The violence and abuse that migrants face in Libya is widely known. Yet, how do we understand this situation within migration concepts? Are migrants’ victims of human smuggling, of human trafficking, or neither in Libya?
In this paper, we look specifically at the experiences of Eritrean migrants coming to Italy via Libya. This case is specific to Eritreans and does not represent all migrants in Libya. Eritrean migrants enter Libya in the southeast; this is Tebou territory. Since the fall of Qaddafi, Libya has been ruled by tribal regimes and the Tebou have a strong control over their territory.
We find that Eritreans leaving Sudan for Libya know and expect that they will be kidnapped and extorted in Libya. There is no deception involved. They are brought to the Libya-Sudanese border by smugglers from Khartoum and are told to wait. When the Libyans arrive, they are taken to compounds where they call their families and connections to transfer money for their release. They are not allowed to leave until their family pays. Many are tortured while they wait for the payment.
Once the payment is made, most often, the Eritrean migrants are brought North and pushed to the Mediterranean sea. When they arrive in Italy, the ordeal is over and they no longer have a relationship with their captors in Libya.
We argue that this is not migrant smuggling- as there is no initial agreement made between two parties. This is also not human trafficking- there is no deception nor coercion and the relationship ends after leaving Libya. This is kidnapping and extortion, and can best be addressed as a crime against humanity.
In Libya, the lack of national and international authority has created a transit space of exception, where kidnapping and extortion has now continued for years with no intervention. As a crime against humanity, the international community is obligated to protect these migrants under the responsibility to protect meaning that internationally states should take action to collectively protect migrants in Libya.
This case raises key questions. What are the moral and international law obligations for countries of arrival when migrants or asylum seekers have been victims of a crime against humanity? Can we break free from the migrant smuggling and human trafficking definitions and adopt an international protection regime for these migrants or asylum seekers when they arrive in EU territory? This is all the more a timely question as the EU seeks a durable solution to the Mediterranean migration flows.