African and Middle Eastern migration flows to Libya and the country’s posture toward these migrants have changed dramatically since the 2011 fall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. While Libya once was a destination for foreign workers drawn by a strong economy, post-civil war, migrants have used the country as a transit point to set off for Europe—though as European borders have hardened since the 2015-16 migration crisis, many have remained stranded.
Amid profound instability unleashed with the Libyan civil war and rival factions vying for power, conditions facing the roughly 650,000 migrants who remain in Libya have been dire. Those living in the community are vulnerable to extortion, violence, and slave-like work conditions, while migrants held in detention centers may experience overcrowding, sexual abuse, forced labor, torture, and deprivation of food, sunlight, and water. Amid entrenched fighting around Tripoli, including a deadly airstrike in 2019 that hit a migrant detention center, thousands of migrants have been evacuated from the country.
The experience of one Nigerian woman interviewed by the author in Italy, after a journey across the Mediterranean that has proven so dangerous for countless people, offers a sketch in brief of how the situation for migrants has changed significantly in Libya. Drawn to Libya by the prospect of better work and pay, the woman’s thinking changed after witnessing a shooting. “Blood was pumping out… I was hiding there, looking; there was nobody to rescue the boy and that is how the boy just lost his life,” the migrant recounted in 2017. “The next thing I need[ed] to do is just for me to secure myself. I didn’t go home; I was hiding. I was praying within me, to tell God to come and help me.” After this experience the woman believed she would not be safe in Libya and worked to pay her passage to Italy.
Others have not been so fortunate, finding themselves stuck in limbo. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated in 2018 that 600,000 migrants in Libya could be victims of abuse and human-rights violations. This year, IOM reported that 71 percent of migrants in Libya claimed to have limited or no access to health services, an especially concerning statistic amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The public-health crisis has added new pressure to the situation; migrants and refugees have reported losing their jobs and seeing food prices spike due, in part, to supply chain disruptions sparked by the outbreak.
Drawing on interviews the author conducted with Eritreans and Nigerians who had migrated through Libya, this article explains how conditions have changed for migrants in the post-Gaddafi era. In effect, there have been two stages: a state of transit from 2011 to late 2017, followed by a state of containment following the late 2017 implementation of a deal with Italy for the Libyan coast guard to thwart migrant boats from reaching European waters. This agreement was renewed in February 2020, offering a moment to reconsider its effect on migrants’ experiences.
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