NGOs, Migration and Externalisation in Libya

February 2021    

In these fieldwork notes for the project ‚Liborg‘ , the author reflects on the work of humanitarian NGOs in Libya. What is the relationship between aid agencies and the EU externalisation of migration control? What role does Libyan civil society play?

by Paolo Cuttitta, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow at IDPS, Université Sorbonne Paris Nord. Paolo previously worked at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the Università di Palermo. His recent publications focus on the border work of NGOs/CSOs in Tunisia and Egypt, on the criminalisation of SAR NGOs and on border deaths.

International and local NGOs in Libya

Before the 2011 revolution, there was no independently organised civil society in Libya. In fact, the few existing NGOs were directly controlled by the Gaddafi regime and only one of them − the IOPCR (International Organisation for Peace, Care and Relief) − was also active in the field of migration. International non-governmental organisations (INGOs) were basically unwanted. Only in 2009 was the Italian Refugee Council (CIR), the only foreign migration-related NGO prior to 2011, allowed to open its own representation in Tripoli and participate in a project led by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). The CIR supported the monitoring of the situation in certain Libyan camps and provided aid for the migrants detained there.

(CC) شبكة برق B.R.Q

Since 2011, the Libyan context has changed radically. In the last ten years, about twenty larger and smaller INGOs have been active in migration-related projects alone. They often work on behalf of international organisations (IOs), such as the UNHCR, or run their own projects funded by individual governments or the EU. With the intensification of the political and security crisis in 2014, the Libyan representations of INGOs moved their headquarters to Tunis. Remote coordination is one of the many problems that make it difficult to implement projects in Libya, a country at civil war, and one of the reasons why some INGOs entrust local NGOs with project implementation.

To date, a few hundred Libyan NGOs are active in Libya in various fields, including migration. Officially, around 5,000 NGOs are registered, but most are inactive. Many smaller NGOs work on a voluntary basis, with little to no donor support. Others operate mostly as implementing partners of IOs and INGOs and live off their contracts. Some have grown into large firms. According to representatives of other NGOs, for example, the main partner of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is „not an authentic expression of civil society“ but „an enterprise“ that is „ready for anything“.

The donor landscape

Projects are funded by various supranational or state actors, such as the EU and various national, mostly European, agencies for international cooperation and development. In recent years, the EUTF for Africa (European Union Emergency Trust Fund for stability and addressing root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in Africa) in particular, which was established in 2015, ensured a significant increase in the funding provided, with Germany and Italy being the main EUTF donor countries. Of the EUTF funding for Libya (€ 309 million in total for 13 projects so far), IOs receive the lion’s share: mainly IOM, which has received €80 million since 2017, and UNHCR (€13 million per year); to a lesser extent, other UN agencies such as UNDP and UNICEF, and governmental international cooperation agencies such as Germany’s GIZ and Italy’s AICS. INGOs receive only a very limited part, and Libyan NGOs receive no direct funding from the EUTF. Libyan NGOs are mostly assigned certain implementation tasks by the above-mentioned actors. Besides the EU, which also funds projects through the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid (DG-ECHO), European and non-European individual states also fund other migration-related projects in Libya.

With the sole exception of MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières), whose projects are only made possible by private donations, all INGOs working on migration in Libya are directly or indirectly funded by government money (from states, from the EU, etc.). This raises the question of the relationship between humanitarian and externalised space.

Humanitarian space and externalised space

Humanitarian space refers to the physical and relational space in which the conditions for humanitarian action are met, such as safety (both for the aid workers and for the beneficiaries) and respect for humanitarian principles (from the do-no-harm principle and respect for the fundamental rights of all actors involved, to the principle of independence from the political agendas of third actors). However, the work of (humanitarian) NGOs is usually dependent on both the political interests of the donors and the willingness of the host country’s authorities. Hence, the idea of apolitical humanitarian action is actually a myth.

Donor countries in Libya have a primary migration policy goal: to prevent people from making the irregular crossing to Europe. For two decades, the EU and its Member States have been busy creating an externalised space of migration control in Libya. Externalised space refers to the physical and relational space created by projects and bilateral and multilateral cooperation in the field of migration governance, which are promoted, supported or directly implemented by certain state or supranational actors, and whose effects unfold outside their respective territories, namely in international waters or within third countries’ territories.

This poses some key questions: To what extent does humanitarian space tend to adapt to the contours of externalised space? To what extent does humanitarian aid provided by NGOs follow the same principles that guide European migration policy interests?

Italian projects in the twilight

An Example of the mixing of humanitarian and externalised space is a series of projects for migrants in Libyan detention facilities promoted by the Italian Gentiloni government and implemented in the 2018-2020 period. While Rome concluded agreements with Libyan militias and launched the attack on civilian rescue organisations in the Mediterranean, the call to boycott AICS tenders as a protest against Italy’s externalisation policy went unheard by ten Italian NGOs, which carried out nine different projects.

Media reports in April and September 2019 showed how Italian taxpayers‘ money ended up lining the pockets of Libyan camp guards: Hygiene kits, for example, which should have been distributed free of charge to detained migrants, were sold on to third parties by the camp staff.

In addition, Italian NGOs were involved in activities such as the construction of fences and gates, which are by no means of a humanitarian nature. According to representatives of other INGOs, some Italian aid organisations have not only shown „poor compliance with humanitarian principles“ but also „insufficient willingness to coordinate their activities with other actors in the field“. One Italian NGO „did not even bother to notify us when they closed the project and left“, complained representatives of an aid organisation working in the same camp. Two of the Italian aid organisations did not even join the Libya INGO Forum − the network of international aid organisations that represents members‘ interests vis-à-vis donors, IOs and local authorities.

Questions of conscience

Most projects targeting migrants in Libya are limited to basic support services, such as health care and distribution of so-called non-food items. Asylum seekers outside the camps may also receive cash payments. Even in projects that are not purely humanitarian, measures supporting the self-determination and independence of migrants are rare. In the counselling sector, for instance, migrants are informed about the possibility to file an asylum application with the UNHCR (however, only citizens of nine countries are eligible) or to apply for repatriation assistance at the IOM. Hence, such initiatives may well be classified as part of the European externalisation strategy. This is certainly true for the IOM’s assisted ‚voluntary‘ returns, which result in an increased geographical distance between the returned migrants and Europe, but also for the externalisation of asylum, whose long-term goal is denying refugees the right to apply for asylum in Europe and forcing them to seek protection in EU neighbouring countries.

Beyond these programmes, legal advice and assistance are basically nonexistent. Not only have „98% of detained migrants never seen a lawyer“ according to the representative of a UN agency, but all of them, including the non-detained, have hardly any chance to claim their fundamental rights. This is hardly surprising in a country where the various rulers systematically try to hinder any humanitarian projects for migrants. These, indeed, are seen as second-class people who are there to be exploited, whilst international cooperation should support the Libyans in the first place.

Even in the health sector, the work of INGOs is massively restricted. Firstly, aid organisations only have access to the official detention centres. They are not allowed to work in the other two types of facilitites − unofficial detention centres and investigation centres. Secondly,  various medical NGOs working on behalf of IOs are not allowed full access to the official camps. This has, among other things, facilitated the spread of tuberculosis epidemics resulting in dozens of deaths.

This speaks to the role of detention centres’ managers (who are often part of militias) in the context of Libya’s shrinking humanitarian space. Importantly, such actors, together with other informal ones (local tribes, smugglers, etc.) play a crucial role in the expansion of externalised space as well: with them, Europe concludes more or less official agreements to curb unwanted mobility.

Due to the restriction of humanitarian space, aid organisations of different sizes and mindsets (including ACTED, Intersos and ICRC) refuse to work in detention centres: it is „a matter of conscience“. For the same reason, donors such as the British DFID have also stopped their projects in Libyan detention facilities.

In general, the donors’ focus is slowly shifting from detention to urban settings, also due to NGO pressure. Ultimately, the overwhelming majority of undocumented migrants in Libya lives outside detention. However, many people are exposed to exploitation, violence and abuse outside detention to the same extent as in detention.

Meanwhile, INGOs, as well as some of the more critical cooperation agencies, have been complaining for years about the inflated importance attributed by policy makers to the situation in migrant detention centres in humanitarian planning. Conditions in the centres lend themselves to be scandalised by media and political actors for opposite purposes. On the one hand, inhumane conditions in detention centres are used to denounce the policy of externalisation, because the inhumane conditions are the result of this policy. On the other hand, reference to the situation in detention is used to reinforce the policy of externalisation, because these conditions require humanitarian aid, which then legitimises the externalised practices. The overt focus on detention conditions has also contributed to invisibilizing the challenges of migrants living in ‚freedom’, who are systematically exploited, abused, blackmailed, excluded from the housing market, abducted, forcibly conscripted into militias, etc. Some migrants have even voluntarily returned to detention centres shortly after being released because they perceive life in urban settings to be even more dangerous.

However, questions of conscience similar to those faced by critical INGOs in migrant camps also arise outside detention facilities. Some projects raise concerns because they are part of interventions that aim not only at humanitarian assistance, but also at the general stabilisation of Libyan institutions, such as the health system. Thus, a number of INGOs primarily support Libyan institutions − which does not fall under their humanitarian mandate − and only indirectly support the migrant as well as the local population. Some EUTF projects mirror this trend. The EU funding mechanism is an example of the often problematic relationship between humanitarian aid and development cooperation.

Moreover, other EUTF actions support Libyan border management, which makes the EU funding mechanism particularly unpopular with many INGOs. Some actors therefore refuse to accept EUTF funding. Others accept EUTF funding and criticise the fund regardless, for its financial support of actors such as the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, who is notorious for human rights violations. Other INGOs accept the EUTF funds and prefer to keep their mouths shut diplomatically, so as not to jeopardise relations with the donor.

EU-funded and so-called Libyan Coast Guard, CC: Nick Jaussi/ Sea Watch

So perhaps even more important than the question of „where?“ is the question of „whose money are NGOs working with?“ Several aid organisations, for example, „did not necessarily phase out from DCs, but they phased out from UNHCR”, says an NGO representative. Similarly to what happens in other EU neighbouring countries, the UN refugee agency is perceived both as an important donor and a highly criticised actor by NGOs. While cooperation with UNHCR is coveted because of the rich contract opportunities, the agency is at the same time criticised for the way it neglects refugees and treats its partners as mere passive implementers. After all, MSF justifies its work in detention centres precisely by its independence from state, international and supranational donors.

Other INGOs, on the other hand, claim to be able to undertake principled humanitarian work even with UNHCR or EUTF money. It is neither the place nor the source of funding that are relevant, but their own ability to implement certain principles. To what extent it is at all possible in Libya (and how many INGOs actually manage) to implement humanitarian principles, and possibly combine them with advocacy, remains an open question.

Supporting Libyan civil society

In recent years, IOs, the EU and individual cooperation agencies have launched various projects aimed at supporting the development of Libyan civil society. ACTED, for example, has been active with a project in over 15 Libyan municipalities since 2012. With the support of GIZ, ACTED has also set up an online platform to promote exchange between Libyan civil society organisations and increase their visibility.

Other projects to strengthen Libyan civil society are supported by UN agencies such as UNFPA and UNSMIL Human Rights Division.

These initiatives are aimed at all Libyan NGOs, regardless of the sectors in which they operate. Even a project for the professionalisation of Libyan NGOs led by the UN migration agency, IOM, is not − at least on paper − limited to the issue of migration. ‚Professionalisation‘ in this context refers to the acquisition of knowledge and skills that are considered necessary to be competitive in the global humanitarian market. This includes, among other things, know-how about accessing tenders, submitting project proposals, implementing funded activities, accounting and reporting to donors. Another professionalisation project for Libyan NGOs − this time with a specific focus on migration − is led by ICMPD (International Centre for Migration Policy Development).

These projects may also partly foster the emergence of a critical civil society, committed to the migrants‘ right to self-determination and against the indiscriminate expansion of the European externalisation process. However, at least some of these initiatives raise concerns. On the one hand, they impose criteria defined elsewhere on Libyan civil society, thereby ignoring the needs, capacities, ideas and values of local contexts. Secondly, the autonomy and scope for action of local NGOs are clearly called into question in some projects. For example, the ICMPD professionalisation project is part of a broader programme for the Strategic and Institutional Management of Migration in Libya. The project is implemented in cooperation with a governmental border management actor, the Libyan National Team for Border Security and Management. In addition, various ministries as well as the state Commission for Civil Society, which is responsible for the registration of NGOs, also participate in the workshops. This has caused unease among many NGO representatives, leading some to withdraw after the first meeting. Only after some hesitation did others decide to continue.

Another concern is that professionalisation projects are pushing and co-opting Libyan NGOs into the international humanitarian market, whose rules are written by donors. NGOs, for example, which have so far been based on voluntary work, are likely to experience radical changes in the future.

The young and still inexperienced Libyan civil society will also be increasingly confronted with questions of conscience − in the grey zone between humanitarian and externalised space.


Coverpicture: „Understanding humanitarian needs at the Libyan-Tunesian border“ (CC) DFID UK Department for International Development

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