Helping would-be migrants stay put

As the US and EU try to stem migrant flows, a study finds the best reasons for people not to emigrate.

Migrants off the coast of Libya are picked up by a rescue ship last year.

Since 2015, when more than 200,000 people crossed the Mediterranean Sea monthly from North Africa in search of work and safe harbor from conflict, it not only altered the politics in Europe, but it also pushed the European Union to spend roughly $550 million in Libya to help stem the human flow. The funding put more ships off the Libyan coast to intercept migrant flotillas. It improved detention centers in the country. By one measure the investment has paid off. The monthly average of migrants crossing from North Africa so far this year has dropped to roughly 5,500.

But containment measures do not tell the full story of what is happening in Libya and why it matters to U.S. and European efforts to end illegal immigration. A new study of migrants in Misurata, Libya’s third-largest port, offers timely insights into the motivations and solutions for human flight. And it comes ahead of two key efforts by Western governments animated by migrant crises. One is a trip by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris to Mexico and Guatemala beginning Sunday. The other is a summit in Germany later this month to advance Libya’s transition from civil war to democracy.

Libya was an important destination for migrant labor in Africa for decades. Its economy depended on foreign workers from neighboring countries to fill jobs in farm fields and dockyards that Libyans shunned. That changed after the fall of longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 and the decade of conflict that followed. Economic collapse and deteriorating security conditions in the rival strongholds of Tripoli and Benghazi drove migrant laborers to seek refuge in Europe. Many of those who were turned back ended up in overcrowded detention facilities in Libya and were subjected to human rights abuses.

Conditions in Misurata, set between those two larger cities, were different. A careful balance of power among the leaders of different armed groups – many of whom are wealthy businessmen – kept civic, social, and economic life humming. The new study, conducted jointly by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, relied on 1,045 in-depth interviews with migrants living in Misurata during the latter half of 2019, providing a fine-grained view of life for the city’s 56,000 migrants. The findings are more intuitive than surprising: Economic and security stability in Misurata increased its need for migrant labor and decreased the need for those laborers to move onward to, for instance, Europe.

Most migrants in Libya come from four neighboring countries facing armed conflict, dire political and economic instability, or both of these conditions: Niger, Egypt, Chad, and Sudan. Roughly 80% arrived within the past four years. The study found that 92% of migrants in Misurata were able to meet their basic needs and 62% had no plans to move onward: “Migrants report that economic factors, like the type of job they have (80%) and the number of available jobs (70%), improved security-related conditions (77%), and their standard of living (72%) provide impetus for them to stay.”

The IOM/Georgetown study confirms the better intentions of the United States and EU to stabilize both the sources of illegal immigration and the countries whose economies are dependent on legal migrant labor. When Vice President Harris meets with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei on Monday, they will focus on the broad forces of human displacement: economic desperation, violence, corruption, and climate change. Though far from the border, their conversation may be closer to what Harvard scholar Jacqueline Bhabha, author of a book on migration, calls “the imperatives that stem from our common humanity.”

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