Paris Perspective #6: Libya, human trafficking and the French connection
A decade since the Arab Spring swept across North Africa and the Middle East, Libya remains torn between opposing factions battling to fill the power vacuum left by fallen dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Paris Perspective looks at how Libya has become a hub for human trafficking, engulfed by lawlessness and impunity, and how France helped to make it that way.
Two rival governments now control the faction-riven battleground that is Libya. There's the internationally recognised administration in Tripoli, in the west, and the oil-rich parallel administration controlled by rebel General Khalifa Haftar, in the east.
Positioned at the crossroads between Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, Libya lacks any fundamental state structure. Thus, it's become a breeding ground for trafficking vulnerable migrants risking their lives in the hope of crossing the Mediterranean to start a new life in the EU.
French anthropologist and writer Jérôme Tubiana recently travelled to a town recognised as the people-smuggling capital of Libya. An authority on the Sahel, Tubiana transformed his encounters with an enigmatic “doctor”, who runs a safe-house for migrants, into a graphic novel: The Curse of You-Know-Where.
Meet the 'doctor'
The doctor is a former English interpreter for Colonel Gaddafi who, according to Tubiana, was traumatised by the 2011 NATO military intervention in Libya. His hometown, a Gaddafi stronghold, was heavily bombed and remains a rare enclave of nostalgia for the “ancien régime”.
Tubiana says the doctor is neither a hero nor a main character in the novel, but a guide. “He’s actually been a real help to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), setting up a little clinic in a safe house ... He's really helping migrants who end up in this town.”
Between 2018 and 2020, Tubiana visited the safe house four or five times, and gradually began extending his stays there as he was welcomed by the doctor.
Why Transform The Story Of Migrants In Libya Into A Graphic Novel?
The residents of the town, which remains unnamed, have a mixed sense of pride and shame. They are proud that some Libyans are helping migrants there – which is not that common – but they are also tetchily aware of their reputation as Libya's migrant trafficking capital.
The term “trafficking” is very loaded in Libya. “It's a generic word for a very widespread phenomenon," explains Tubiana. "Migrants are commonly captured and held prisoner for months, in very difficult situations, in crowded places. There they are tortured for ransoms that are supposed to be sent by their families.”
And so, the locals bow their heads in shame. They don’t want the name of their town to be revealed. In Libya there is a collective omerta, or code of silence, regarding migrant torture.
The migrant 'safe house'
Some 4,000 migrants are thought to have crossed the threshold of this one safe house, which can host up to 80 people at a time. The small comforts found within its walls are rudimentary, at best.
“They have food, clothes, places to sleep and some level of protection – but that protection isn’t perfect,” says Tubiana.
“There is a guard with a gun, but the protection isn’t the gun – it's the place is run by that Libyan doctor and somehow it’s protected by social cohesion. But that has its limits.”
Just a day after Tubiana left the town, a series of shootings targeting a migrant couple were reported. They involved a woman who had been forced into prostitution by a smuggling gang that was now attempting to recapture her.
Events such as this highlight the sense of isolation and helplessness that is endemic among migrants crossing the desert to the sea. “Nobody is coming to help,” says Tubiana. “The UN in Libya are not doing their work. They're not efficient at evacuating people, even people who are threatened.”
The execution of a Sierra Leonean man by traffickers wanting to set an example to others is a stark reminder of what migrants are forced to endure.
MSF has recorded testimonies of exploited migrants who say such killings are regular practice among the ringleaders of trafficking networks. People are also killed if they can't pay their captors, but this isn't always the case.
“At the safe house, people are free to leave when they want to; it’s not a prison," says Tubiana, adding the doctor also helps migrants by using a local radio station to send messages to the traffickers telling them: "We know who you are, we know what you're doing. Please don't kill them."
The doctor encourages traffickers to send migrants who cannot pay for their lives to the safe house. Some have been dropped off in appalling condition. Dehydrated, skeletal, broken. And some die.
France won the battle but lost the peace
Following the ongoing accounts of abuse, racketeering, forced prostitution and slavery how has Europe – specifically France – dealt with the situation in Libya?
Back in 2011, France positioned itself at the diplomatic forefront of the Arab Spring, becoming the first country to recognise the National Transitional Council. It also co-led the NATO mission to protect Libyan civilians.
The town where the novel takes place, like some other communities, remembers Gaddafi era with great nostalgia. But that’s not a common feeling across most of Libya.
“NATO brought a great deal of freedom, unprecedented freedom,” explains Tubiana. “But now people are disappointed by the state of the economy, the militia presence and the corruption, as well as a lot of other problems.”
Once the air strikes ended, France failed to follow through on its promises – which is not uncommon with western military interventions. Post-conflict, France didn’t help secure Libya’s future.
In 2017, when President Emmanuel Macron hosted Libya's two rival governments, the talks collapsed amid the absence of a coherent strategy to bring the warring parties together.
Libya has also suffered because European countries have been unable to agree a common approach to dealing with the waves of migrants that are launched on skiffs from the North African coast.
Diplomatic relations between France and Italy, in particular, have been at a low ebb in recent years, with conflicting strategies in dealing with migration exacerbating communication problems between Paris and Rome.
To make matters worse, the European neighbours were almost engaged in a proxy war on the ground in Libya.
Has the Covid-19 pandemic been used as a barrier to help trapped or stranded migrants?
“Clearly France and Italy were on opposite sides of the fighting, especially during the toughest battles. Italy was supporting the Government of National Accord and France [supporting] Haftar,” says Tubiana, but with a caveat.
“People wondered how much this rivalry was actually real, or staged. In other parts of the region, where European anti-migrant policy … and oil interests were at stake, relations were not so bad."
The tug of war between France and Italy was only part of the problem, Tubiana adds. An "international incurrence" on Libya – efforts by other nations to exploit its position and resources – has probably been the strongest force against peace.
And, as outsiders increase their ambitions in a country that is 90 percent dependent on oil, Libya's future will remain very uncertain.
This edition was produced and presented by David Coffey
Sound engineering by Cécile Pompeani
Vision mixing and editing by Vincent Pora
Libya, human trafficking and the French connection - Full Interview
Jérôme Tubiana is anthropologist, journalist, writer & Sahel specialist who has worked with the Small Arms Survey and Doctors Without Borders and co-wrote the graphic novel “The Curse of You-Know-Where” and the short film "Des nouvelles de Yonas" for ARTE.
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