The Libyan Political Crisis: Implication For Human Trafficking – Analysis


By Skylar Watkins


(FPRI) — For the eighth year in a row, the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report labeled Libya as a Special Case country. Typically, the Department of State gives a country a score from one to three based on their efforts to combat human trafficking. However, the Department was unable to give Libya a score, since, during the recording period, the UN-recognized Libyan Government of National Unity (GNU) did not exercise control over a portion of Libyan territory and the country’s judicial system was not fully functioning. Because of this, it is impossible to measure the full extent of trafficking in the country. These factors, in addition to the overall political unrest and violence throughout the country, have not only prevented Libya from addressing human trafficking, but have also perpetuated the issue.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, human trafficking, also referred to as trafficking in persons, is the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit.” Human trafficking differs from human smuggling, which involves providing a service such as transportation or fraudulent documentations to assist a voluntary individual in illegally entering a foreign country.

Libyan Political Capacity

Libya’s government and political system have been in shambles since the outbreak of Civil War in early 2011 when rebel forces, backed by NATO, took over Tripoli and killed long-time dictator Muammar Qaddafi. The National Transitional Council (NTC) was established in Benghazi and was recognized by the US and other major powers as the legitimate governing body in Libya. However, the introduction of a new governing body did not foster peace in the country.

In early 2014, protestors began demanding a new election or a replacement of the General National Congress (GNC) after the end of its mandate. In May 2014, General Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA), launched ‘Operation Dignity’ to attack Islamist militant groups in eastern Libya. Through the rest of 2014, violence escalated into a civil war between the Islamist group Libya Dawn and the Dignity coalition in eastern Libya.

In December 2015, the UN brokered the Libyan Political Agreement and a partial ceasefire was declared. The UN attempted to establish a new Government of National Accord (GNA), but the parliament in Tobruk refused to accept the government, further intensifying the conflict. Meanwhile, the Islamic State’s presence grew in the country, leading the Tripoli-based GNA in launching Operation Impenetrable Wall in April 2016 to expel the Islamic State.

In October of 2020, a permanent ceasefire was reached between the LNA and GNA through the 5+5 Joint Libyan Military Commission. An interim government was put in place in March 2021 until a presidential election could be held in December of that year. However, the election has been continuously delayed and has resulted in reigniting tensions. To this day, elections have still not been held due to disagreements regarding the electoral framework.

Trafficking in Libya

According to the Global Organized Crime Index, Libya has one of the highest human trafficking ranks in the world, scoring an 8.5 out of 10 for human trafficking. The Global Organized Crime index provides a score to countries based on the scope, scale, and impact of each criminal market with a higher score indicating a higher level of criminality. Libya scored a 1.54 out of 10 on the Resilience Score in 2023, ranking 192nd out of 193 countries and ranking last in African countries. This score is based on the country’s lack of effectivenessin resisting and combatting these crimes and is based on 12 resilience indicators representing economic, political, social, and legal spheres. These scores indicate that Libya does not have the necessary institutions to be resilient against trafficking crimes.

Due to the nature of human trafficking as well as the inability of the Libyan government to identify and prosecute these crimes, an accurate number of victims of human trafficking in the country is unknown. However, in August 2022, there were an estimated 134,787 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Libya, a majority of which were displaced due to the deteriorated security situation within the country. In general, IDPs, due to their volatile situation, are particularly vulnerable to becoming victims of sex and labor trafficking.

The 2023 UN Independent Fact-Finding Mission found that state security forces as well as extra-legal armed groups throughout the country have perpetuated war crimes and human rights abuses including forcible recruitment, forced labor, and sex trafficking. However, during the 2023 reporting period, the Libyan government did not report its statistics on the prosecutions and convictions of trafficking crimes.

Migrants in Libya have been especially vulnerable to trafficking. As of August 2023, Libya has had an influx of over 700,000 migrants – mainly Sub-Saharan Africans trying to reach Europe. The influx of demand within the smuggling market to bring migrants across the Mediterranean Sea has also opened up the floodgates for trafficking and other human rights violations. Not only are smugglers participating in the trafficking industry, but also state actors. When migrants are arrested illegally crossing the Mediterranean, they are transferred to detention centers by the Libyan Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM). NGOs have repeatedly reported cases of torture and sexual abuse within these facilities and have been known to accept bribes in exchange for the release of migrants.

In July 2023, UN experts expressed concerns over reports that migrants and refuges within Libya were held captive and then trafficked to an unknown place of detention. This is not an isolated case in Libya. In February 2023, 120 migrants and refugees, some of which were believed to be victims of human trafficking, were released from a warehouse in Tazirbu by the Libyan Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM). These migrants and refugees were reportedly trafficked to an undisclosed location and were detained without access to any legal protection or assistance. Tazirbu, a village in South-East Libya, remains a hot spot for trafficking with approximately 700 individuals being released and trafficked to detention centers over the last two years. Traffickers in Tazirbu have reportedly sent videos of abuse and torture to victims’ families to demand ransoms.

Role of the Libyan Government

Despite known trafficking coming from the region, Libyan national authorities have failed to act. With that being said, parts of the Libyan government have attempted to combat the smuggling and trafficking of individuals. Specifically, Tripoli authorities have utilized legal proceedings and the Libyan Attorney General’s office convicted thirty-eight smugglers who killed eleven migrants by sending them to sea on an ill-fated boat.

Despite attempts by parts of the Libyan government to act, the lack of law enforcement personnel along the borders and within the country have severely hindered Libya’s ability to act. Libya’s Ministry of the Interior (MOI) is responsible for the country’s anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts but has a limited capacity to do so. Furthermore, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) have issued arrest warrants for alleged perpetrators of trafficking, but the limited capacity of police has hindered the ability of the government to pursue these cases further. In 2022, the MOI and MOJ were mandated to raise awareness of human trafficking crimes and other human rights violations but NGOs report that these offices lack the capacity to fulfill this mandate. Furthermore, according to the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report, due to the lack in identification procedures for victims of trafficking, it is likely that victims have been arrested, detained, or deported for forced crimes including prostitution, illegal immigration, and affiliation with an armed group.

The current Libyan penal code does not provide adequate preventative and protective measures against trafficking. Currently, Articles 418, 419, and 410 of the Libyan penal code criminalizes some form of sex trafficking and prescribes a penalty of up to ten years of imprisonment and a fine. Other measures include Article 425 which criminalizes slavery and prescribes a prison sentence between five and fifteen years and Article 426 which criminalizes the buying and selling of slaves and prescribes a prison sentence up to ten years. The penal code does not criminalize other forms of trafficking including labor trafficking or sex trafficking that is induced through coercive or fraudulent means. The penal code also does not criminalize sex trafficking that involves adult male victims. Lastly, the Libyan government defines tracking as the transnational movement of victims, which is inconsistent with international definitions.

Hindering Development

Human trafficking has implications that extend far beyond the individual victims. Trafficking undermines the rule of a law of a country and compromises its national and economic security. Human trafficking is one of the fastest-growing criminal enterprises and is one of the largest illicit industries in the world. Every year human trafficking and forced labor within the private economy generate over $150 billion in illegal profits. Two-thirds of these profits are generated from commercial sexual exploitation and the remaining third is generated from other means of forced labor. The prominence of the illegal economy prevents open marketsfrom thriving. Even more dangerously, the illegal market oftentimes funnels money into criminal and terrorist organizations, further promoting corruption and endangering the Libyan political system.

A Wider Regional and Continental Issue

Human trafficking is not only an issue in Libya and has become an increasingly prevalent issue within the African continent, particularly due to a lack of institutional capacity. At any given time, it is estimated that 3.7 million people in Africa are in forced labor and slavery. Almost a quarter of all trafficking globally occurs in the continent. The most common type of trafficking in Africa is forced labor, however there are over 400,000 victims of sexual exploitation in the continent and approximately 99% are women and girls and 21% are under the age of 18.

Despite global efforts, including funding and resources provided by the US, very few African countries have fully met the minimum standards set forth by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) that the Department of State utilizes to rank countries for its Trafficking in Persons Report. In 2023, Seychelles was the only African country to achieve a Tier 1 placement, meaning that the country is meeting the minimum standards set forth by the TVPA. A majority of African countries are Tier 2 countries, meaning that the countries do not meet the TVPA’s minimum standards but is making a significant effort in an attempt to meet these standards.

North Africa in particular is an attractive spot for irregular migration due to its close proximity to southern Europe. The heavy flow of migrants in Northern Africa further threatens the stabilization and development of the region, allowing criminal networks such as human trafficking to intensify and grow across the region. Morocco, Sudan, and Tunisia all ranked as Tier 2 countries in the 2023 TIP Report. Egypt was ranked as a Tier 2 Watchlist country, meaning that the country is ranked as a Tier 2 country but is at risk of falling to Tier 3. Algeria was ranked as a Tier 3 country, meaning that it does not meet the TVPA minimum standards, nor is it making any significant effort to do so. North Africa’s TIP rankings exemplify how, even when countries are attempting to meet these standards, they are failing to succeed and are unable to meet the minimum standards to combat trafficking effectively.

US and International Interventions and Efforts

As of August 2022, the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Office has dedicated over $225 million to active anti-trafficking projects globally, many of which work within Libya. Examples include the $750,000 project to support the expansion of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) in select Sub-Saharan African countries and Libya. This project specifically looks at the Islamic State’s organized exploitation of migrants through human trafficking.

Despite US funding and interventions in the continent, trafficking persists, and nations continue to fail to enhance efforts to combat this crime. As of August 2023, the State Department’s TIP Office manages over $61 million in anti-trafficking projects in Africa alone. Although many of these projects have had positive impacts, overall, they have failed to foster long-term and effective international changes. This is certainly not to say that funding for anti-trafficking efforts is pointless; in fact, it is critical. However, the lack of change seen in Africa’s TIP Reports and the consistently high rates of trafficking on the continent point to inefficiencies in generating substantial change.

Internationally, Libya is a party to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children (2000), which acts as a supplement to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. Although the country has lacked the institutional capacity to eliminate human trafficking, the United Nations has attempted to act within the country. For example, the United Nations Support Mission for Libya (UNSMIL) was adopted in 2011 through resolution 2009. Since then, the mandate has been renewed through 31 October 2024. Although the primary purpose of the mandate is to support in the transition of power, the mandate also includes the monitoring and reporting of human rights violations.

Furthermore, in October 2015, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 2240, which authorized member states to seize and inspect vessels in Libya that are suspected of being used for either human trafficking or migrant smuggling. The mandate has been renewed annually and was most recently renewed for another year on September 29th, 2023. The U.N. Security Council specifically calls upon member states with the proper jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute individuals responsible for human trafficking and migrant smuggling and cites member states’ obligations under international law.

Other global efforts include a 2019 EU and UNODC join-program to combat human trafficking and migrant smuggling in North Africa (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco). The program is worth over $15.8 million and aims to enhance border patrols’ capacity to detect and intercept traffickers; strengthen the capacity of first responders to identify and protect victims; enhance law enforcement’s skills and knowledge regarding investigative techniques; and strengthen skills in adjudicating human trafficking and smuggling cases.


Human trafficking in Libya is only one of many humanitarian crises being perpetuated by Libya’s status as a failed state. Despite the efforts of the international community, the human trafficking situation in Libya seems to be heading in the wrong direction. US and international resources are being funneled into addressing the issue, but not in an effective manner that will create long-term change. In order to address human trafficking in Libya, the instability in the country must be addressed. Without proper internal institutions to protect victims, prevent trafficking, and prosecute traffickers, long-lasting change is not possible, and the full extent of the issue remains unknown.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

  • About the author: Skylar Watkins was a research intern with the Africa Program in Fall 2024. She is a senior at Pennsylvania State University graduating with her B.A. and M.I.A. in International Affairs with concentrations in International Security and Humanitarian Development
  • Source: This article was published by FPRI

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