Leo Docherty is Director of the Conservative Middle East Council, a former soldier and the co-author of Inside Libya; Chaos in the Mediterranean (CMEC). The views expressed in this article are his.
News this week that 146 migrants had drowned in the Mediterranean in the latest tragic sinking of an overloaded boat hardly didn’t even make the headlines. The testimony of the sole survivor – a 16-year-old boy from Gambia who told his rescuers that at least five children and several pregnant women were among those drowned – described what is the latest in an appalling catalogue of recent similar events off the coast of Libya.
That particular boat – a packed dinghy launched from the Libya port of Sabratah, West of Tripoli, was just one of thousands that have attempted to make the perilous crossing from Libya to Europe. Many attempt the crossing only to drown, at the mercy of old or decrepit boats supplied by the criminal traffickers. It is the traffickers who benefit – able to exploit the vulnerable migrants transiting Libya from sub-Saharan Africa, desperate to make it to the coast of Italy and the promise of work and a better life.
In 2016, the International Organisation for Migration calculated that 242,000 migrants had arrived at Europe’s shores in 2016 and that 2,997 had died. So far in 2017, 84,000 have made it to Italy from North Africa, while hundreds have drowned. Of the migrant boats that set of from North Africa, 90 per cent are from western Libya.
This migrant flow is of course a result of the wholesale collapse of the Libya state since the toppling of Gaddafi in 2011 and the disintegration of Libya’ borders – some 2,000 miles long – that to the south meet Sudan, Chad and Niger.
Libya’s descent into chaos was not something David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy foresaw when they visited Tripoli and Benghazi in Triumph in 2011. Indeed, Libya seemed not to be much of a policy priority for the British or anyone else after Gaddafi’s demise after 2011, when responsibility was given to the UN, and international attention re-focused on Syria.
But six years on, Libya can no longer be ignored. As hundreds of warring militias – jihadists and criminals competing for lucrative revenues from the illegal migrant trafficking trade – it has become a haven for extremists on Europe’s southern border. ISIS have emerged and Tripoli is a no-go zone.
The UN-backed Government of National Accord – the body that is supposed to be dealing with this mess – is nothing of the sort; it is not a government; it has no national reach, and it is not in accordance with anyone or anything. Its President Fayez Serraj is an unelected appointee, whose ineffectiveness suits only one group of people: the militias.
Opposing them militias is the Libyan National Army (LNA) – the only proto-national organisation to emerge from six years of chaos. Led by Field Marshal Haftar they have, since last year, cleared the Jihadists from Benghazi, pacified the majority of Eastern Libya – you can now fly on scheduled flights to Al Bayda and Tobruk – and secured Libya’s oil crescent while allowing oil revenues still to flow to Tripoli.
The LNA is the only organic force for stability in Libya and is providing the security for the House of Representatives (HoR) – Libya’s Parliament that was elected in 2014 – to function. Having fled Tripoli and taken refuge in Tobruk, the House of Representatives – composed of 188 MPs, 32 of whom are women – is the nucleus of a democratic Libya. Importantly, its MPs represent constituencies across all areas of Libya.
When I met with the Commander of the LNA Field, Marshal Haftar, and members of the HoR in Libya two weeks they appealed for British support. One MP, from Libya’s Western Mountains told me: “we are baffled by the position of Britain…and the support given to the GNA…which is reliant on the Islamist militias…it is not democratic.”
While the major Western powers remain committed to the UN approach – despite its demonstrable failure – Field Marshal Haftar has been courting other possible allies. The UAE, Libya’s neighbour Egypt, and Russia are behind him in his efforts to counter the jihadists.
We need to be honest about the situation: the status quo is not acceptable, and is indefensible on both humanitarian and security grounds. The UK should urgently engage with Field Marshal Haftar and the HoR, and support their efforts to defeat the Islamist militias in the West of the country. A united, democratic Libya can only progress if the country is pacified, and the LNA is the only means of doing this.
We should also – for urgent humanitarian and security reasons – support the LNA to secure Libya’s borders and bring an end to the illegal trafficking of people from Libya’s sea ports. Trying to stop migrants once they have reached the shores of the Mediterranean is – as we have seen so tragically again this week – too little too late.