European Union and Libya: recent developments in humanitarian crisis management

di Martina Marcassa - 30 Novembre 2020

  from Venice, Italy

 DOI : 10.48256/TDM2012_00158


In a context of civil war and political instabilities, abuses and violations of human rights unfortunately are a daily occurrence. This is exactly what has been happening in Libya for a decade and what does not seem to be halting. As a result, one of the main consequences stemming from armed conflicts and democratic fragility is the violation of international humanitarian law. In particular, the dreadful phenomena we are currently witnessing in the Libyan territories involve arbitrary arrests and detentions of thousands of civilians, especially migrants and refugees (Amnesty International, 2019).

Therefore, in this extremely complicated and delicate situation, the EU is attempting to play a significant role in humanitarian crisis management. The aim of the Old Continent is not only to contribute to the ceasing of the abuses perpetrated at the expense of innocent people, but also to curb unsustainable migratory waves towards Europe. And this is in all likelihood the prevailing intention.


What happened in Libya? An overview of what led to the current humanitarian crisis

Since Gaddafi’s regime was overthrown in 2011 and many attempts of establishing a solid democracy failed,  a terrible civil war in Libya broke out. The contenders are the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli spearheaded by al-Sarraj and the Libyan National Army led by Haftar. Since 2014, the Islamic State broke into the conflict as a third party controlling the south of Libya and exacerbating violence and terror in the country. As claimed by the UN Support Mission in Libya, in 2019 the number of casualties reached 284, predominantly resulting from gross violations of international humanitarian law (Amnesty International, 2019). Moreover, according to the UN 200,000 people are internally displaced, while more than a million require humanitarian assistance, as The Guardian reports. The EU seems to be certainly concerned about the facts occurring in Libya, however what worries European leaders the most is addressing the refugee crisis.

Thus, for thousands of people Libya represents a transit point to better future prospects. The current humanitarian crisis is exacerbated by the Libyan civil war, however migratory flows mostly originate in sub-Saharan Africa. For instance,  The Guardian informs that, according to IOM, in Libya there are more than 600.000 among refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers. A considerable number of them are detained in governmental detention centres or illegal prisons managed by Libyan armed forces. Why? It must be recalled that Libya did not adopt  the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees. No foreigner can illegally remain on Libyan soil without incurring arrest and detention for an unlimited period of time, according to the ASGI. Therefore, humanitarian concerns refer to unlawful imprisonment applied to migrants and to the unhygienic conditions, violences and abuses experienced by detainees, including torture, killings, rape, forced labour (Amnesty International, 2020).


The role of EU in addressing migration flows coming from Africa

Among the first European attempts to address irregular migration or displacement, above all the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa played a crucial role. As declared by the European Commission, it provides ‘a new impetus for EU cooperation on migration’ and it reinforces political dialogue with partner African states. Moreover, it aims to combine European and external stakeholders’ resources to better take action against drivers of irregular migration. In fact, EUTF for Africa’s purposes are to jointly respond to the drivers and conditions provoking irregular movements and to support local governments in improving security. However, the January 2020 Oxfam Italia report revealed that a significant share of EU resources originally allocated to Public Aid for Development had gradually switched objectives. Additionally, evidence showed that an increasing section of funds have been employed to arrange repatriations in agreement with African states of origin to contrast the arrivals of irregular migrants. 

Therefore, European governments’ representatives expressed their willingness to employ the EUTF for Africa to prevent irregular flows by intensifying the organisation of repatriations. As Oxfam Italia reported, African diplomats frequently raised their perplexities in relation to the possible negative implications of these actions in the long run. However, in November 2017 the EU, the  AU and the UN established a joint task force with the specific purpose of strengthening the cooperation against irregular migration flows, especially those coming from Libya. Moreover, in 2019 the EU settled 61,5 million euro to create new programs to support and protect vulnerable migrants and refugees, with the aim to improve their life conditions and Libyan resilience (Oxfam Italia, 2020). Needless to say that these new programs and the earmarked resources were designed to be part of previously discussed EUTF for Africa.


The EU response to irregular arrivals from Libya 

Therefore, massive amount of migrants flee from sub-saharan Africa arriving in Libya with the aspiration to reach Europe, but they are too often subject to violence, unlawful detentions or inhumane sea travels. The 2017 Malta Declaration represented the first concrete European attempt to halt smuggling business and a concrete action against irregular migration from Libya. The EU action in Libya was designed on several aspects such as boosting Libyan coastguard training and equipment and ensuring protection and assistance to migrants (European Council, 2020). Additionally, measures were implemented to support local communities and to improve borders management. The European Union has hitherto employed 408 million euro of EUTF for Africa’s funds to endow programs intended to support Libya. Although the overall number of irregular arrivals did decrease since those provisions had been implemented, the humanitarian crisis in Libya continued to dramatically escalate.

Among EU operations in Libya, Operation Sophia represents the leading one. It was established to enhance security in Libyan waters and to save lives at sea. Operation Sophia was in charge of identifying and seizing vessels used by smugglers in order to make Mediterranean Sea safer and to prevent crimes and deaths. In addition, members partaking in the Operation were in charge of rescuing people missing at sea too. Afterwards, activities widened the scope to train and equip Libyan coastguards and navy aiming to dismantle human trafficking and to undertake rescue operations (Eunavfor). Operation Sophia ceased in March 2020 to give way to Operation IRINI that will guarantee the compliance to the UN-imposed arms embargo against Libya. It will undertake actions to gather information about illegal oil exports from Libyan territory and it will be responsible for Libyan coastguard training and capacity building against human trafficking (European Council, 2020).


The role of Italy in combating trafficking of human beings 

Owing to its geographical location, Italy – along with Greece – have always represented some of the preferred points of access to Europe. As the issue of huge irregular migratory waves emerged in 2015, Member States have unsuccessfully attempted to effectively find a durable solution through CEAS, at the expense of frontline States that are carrying all the consequent burdens. The Memorandum of Understanding set in 2017 between Italy and Libya (GNA) was one of the measures undertaken by the Italian Government in order to reduce migratory pressure on national borders. However, the bilateral agreement has recently raised many doubts over its legality and compliance with international and human rights law. Civil society groups and international humanitarian organisations asked not to renew the Memorandum. In fact, in the opinion of Statewatch (2020), it would have entailed a perpetration of human rights violations, abuses and tortures against migrants in Libyan detention centres.


The Memorandum renewal and its related controversies 

Thus, in February 2020 Italy decided to revalidate the Memorandum without ensuring that Libya would have respected human rights and without expecting any effort in this sense. In compliance with the agreed obligations, the Italian Government furnished Libya with naval vessels, patrol boats and other equipment to conduct interception operations, as reported by ASGI. Therefore, the EU Commission declared that all these procedures decreased by 90% irregular arrivals from Libya. However, those sorts of measures have been returning and blocking thousands of migrants in Libya, where their rights are not protected and, conversely, they are grossly violated.

As urged even by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Mijatović, “thousands of human beings have risked their lives to seek protection. It is shameful that we turn a blind eye to them. This tragedy has gone on for too long now, and European countries have contributed to it. It is urgent that Italy, the EU and all its member states take action to put an end to it”. Also the OHCHR raised awareness about the inhumane life conditions, torture, rape, indefinite detentions suffered by migrants by the EU and Italy in the Mediterranean have not reduced the ill-treatments reserved to migrants in Libyan territory. By contrast, those actions contributed to a worsening of their conditions.


Conclusive remarks

In conclusion, it seems to be evident that an efficient Common European policy in the field of migration control must be established. A more integrated, cooperative and solidary approach among the 27 Member States must be the way forward, with higher attention to human dignity. In fact, the European Union, Italy, the Libyan  government and all the other pivotal actors must recall that it is human beings they are dealing with: families, fathers, mothers, children, friends. Controlling irregular migrations and curbing the pressure on Southern Member States is comprehensible, as it is the willingness to eradicate human trafficking.

Making agreements with Libya can be one of the possible measures to take in order to achieve these results. However, all these efforts must be unavoidably conditional to guarantees of decent and respectful treatments to migrants and refugees. An initial step shall be to incentivise the adoption of the  1951 Geneva Convention as a legally binding document in partner states such as Libya.


References (A-E)

Amnesty International (2019). Libya 2019. Available at:

Amnesty International (2020). Libya: ‘Between life and death’: refugees and migrants trapped in Libya’ cycle of abuse. Available at:

ASGI (2020). ASGI chiede l’immediato annullamento del Memorandum Italia-Libia. Available at:

Eunavfor Med Operation Sophia. Available at:

European Commission (2019). EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. Available at:

European Council (2017). Malta Declaration by the members of the European Council on the external aspects of migration: addressing the Central Mediterranean route. Available at:


References (E-T)

European Council (2020). Central Mediterranean route. Available at:

European Council (2020). EU launches Operation IRINI to enforce Libya arms embargo. Available at:

Governo della Repubblica Italiana (2017). Memorandum d’intesa sulla cooperazione nel campo dello sviluppo, del contrasto all’immigrazione illegale, al traffico di esseri umani, al contrabbando e sul rafforzamento della sicurezza delle frontiere tra lo Stato della Libia e la Repubblica Italiana. Available at:

Oxfam Italia (2020). Il Trust Fund UE per l’Africa intrappolato tra difesa delle frontiere e politiche di aiuto. Available at:

Statewatch (2020). Analysis. Italy renews Memorandum with Libya, as evidence of a secret Malta-Libya deal surfaces. Available at:

The Guardian (2020). War in Libya: how did it start, who is involved and what happens next?. Available at:


Autore dell’articolo*: Martina Marcassa, esperta in NGOs, aiuto umanitario e politiche migratorie europee. Dottoressa in Scienze Internazionali e Diplomatiche presso l’Università di Trieste e Laureata in MSc International Social and Public Policy (NGOs) presso la London School of Economics. 




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