The Sentry

Human smuggling and trafficking

As a key embarkation point for migrants and refugees attempting to reach Italy, Malta, and Europe at large, Libya sees thousands of people transiting through monthly. To derive various benefits from these human flows, armed groups have developed an array of operations, including detention centers, anti-migrant patrols, and ransoming rackets, often using their nominal affiliation with government bodies and with the tacit support of senior state officials.

As a result, almost all of Libya’s politically relevant factions participate in human smuggling and trafficking, at least indirectly. The main motivations driving actors in the “migrant-flow management” sector are not always strictly pecuniary in nature; incentives include the opportunity to act on behalf of the state, given that Libya’s formal ministries and agencies almost always outsource the running of detention centers and anti-migrant patrols to armed groups.

Armed group leaders are also aware that any role in the “migrant-flow management” sector leads to greater acquiescence, solicitude, and recognition from European capitals. Because Italy has often been the top EU destination for irregular arrivals,298 Rome has been the most proactive, supporting many informal arrangements meant to reduce the outflow of irregular migrants from Libya.299 As Italy pursues such anti-migration policies, other European states and the EU itself are generally supportive while rhetorically deploring the abuses that said policies cause on Libyan soil, including in official detention centers.

In crucial geographical locations, armed groups connected to formal state agencies and ministries oversee processes that cause irregular migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers to be mistreated, tortured for ransom, or exploited as part of sex and labor trafficking practices.

The detention center in Kufrah, run by the Haftar-aligned armed group Subul al-Salam, is infamous for human rights abuses.304 Similarly, in Tripoli, the armed group led by Abdelghani al-Kikli, aligned with Dabaiba, has under its purview the Abu Slim Detention Center, where abuses are committed against migrants.

Furthermore, beyond the greater Tripoli area, the Zawiya-based component of the Stabilization Support Apparatus, an armed group coalition dominating parts of northwestern Libya, reportedly “intercepts refugees and migrants at sea and takes them to detention centres” where they are regularly beaten and subjected to forced labor and sexual violence.

Neither Dabaiba nor Haftar can easily distance themselves from these armed groups, as doing so would deprive them of strategic support in crucial territories, and so both the GNU and the LAAF refrain from carrying out genuine attempts at dismantling human smuggling networks in their respective backyards.

There are also actors aligned with neither major power center—in places like the central city of Bani Walid—who specialize in extracting cash from migrants via systematic torture. Aside from a few transitory disruptions, the number of irregular migrants reaching EU nations from Libyan shores by boat remained within a relatively low range from the summer of 2017 until an increase was observed in 2021.

Since 2021, irregular arrival volumes recorded in southern Italy have been in an upward trend. During the first 11 months of 2022, about 48,400 irregular migrants arrived in Italy from Libya, most of them departing from western Libya. Yet, the 64% increase from a nationwide total of 29,500 for the same period in 2021 stemmed almost entirely from eastern Libya, according to the Italian Ministry of the Interior.

The explosion in arrivals from eastern Libya’s shores helps explain the fact that in 2022, more than 20,000 mainly Egyptian nationals made it by sea to Italy, up from 1,264 in 2020. Other nationalities of migrants arriving in Italy from eastern cities such as Benghazi and Tobruk include Syrians, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis who fly to Benghazi from Damascus via Cham Wings.

Against this backdrop, the first months of 2023 showed a marked acceleration in migration via Libya. January through May of 2023 saw 22,662 irregular arrivals into Italy, up from 8,923 during the same period in 2022. More than half of these arrivals from Libya emanated from the country’s eastern region. Several analysts have noted that such a surge in departures from eastern Libya would not be possible without the deliberate knowledge and complicity of the Haftar family.

For instance, the Libyan actors behind the June 14, 2023, tragedy, which saw hundreds of migrants die off Pylos, Greece, seem directly linked to Saddam Haftar. Meanwhile, the migrant departures out of western Libya have continued,323 despite a brief drone strike campaign ordered by Dabaiba against suspected human smuggling assets to the west of Tripoli in late May and early June 2023.

Fearing that migration levels might surge toward the heights reached from 2013 to 2017, European authorities and member states—spearheaded by Italy—are seeking new arrangements with Libya’s leaders that can help limit the numbers of irregular arrivals. In its 2017 efforts to reduce the human outflow from Libya, largely ignoring the human suffering that such measures would cause on Libyan soil, Italy brought about arrangements in northwestern Libya that saw armed groups receive vessels from the EU, as well as public servant salaries and formal recognition from the Tripoli government.

Recently, Rome has been pursuing a similar policy with regard to armed groups in northeastern Libya. In June 2023, Italian Minister of the Interior Matteo Piantedosi declared his country’s readiness to support economic development projects in northeastern Libya at Khalifa Haftar’s request in exchange for a reduction in departures. Cognizant of such opportunities for financial rewards, armed leaders in Libya are incentivized to allow an increase in irregular arrivals in order to bolster their political leverage and, later, extract greater concessions from Europe. These dynamics result in greater indulgence toward kleptocracy in Libya on the part of the EU amid its effort to keep irregular migration down.


The narcotics business in Libya is dominated by the fast-growing trade in three products: cannabis, a synthetic amphetamine called captagon, and cocaine.331 While the cocaine usually originates from Latin America, most of the cannabis comes from Morocco and most of the captagon from regime-held Syria. Some Libyan state officials abuse public mandates and public resources to participate in or assist the illicit drug trade.

In 2020, partly because the UAE encouraged such proximity, the Haftar family and the Assad regime forged a political, military, logistical, and economic rapport. That partnership has facilitated the flow of captagon from Syria into eastern Libya, among other illicit schemes.339, 340 The overall size of Syria’s regime-spon-sored captagon industry—overseen by President Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher—is currently estimated to be about $10 billion per year.

A percentage of that output is moved into eastern Libya, often before traveling on to the rest of Libya and neighboring countries such as Algeria, Sudan, and Niger. Some of the captagon shipped from Syria to eastern Libya ends up in Europe.347 Another portion is absorbed by Libyan society, as consumption by locals has been growing. Captagon trafficking in Libya will likely continue to expand, given the growing acceptance of the Assad regime within the Arab world, a trend that benefits from active international lobbying by the UAE and Egypt.

In contrast, the US has made some legislative efforts to combat the Assad regime’s captagon trade, but those efforts have yet to result in measures capable of affecting the Libyan actors benefiting from the trade. Not all the synthetic drugs circulating in Libya stem from Assad-held Syria, however. India is another point of origin, and anecdotal evidence suggests that manufacturing devices might already be in use on Libyan soil.

Another growing trade in Libya is that of cannabis, as exemplified by recent instances of intercepted cannabis shipments. Control over cannabis routes has been a recurring source of tension across Libya, including in municipalities near the western coast, such as al-Ajeelat, a town that already served as a cannabis hub during the Qadhafi years. Some of the cannabis originating from Morocco enters Libya through Algeria and the Ghat area, near the border. Other flows of cannabis stemming from Morocco travel through Mauritania, Mali, and Niger, making it to Libya via areas such as the Salvador Pass on Libya’s southwestern borders.

Beyond cannabis, captagon, and cocaine, other types of drugs circulating in Libya include tramadol, pregabalin, and clonazepam. Some recent incidents reveal a flow of narcotics from EU nations into both western and eastern Libya. This suggests that the North African country has become a full-blown hub for transcontinental drug traffickers.


The Sentry is an investigative and policy organization that seeks to disable multinational predatory networks that benefit from violent conflict, repression, and kleptocracy.


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