Reining in Khalifa Haftar is crucial to reversing Libya’s refugee crisis

    Traffickers and armed groups have exploited the country’s security vacuum, turning it into a hellhole for migrants.

    About 150 migrants are believed to have died while making the perilous journey to reach Europe. Ayoub Gassim, a spokesman for Libya’s coast guard, said that two boats carrying around 300 migrants capsized on Thursday about 100km east of the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

    The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, described it “as the worst Mediterranean tragedy of this year”, and argued that “increasing safe pathways out of Libya must happen now, before it is too late for many more desperate people”.

    Earlier this month, a detention centre east of Tripoli was hosting more than 610 people when it was hit by two airstrikes. Libya’s UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Italian Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, blamed the bombing on an air raid conducted by the forces of Khalifa Haftar, head of the rebel Libyan National Army.

    More than seven years after former leader Muammar Gaddafi was toppled, Libya still faces severe political and social difficulties related to the democratic transition. The toppling of the Gaddafi government created a power vacuum, embroiling the country in a number of domestic, regional and international problems. Libya has also become a major conduit for African migrants and refugees who have been seeking a better life in Europe.

    Traffickers and armed groups have exploited Libya’s chaos since Gaddafi’s downfall, and have been implicated in widespread abuses of migrants, including torture and abduction for ransom. The interference of international powers and regional actors has been a significant factor in the deepening political fragmentation and polarisation of Libya.

    Although the European Union (EU) hopes to draw all conflicting Libyan parties into negotiations in order to promote a long-standing political solution and prevent a further influx of refugees into EU countries, these efforts have not been successful so far.

    Some countries within the EU have different positions towards the Libyan crisis. For instance, France and Italy adopt different courses of action despite the official position of the EU, said European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, who has urged EU countries to speak with a single voice on the renewed crisis. Such disagreements between France and Italy could also mean an increase in the influx of refugees into Europe.

    France has supported Haftar as a primary actor in Libya because he controls the oil fields in eastern Libya, which are eyed by French oil companies. France views the Libyan oil as cheap to extract and easy to export to Europe.

    Italy also has specific interests in Libya as a former colony. Rome wants to preserve and widen its economic interests in the country and Italy is also concerned about the influx of refugees from Libya. For example, last year the Italian government announced an allocation of an additional 80 million euros ($89 million) to its existing 200 million euro ($223 million) Africa fund in order to increase the number of troops stationed in Misrata to fight illegal migration and human trafficking.

    Recently, Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al Sarraj indicated that there could be an influx of more than 800,000 migrants from his country into Europe if the instability in Libya continues.

    A political agreement, also known as the Skhirat agreement (LPA), was signed in December 2015 and led to the establishment of a single Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Sarraj. A wide range of Libyan representatives, including members of the House of Representatives and General National Congress, as well as prominent public figures from Libyan political parties and civil society, attended the signing.

    The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has thrown its support behind the agreement and reiterated its call for parties to work in a spirit of compromise. On the other hand, Haftar has consistently refused to recognise the legitimacy of the GNA. It is widely believed that Haftar wants to control Libya as a whole. He has continuously refused to abide by peace proposals and initiatives. Ongoing support for Haftar is whetting his appetite to control more territory. Consequently, it prevents the GNA from imposing its authority across the country. Therefore, international and regional powers have a responsibility to pressure Haftar to reach a consensus and bring peace and stability to the country.

    The international community should take urgent action in order to save lives in Libya and prevent refugees from boarding these boats. If its response to the Libyan civil war remains as sketchy as it has been so far, it could lead to more tragedies in the Mediterranean Sea.

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