscores the challenge faced by the international community in addressing the phenomenon in Libya. In part, this is due to the dominant position of armed groups in Libya and the weakness of the state.

It is also the result of rebounding transnational smuggling groups, leveraging Libya’s peace dividend to expand their operations and cater to new types of nationalities. It is likely that this will continue to intensify as long as Libya’s internal peace holds, heightening the likelihood that the year-on-year increases in movement through and departures from Libya will continue in the near to medium future.


Matt Herbert is a senior expert at the GI-TOC’s Observatory of Illicit Economies in North Africa and the Sahel. He writes on transnational organized crime and state fragility, and policy responses to these issues, including targeted financial sanctions, security sector reform and governance, and state–community engagement.

Rupert Horsley is a senior analyst at the GI-TOC. He is an expert on Libya, focusing on migration, organized crime, security and conflict trends in the country. He specializes in complex analysis and research in difficultto-access communities.

Emadeddin Badi is a senior analyst at the GI-TOC, a senior advisor for Libya at the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance and a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He specializes in governance, organized crime, hybrid security structures, security sector reform and development.


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