Libya, the third largest country in the African continent (1.75 million km²), shares 4,400 km of border with six other countries, four of which are Arab countries. It has a vast coastal area on the Mediterranean (nearly 2,000 km). For such a large country, its population density is very thin — there are barely six million inhabitants.

Libya’s historical relationships with its neighbors are a mixed bag. They include conflicts and wars, as well as cooperation and peaceful coexistence. Demographically, inhabitants who sit astride border areas are homogeneous and belong to the same tribes. It is customary to see members of the same family living on both sides of the borders that Libya shares with its neighbors. In the cases of Egypt, Tunisia, and Sudan the tribes are Arab, while those who live in border areas with Algeria are Tuareg. In the south and in areas close to both Chad and Niger, the tribes on both sides of the borders are from Tabu and Tuareg.

This type of coexistence has its positive and negative aspects. When Libyans were exposed to crises in certain periods of recent history they crossed the borders in large groups and sought help from their relatives. Such mass movements occurred many times when there was famine or war. The country experienced more than one famine and one major war when Italy invaded the country during the first decade of the 20th century.[1]

Prior to the discovery of oil, Libya, with no natural resources (including water), was one of the poorest countries in Africa. Therefore, more Libyans crossed the border to neighboring countries than the other way around. Put differently, it was a situation of emigration rather than immigration. Following the discovery and production of large quantities of oil, the country’s GDP began to grow at a rate as high as 14% or more. To face the new reality and allocate resources efficiently and equitably, Libya embarked in the early 1960s on a number of consecutive five-year socioeconomic plans.

Libya’s historical relationships with its neighbors are a mixed bag.

The sudden boost in the economy led to the need for foreign labor. Initially, Libyans did not frown at individuals coming legally or illegally from neighboring countries to work and live, and considered the opening of the country’s doors for them as a kind of repayment of an old debt. Subsequently, however, they began accusing Sub-Saharan Africans of a long list of problems, from sanitary conditions to social issues.

Libya as a Country of Destination and Transition

Toward the end of 1969, the country adopted an open door policy for immigrants flowing from the Arab world. Arab immigrants, legal or otherwise, were welcomed, and soon their number spiked to an estimated two million. By contrast, Libyan nationals at that time numbered under four million.[2]

By the end of the 1990s, Libyan foreign policy witnessed a radical shift from advocacy of pan-Arab to pan-African unity. Checkbook diplomacy was employed to put this shift into practice. Institutionally, Libya was the catalyst for the establishment of two important African organizations: 1) The Sahel and Sahara Countries Joint Council, with headquarters in Tripoli, and, more importantly, 2) The African Union (AU), based in Addis Ababa, which replaced the Organization of African Unity (OAU). As a consequence, Libya’s policy toward immigrants shifted openly toward preference for Sub-Saharan Africans.

Broadly speaking, illegal and clandestine migration in the Mediterranean basin, of which Libya is part, is not a new phenomenon. It has its own long history. Certain Mediterranean countries were known to be the starting points for such migration, but Libya was not among them even though the country has coastal towns which are suitable for jumping-off points to Europe. But in recent years, Libya has suddenly become the most important transit country of illegal migrants to Europe. There are two reasons for this change: 1) the EU succeeded in signing treaties with some Mediterranean countries to curb illegal migration, and 2) Mu‘ammar Gadhafi, for political reasons, decided to put pressure on certain European countries by using the issue of illegal migration.[3]

The Arab Spring and the Impact on Illegal Migration 

On February 17, 2011 Libyan youth ignited an uprising, joining their brethren in other Arab countries. The uprising started as a peaceful demonstration in the Eastern province of Benghazi, but the regime responded furiously using all kinds of military hardware and ammunition. Such excessive use of power against unarmed protesters did not stop the revolt in Benghazi; instead, it spread throughout the country. Hardly any city or town in the country was spared. In spite of the help that the rebels received from the international community, the struggle to topple the regime lasted for 246 days. During those difficult days, nearly every household in the country suffered, in one way or another, but immigrants suffered the most.

As the conflict intensified, all foreigners hastened to leave the country. Using road transportation, immigrants fled in all directions. Those who were able to cross to Algeria, Chad, and Niger did not face the complications that those who fled to Tunisia or Egypt did. The latter were stocked in temporary camps for refugees erected close to the borders. They remained in the most deplorable conditions until safe means to get them back to their countries were found or hosting countries accept them as refugees. For some, the temporary state of refugees lasted a year or more.

Other immigrants, however, decided to bear the consequences and stay in Libya to face the same fate as Libyans. They either could not return to their home countries for one reason or another or were protected by Libyan families and living among them in the cases of those holding housekeeping, handyman, or other similar jobs.

Still others decided to stay and fight with Gadhafi’s forces, hoping to be well paid and possibly enjoy additional benefits such as the promise of obtaining Libyan nationality. Some among those are the offspring of families who had been living in the southern part of Libya for decades ― Chadian or Nigerians or even Libyans with no legal status, all eager to get naturalized.

Other groups were brought to Libya during the revolt specifically to join Gadhafi’s forces. Rumors and reports surfaced at that time that Gadhafi had allegedly recruited sub-Saharan mercenaries to kill rebels and carry out rapes and other violence. Such rumors negatively affected the situation of those dark-skinned immigrants who were stranded in the country. Indeed, the fate of all sub-Saharan migrants became outright dangerous, and many suffered grave violations of human rights committed against them.

Efforts to Control Illegal Migration and its Implications on Europe  

When the revolt came to an end and the regime was toppled, Libya was ruled by an interim government operating side-by-side with militias known as katibas. In spite of the lack of security and the shortage of basic services which are provided by police and the municipality, life on the street started to move gradually towards normalcy, including the regular scene of immigrants gathering at crossroads of the city waiting for possible jobs as day laborers. On the other hand, judging from those immigrants who could be seen in Tripoli today, it is obvious that the business of people smuggling has begun to boom again. Some of the very same smugglers as had been operating under the previous regime are again active. As Salt and Stein describe it, the gangs who are involved in such activities do not consider it as a temporary assignment but rather as a job for life.[4]

As for the number of foreign labor and immigrants after the fall of the regime, it is by all means far less compared to the situation before the revolt. But it also obvious that the flow is high, and that their number is increasing by the day. Construction is an area where thousands of workers can find jobs. They can also find work in farming, stores and small shops, petrol stations, cleaning and guarding in schools, and in hospitals, private homes and the like.

Most of the immigrants at this time entered the country legally, but they stayed behind after their visas expired and, therefore, became illegal immigrants. In the meantime, there are those who did not use legal procedures to enter the country and avoided crossing through official border checkpoints. Most of these are usually from sub-Saharan areas who enter from the south and move north to coastal cities. Their movement within the country is the responsibility of Libyan smugglers who, in addition to their knowledge of back roads have a chain of relations which include individuals holding different social and political ranks who aid in smuggling operations. However, this does not mean that they will always succeed. Regular law enforcement is not back on track yet, but some militias and armed groups are today exercising many roles, including policing their respective territories. They can randomly stop trucks loaded with illegal immigrants just before entering the city. For instance, in August of this year, a militia stopped two trucks near the city of Sirte packed with around 84 illegal immigrants from Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Ghana, and Nigeria.[5] Both Ghana and Nigeria share no border with Libya, which means that illegal migration has resumed from all over sub-Saharan Africa. This is not the only incident of its kind this year.

To be more specific, illegal immigrants in Libya today can be classified into four categories: those who plan to remain for an extended duration; many of these usually have commitments (e.g., raising families accompanying them or staying behind). Members of the second category are those who plan to work temporarily, transferring money back home. They tend to transit many times and in some cases are raising families in their home countries.

The third group are those who came to Libya as a transitional stage (i.e., they work in order to raise enough money to pay for the journey across the Mediterranean to their goal in Europe). There are also those who have already raised (in their home towns) the money that could be paid to assure access to a European seaport and thus stay in Libya just for the time needed to contact smugglers and board a boat bound for Europe. Members of this group will not move into the cities; they are kept by smugglers secluded in farm houses on the outskirts of cities or in towns not far away from the seaport from which they hope to cross the Mediterranean to either Malta or Lampedusa Island in Italy. Sometimes such expeditions are aborted when private investigators gather information and the whole group is caught. This seldom occurs. A police raid on June 4, 2012 near the city of Ajdabia, however, detained a group of 45 illegal migrants from different countries who were aboard a boat taking them to Europe.[6] Although clandestine migration to Europe had slowed down noticeably when Libya entered into negotiations with the EU on the issue of illegal migration, since the fall of the regime the phenomenon has resumed.

Official reports for the first half of 2012 put the number of illegal migrants that were able to board a boat from Libya and reach the island of Lampedusa in Italy at 1,300. Not everyone that starts the journey, however, will reach his destination; many will, and have, drowned. At least 170 have died so far this year while attempting to cross from Libya. On June 27, 2012 a boat left the shores of Tripoli with 55 on board. The boat ran into trouble and drifted for 15 days; only one person survived.[7]


Libya, after joining the Arab spring and ridding itself of one of the most vicious dictators of the 20th century is a country seeking a fresh start. Libyans for the time being are aiming to achieve democratic rule, but they are faced with the reality that the bloody struggle that destroying the dictator has also destroyed all law enforcement institutions and left the country in disarray. The interim government turned out to be too weak and fragile, incapable of establishing law and order. All sorts of weapons are still widely spread among the population, and numerous militias acting independently without central command challenge the official security system.

Therefore, illegal immigrants will continue to roam; some will continue their attempts to cross the Mediterranean. Unless the Libyans succeed in the near future in re-establishing and restoring law and order to prevent their coastal areas from being used as a jumping-off point to Europe, the country will slowly drift toward becoming a failed state, and, therefore, will become an open and unprotected gate of illegal migration and clandestine crossings to Europe.

[1] Mustafa O. Attir, On the Future of Low Income Families in Libya (Tripoli: Academy of Graduate Studies Press, 2006), pp.40–44.

[2] Mustafa O. Attir, “Controlling Libya’s Borders Against Illegal Migration: A Mission Impossible,” Proceedings of the Conference on Fortress or Area of Freedom: Euro-Mediterranean Border Management, Berlin (June 2009), p. 7.

[3] Mustafa O. Attir, “The Libyan Experience with Legal and Illegal Migration within its Relations with the League of Arab States and the African Union” in Mustafa O. Attir (ed.), Highlights on Socio-Economic Impact of International Migration on Libyan Society (Tripoli: Academy of Graduate Studies Press, 2010), p. 33.

[4] John Salt and Jeremy Stein, “Migration as a Business: The Case of Trafficking.”      International Migration, Vol. 35, No. 4 (1997), p. 470.

[5] “Arresting More Than 140 Illegal Migrants,” Libya Al-Mostakbal Online (June 17, 2012),

[6] “Arresting a Group While They Were Ready to Cross the Mediterranean,” Almanaralink Online (June 4, 2012), http://

[7] “54 Illegal Immigrants Die at the Mediterranean Sea While Trying to Reach Italy,” Humanity Voice (July 11, 2012),