Speech by Jalel Harchaoui at the international conference “Changing Course. Migrants and Europe”

Last update: 2023-12-14 10:29:43

Thank you very much. I would like to begin by saying how honored I was to have received this invitation and how happy I have been to listen to all of these very interesting talks. Before I start talking about migrants, I would like to begin by referring to what happened to the city of Derna. It’s a city of a hundred thousand of inhabitants that lost around 11-15% of its population in a couple of hours. I don’t remember any previous global warming event of such intensity. Of course, the number could have been much lower, if corruption and other political dysfunctions had been less prevalent in Libya. The reason I’m beginning with this remark is that, when you study the suffering of migrants, you end up forgetting that Libyans themselves suffered a great deal in their own country. One cannot always rely on their leaders to be on the side of the population, because leaders are usually closer to foreign nations. The other remark that I wanted to make as a preliminary comment is that I studied Libya because I’m Algerian, which is somewhat useful, but I’m also a French citizen, I flew from Paris.

I would like to say that I was very pleased with the quality of the analysis that I have recently heard regarding the Catholic concern for migrants. I was in France when His Holiness the Pope spent two days in Marseille. Usually it is a forgotten city, even if it’s very large, but, during those days, many French Catholics were engaged in media criticizing and attacking the Pope for his statements about migrants. This was a very abrupt change for me, by being here.


Regarding migrations, I would like to say that I will not be discussing the Tunisian case. Usually, the statistics regarding irregular arrivals in Italy via the Mediterranean are dominated by Libya; in the past months they have been dominated by Tunisia, but I won’t discuss that further. I will focus only on my area of expertise, which is Libya. The statistics this year show that there have been 35,000 migrants as of late August. You can think of it as roughly 5,000 irregular arrivals per month of individuals from various nationalities, typically non-Libyans, heading to Italy via Libya. These arrivals can be split into two parts. Roughly 2,500 people come from the Western part of Libya, which historically has been the nerve center of this human smuggling industry. But there has been a development that helps to understand the concern among Italian decision makers. This new phenomenon, which represents the second part of the migration flow, arouse in addition to the usual business, namely the bloc coming from the eastern half of Libya. If I had given this talk in February or March 2022, I would have mentioned nothing because nothing was in existence, in terms of the ability of migrants to leave the eastern shores of Libya to arrive directly in Italy. That industry didn’t exist, and it basically emerged during the summer of 2022. After highlighting the concerning numbers in Western Libya, it is important to note that they were significantly lower few years ago: between 2019 and 2020, there were roughly 500-1,000 migrants arriving in Italy every month. However, things started to change with the outbreak of the Ethiopian war between Addis Ababa and the Tigray province in late 2020, whose effects were already visible in early 2021. Then came the Sudanese war in April 2023, with every indicator pointing to the fact that those statistics had steadily increased. Nothing explosive, nothing major. The big change of the last year has been contributed by the Eastern half of the Libyan coast. I would like to make a few remarks about this, because it’s rather strange to have something appear out of nowhere. The business was not built per se by the Haftar family, who dominates Benghazi and the entirety of Eastern Libya. The Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar emerged in 2014 and since then has been consolidating his power in the East, even though he underwent a defeat in Tripoli in 2020. Since that defeat, he has been increasing his involvement in organized crime in general. He is not directly involved, because he is an 80-year-old man, and he cannot do much. Instead, his sons have been aggressively pursuing all kinds of criminal and illegal activities, such as drug trafficking, car and scrap metal theft, dismantlement of public infrastructure and so on. Among those businesses, there was human smuggling, which in the last year comprised the transportation of migrants from the Eastern to the Western coast of Libya. These migrants belong to nationalities that usually are not represented in Western Libya. The majority of them are, of course, Egyptians. In that regard, I would like to remind you that Egypt is currently facing a severe economic crisis that is nowhere near its end. But there are also Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Palestinians and Syrians. Those are completely brand-new nationalities. How did they arrive there? Through the Assad regime. There is an illicit activity that is basically approved and protected by the Syrian government through Cham Wings airline company. Pakistanis fly with Cham Wings from Dubai to Benghazi. Once they arrive in Libya, they became part of this profit-making activity. One could wonder why the EU removed sanctions against Sham Wings, the Syrian-controlled airline company that is absolutely crucial for this business. Anyway, the bottom line is that there has been an emergence of these businesses that consist in helping migrants boarding old fishing boats departing from either Tobruk or the vicinity of Benghazi with the intention of reaching Italy. Of course, Haftar will never send migrants to Greece because Athens has been a very reliable political friend. The idea is that the emergence of these illicit activities in Eastern Libya would not have happened if the Haftar family had considered them unacceptable. But in this case, not only were they not deemed unacceptable, but they were also actually deemed politically useful for the purpose of creating leverage against Rome. The Italian government has been quite forthcoming in offering all kinds of economic assistance to the Tripoli government and other actors in Western Libya. The idea here was to create a fire in order to show that you are the perfect actor to extinguish it.


So, we saw the visit of Field Marshal Haftar in Rome in early May and, by July, the statistics had actually decreased. One could also consider what the Italian politicians actually said publicly. Here, I don’t need to speculate: all I have to do is quote official comments made by members of the government. They actually promised to inject capital into the efforts of rebuilding Benghazi. There was basically a promise of economic support in favor of Field Marshal’s family and other associates. That’s how the reduction in the statistics was obtained.


My conclusion is when you have this kind of precedent, you feel that you have accomplished something positive. You think that you are acting rationally on the basis on a game theory, and that you are able to influence the behavior of Libyan leaders. But I think that this is the wrong conclusion because the calm that was achieved this summer cannot endure. At one point, those leaders will likely feel the need to recreate that leverage against Rome and replicate the thing. We saw the same thing happen in Tunisia. Following their logic and trying to appease them usually leads to something that seems a good result, but, in reality, this is never permanent. We should always remember that throughout history, appeasement has often proved to be unsuccessful. Again, this is not a political judgment, it’s just about being rational and examining it from a game theory perspective. Another remark is getting back to West. There was a campaign of drone airstrikes conducted by Tripoli against actors located just 50 kilometers to the West. People were correctly accused of participating in human smuggling, but the campaign was just for show, since it was implemented by Prime Minister Dbeiba just days before his visit to Rome. He wanted to show that he also had leverage. Those airstrikes were dangerous, but they achieved no change whatsoever in the statistics, dynamics or the businesses that were supposedly targeted.


To conclude, I wanted to offer this analysis of how Libyans are looking at Europe. I thought that those could be interesting for conversation, discussion, or debate. Thank you very much.



The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation