August 2017 / Insights | News

Three Ways to Help Solve the Italy-Libya Migrant Crisis

Rob Noble considers what can be done on local and international levels to help solve the migrant crisis.

Italy is at breaking point. It has asked the EU to help share the burden of the thousands of migrants streaming into the country on a daily basis – even threatening to stop foreign boats bringing in those rescued in the Mediterranean. The European Union has and continues to pledge its support and yet little has changed. The plans made over the last few years are being executed, but Italy is a long way from having a solution to the problem.

Is it time for a rethink and new approach to this growing crisis? Here I analyse some of the issues that must continue to be discussed and offer thoughts to stimulate further debate around how to tackle the problem, and in particular an often over-looked aspect of this humanitarian disaster.


study of mixed refugee and migrant flows by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, was published early July 2017 and found that around half of those travelling to Libya do so believing they can find jobs there, but end up fleeing onwards to Europe to “escape life-threatening insecurity, instability, difficult economic conditions plus widespread exploitation and abuse”.

The report goes on to say that “Foreign nationals going to Libya are part of mixed migration flows, meaning that people with different backgrounds and motivations travel together along the same routes, often with the help of ruthless people smugglers and criminal gangs.”

Does this UNHCR study explain the full picture? The reality is that desperate people are being exploited and actively encouraged to give away their life savings, risking everything, in order to pursue a potentially unachievable goal, while funding criminal activities and possibly even terrorism.

Islamic State and Al Qaeda have a presence in western Libya. Fundamentalist or Jihadi-linked groups operate in the region and fuel the huge fire of discontent among migrants. Trafficking people is not routine criminality – and they are amongst those making big money from migrants.

But the list of those involved in this trade is extensive. There are the facilitators in the countries of origin who recruit the potential migrants; those who run the camps in the south of the country where they are gathered before their journey through Libya itself; and those receiving the migrants and sending them off on to the Mediterranean in the less-than-adequate boats.

And who are these perpetrators? Well, they are everyone from uniformed members of the very groups that should be stopping the trade in the home countries. They are militias making up the various factions in the continued fighting in Libya; mercenaries from Sudan and Chad who, like the militia, are replacing or supplementing the wage they receive for fighting; and even elements of the Libyan Coastguard who are being equipped, trained and mentored by the international community were believed to be involved. On top of this are those involved in the laundering of the profit generated, who are evidenced carrying out their transactions in Switzerland, Sudan and Dubai.

To tackle the problem in Italy and Europe, we have to focus not only on Europe’s borders, but also go back to Libya and build its ability to counter this. The camps in the south of Libya must be shut down, to end the gathering of people in appalling conditions. The free movement of the smugglers and migrants through Libya and on to the Mediterranean must be stopped and the country of Libya must be supported as it gets back on its feet and creates the infrastructure to control this problem.

Late in July, the European Union Commissioner Avrampoulos who has responsibility for migration pledged support for Italy and called upon member countries to do more. He stated the need to accelerate relocation, mobilise additional emergency funding and deploy personnel to support the return and asylum process.

So what should we focus our efforts on to reverse this established migrant route, that has become the favoured option as others are closed down?

1. Local people for local solutions

Libya Refugees

Almost without exception, the best long-term solutions for any country in crisis are those developed and delivered with and by local people. They may need help with developing skills, increasing their capacity or recruiting specialist help but this should all be about helping them to deal with the problem, not imposing external solutions on them.

The Somali piracy problem on the high seas only stopped when local religious leaders and the government persuaded their countrymen to stop.

2. Local problems have global implications – the international community must step up


Having said that Libya must  ‘own’ this problem locally, they also need help to do this. The problem in Libya is having global repercussions – from the impact on African states to the policing of Mediterranean waters, and desperate humanitarian plight of refugees that make it through to land in Italy or are turned back; as well as the knock-on effect to local populations across Europe.  By the end of June 2017, the FT reported 73,000 migrants had already landed in Italy alone.

Much has been done by the European Union, but the Malta Summit speech by Jean-Claude Juncker in February emphasised the need for support to the Libyan Coast Guard. He said we have to break the business model of the smugglers; support building the capacity of the Libyans to manage the crisis; and support Libya managing its southern border. Commitment has been confirmed this week to continue Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean until the end of 2018. But the time this may help to buy must be used to build broader and new solutions.

The international community can do much to help, and not just through their militaries. The private sector provides the opportunity to expand Operation Sophia and assist coordinating the efforts of the NGOs on the water.

An opportunity is to contribute technology for surveillance and gathering intelligence on who is operating where. The international community can provide technology as well as the training and mentoring of the local police to help with addressing criminality.

Technology will contribute to much more than just the interdiction and interception of the immigrants on their route to Europe. Building the picture of where those unfortunates that do not make it to the coast – who  are sold into slavery through developed markets – will assist the reduction of crime and human rights abuses further.

International bodies can create a coalition of willing local groups – police, military, coastguards and more. Coordination is needed between the many participants seeking to solve this problem, and the international community is best placed for this, whether private or public sector.

3. Stamping out criminality and what it fuels


Perhaps the biggest impact would be to tackle the money being made out of people trafficking – just as drug barons have been targeted. Where is the money being held? What is it being used for?

This will need a three-pronged approach. The first is delivery of solutions on the ground, increasing communication with the potential immigrants and dispelling the myths they have devoured about the opportunity Europe presents if they just pay for their passage. This will stop people entering Libya or going any further than the border. They need to be sent home via acceptable humane camps at the border under a recognised process and route. There also needs to be support at the coast, dealing with the criminals who are running the appalling camps, and stopping them sending people onto the water.

Just as Italy struggles to deal with its borders, so Libya needs considerable external help on their borders.  But a robust response could tackle this – with a coalition leading a combined European and Libyan solution, made up of private and public sector, as well as international aid organisations expertise. Increasing support to Italy may come late in the day; but dealing with such large numbers of immigrants would challenge any developed nation.

And then finally, international support is needed to start breaking up the criminal rings behind the trafficking. Finding the bank accounts and tracing money movements, freezing assets. Breaking the link between the criminals and the money they are making – this will ultimately reduce this terrible movement of people.

Working together to find a local solution in Libya, could see the terrible plight of vulnerable people finally slow down – and even stop?

No-one can do this on their own. We all have to work together and find new solutions, each playing to our strengths but supporting local people in their countries.

Rob Noble is the Executive Director of the Chelsea Group Security and Crisis Management Division