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Commentary

Deals with corrupt Libyan leaders help them stay in power

The EU policy of providing unstable countries in North Africa with economic aid in exchange for control of migratory flows risks creating further instability

African migrants constitute the majority of victims of human trafficking in Libya

On tendering his resignation on 16 April, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in Libya, the Senegalese Abdoulaye Bathily, painted a harsh portrait of the Libyan leaders. His efforts to resolve obstacles and divisions and bring the country to elections, he said, “were met with stubborn resistance, unreasonable expectations, and indifference to the interests of the Libyan people” from politicians “putting their personal interests above the needs of their country."

In Libya, the rule of armed militias and the divisions between rival governments in the East and the West have generated mingling and complicity between politics and organized crime. Both the internationally recognized Tripoli government led by Abdul Hamid Dbeiba and the Benghazi government controlled by "Field Marshal" Khalifa Haftar, unrecognized by the UN, are infiltrated by or in complicity with criminal organizations.

After 2020, following Haftar's failed attempt to conquer Tripoli militarily, the infiltration of criminal subjects into institutions accelerated. Libya now ranks 18th in the world for organized crime and first among North African countries. As analyzed in previous articles and studies, the connivance between criminals and politicians has led corrupt factions to establish themselves in positions of power. Criminal elements have strengthened political leaderships, bringing with them their own power bases. So, in addition to earning from criminal activities, they “govern” criminal markets using official tools and institutions.

Criminal activities in Libya range from weapons smuggling to drug smuggling, through to the very lucrative fuel trafficking. But European attention has focused on illicit activities linked to migration, i.e. human trafficking. Trafficking that endangers the lives of vulnerable individuals, causing human rights violations, abuses on migrants, who are subjected to inhuman conditions, physical violence and forced labor. The involvement of the Libyan authorities and security forces in these activities has been documented by the UN Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya in 2023.

Usually concentrated in the West, migrant trafficking has strengthened in Eastern Libya since 2023, with an increase in departures facilitated by the complicity of the authorities. Added to this are the more recent inflows of migrants and refugees generated by the conflict in Sudan, favored by the ties of the Haftar clan with the Rapid Support Forces, one of the belligerent groups.

The concerns of the EU, and in particular of Italy, have for years been linked to the flows of irregular migrants. Starting from the Italy-Libya memorandum concluded in 2017 by the then Interior Minister Marco Minniti, successive Italian governments have signed agreements at various levels with authorities and power groups in an attempt to fight traffickers and control migratory flows.

Italy’s prime minister Giorgia Meloni's trip to Libya on 7 May aimed to bring this policy to a more advanced level, on the model of the agreements with Tunisia, Mauritania and Egypt recently signed by the EU. Such deals, strongly encouraged by her government in accord with EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, aimed at providing these countries economic aid in exchange for the control of migratory flows. A practical “outsourcing” of European Union border management.

In her recent visit, Ms. Meloni has had widely publicized meetings with all Libyan leaders. However, those with the entire Haftar family are unprecedented for a European leader. In fact, the “Marshal” has been convicted in the United States of war crimes (which does not prevent US diplomats from meeting him) and is considered a corrupt leader. In terms of realpolitik, if the Italian choice results in a reduction in migratory flows, Meloni will increase her influence in Europe and strengthen von der Leyen’s position ahead of a European parliamentary election which sees the latter as a candidate to her succession.

The agreements signed by Haftar with Italy will most likely be honored, albeit within certain limitations. As it is widely recognized, Libyan leaders implicated in crime earn much more from fuel, drug and weapons smuggling than from migrant trafficking. Compared to the migrants’ dealing, narcotics ensure double profits and fuel smuggling almost five times as much. Furthermore, human trafficking requires further investments: collection centers, nutrition, transport. The politicians involved do not prefer it, but they know that they can use their role in it as a bargaining chip. They have a political interest in favoring the demands of European governments in exchange for "prestige" and recognition. A strategy which, together with the indefinite postponement of the elections, helps them remain in power.

However, these are not unlimited concessions: in the short-medium term they will expire and will have to be renewed. At what political price? And above all, with what consequences for the future of Libya? Naturally, the price will be for the EU leaders to guarantee the political survival of the current leaders. Therefore, with this strategy, the EU and its members will strengthen the corrupt and criminal elements that dominate the country and exacerbate internal divisions to the detriment of the population. They will therefore perpetuate Libya's instability, its role as a criminal state, with serious security repercussions at a regional and international level.

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