Each year, thousands of African migrants depart Libya in rickety boats and risk their lives seeking better opportunities in Europe. Many other migrants remain in the North African country, drawn by opportunities but also subjected to mistreatment at the hands of smugglers and traffickers.
Libya has long-attracted migrants in search of better lives. But unresolved security challenges, a weakened infrastructure and a depreciating currency have led to harsh conditions and stark choices for many migrants who find themselves living there.
Othman Belbeisi is the chief of mission in Libya for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an intergovernmental group that works to make migration safer.
In an interview with VOA, Belbeisi said that Libya has always been both a destination and transit country for migrants, but poor governance, an ailing infrastructure and economic challenges have restricted migrants’ options and bred lawlessness.
That’s resulted in what Belbeisi calls “modern-time slavery,” in which people are held against their will and forced into life-threatening situations. Libya hosts about 700,000 migrants from 35 countries, he said.
Some have just arrived, but many others have lived in the country for years. They come with different expectations. Some plan to work. Others intend to stay only briefly, before realizing they don’t have the means to move on. Many are from West Africa, and most lack valid travel documents.
Need for security
In addition to Libya’s migrant population, about 165,000 Libyans have been internally displaced. Both groups are especially vulnerable to challenges faced by the entire society, including an unreliable telecommunications network and a health care system in disarray.
More investment and development are needed to rebuild Libya’s infrastructure, but improved security must come first, Belbeisi said.
“Everything else can be achieved once you have security,” he said. “Without security, we will continue to be challenged if we want to achieve anything.”
In the absence of security, smuggling and trafficking networks have proliferated and wield considerable power. At smuggling hubs, migrants are held captive and experience inhumane conditions.
Yet migrants are often the ones punished.
“Unfortunately, we see the migrants being criminalized and detained. And the smugglers — many of them are free,” Belbeisi said.
Searching for something better
In Libya, the IOM is most concerned with an increasing number of deaths, both in the desert and at sea.
There’s been an uptick in migration flows to Europe across the Mediterranean for the past three years, although the numbers have tapered off recently.
Those who take boats across the Mediterranean do so as a last resort, Belbeisi said. There are no guarantees of survival, nor of success in Europe. But when staying put no longer offers any benefits, people move forward.
“Most of the migrants who are leaving have nothing, so they are looking for anything by taking the boats,” Belbeisi said.
From the IOM’s perspective, it’s important to provide information about risks but also to allow migrants to make personal decisions.
One initiative the IOM uses to provide options to migrants facing difficult choices is a voluntary return program. Through this program, migrants who wish to return home can receive assistance in leaving Libya, and participate in vocational training and reintegration programs upon returning home.
The IOM handles voluntary returns on a case-by-case basis and treats the program not as an endorsement to return home but rather as an option for those who want it.
To understand the challenges migrants face, Belbeisi advocates a comprehensive approach that rejects oversimplified labels like “economic migrants” in favor of a more nuanced understanding of how and why people leave their homes to rebuild their lives. For Belbeisi, that means focusing on labor migration along with family reunification.
The key to improving the situation for migrants in Libya is to create regular migration channels, according to Belbeisi. That will require a coordinated effort from many nations.
“Libya can contribute to the solution, but Libya cannot take responsibility alone. This is a global responsibility,” he said.