Since 2015, when more than 200,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean Sea each month from North Africa in search of work and refuge from conflict, this has not only changed politics in Europe, but also pushed the European Union to spend around $ 550 million in Libya to help stem the flow of people. The funding has enabled more ships off the Libyan coast to intercept migrant flotillas. It has improved the country’s detention centers. In a way, the investment has paid off. The monthly average of migrants crossing North Africa so far this year has fallen to around 5,500.
But the containment measures don’t tell the full story of what is happening in Libya and why it matters to US and European efforts to end illegal immigration. A new study on migrants in Misurata, Libya’s third largest port, offers timely insight into the motivations and solutions for human theft. And it precedes two key efforts by Western governments driven by migration crises. One is a trip by US Vice President Kamala Harris to Mexico and Guatemala starting Sunday. The other is a summit in Germany later this month to advance Libya’s transition from civil war to democracy.
Libya has been an important destination for migrant labor in Africa for decades. Its economy depended on foreign workers from neighboring countries to provide jobs in the agricultural fields and shipyards that the Libyans avoided. That changed after the fall of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and the decade of conflict that followed. Economic collapse and deteriorating security conditions in rival strongholds of Tripoli and Benghazi have prompted migrant workers to seek refuge in Europe. Many of those who were turned away ended up in overcrowded detention centers in Libya and suffered human rights violations.
Conditions in Misurata, located between these two large cities, were different. A careful balance of power between the leaders of the different armed groups – many of whom are wealthy businessmen – has rocked civic, social and economic life. The new study, conducted jointly by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, drew on 1,045 in-depth interviews with migrants living in Misurata during the second half of 2019, providing a glimpse of life for the city’s 56,000 migrants. The results are more intuitive than surprising: the economic and security stability in Misurata has increased its need for migrant labor and decreased the need for these workers to move, for example to Europe.
Most migrants in Libya come from four neighboring countries facing armed conflict, severe political and economic instability, or both: Niger, Egypt, Chad and Sudan. About 80% have arrived in the past four years. The study found that 92% of migrants in Misurata were able to meet their basic needs and 62% did not intend to move forward: “Migrants report that economic factors, such as the type of job they have (80%) and the job (70%), the improvement in security conditions (77%) and their standard of living (72%) give them an impetus to stay.
The IOM / Georgetown study confirms the best intentions of the US and the EU to stabilize both sources of illegal immigration and countries whose economies depend on legal migrant labor. When Vice President Harris meets with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei on Monday, they will focus on the major forces of human displacement: economic desperation, violence, corruption and climate change. Although far from the border, their conversation is perhaps closer to what Jacqueline Bhabha, a Harvard scholar and author of a book on migration, calls “the imperatives that flow from our common humanity.”