Libya has been at the forefront of the conversation on the so-called migration ‘crisis.’ While only recently displaced by Morocco, the country had been the main point of departure in North Africa for hundreds of thousands of migrants trying to reach the EU. The facilitation of these departures has all along been attributed to the concerted efforts of allegedly complex, sophisticated and hierarchically-organized migrant smuggling organizations.  According to the official discourse, configured as militias and at times by groups of tribal origin attempting to strengthen their political stance, Libya’s smuggling organizations exploit, kidnap, and physically and sexually assault migrants desperate to reach European coasts.  

The violence impacting the lives of migrants in Libya cannot be denied. Data on the dramatic conditions that migrants face at the hands of smugglers have been systematically collected by NGOs and intergovernmental organizations. Together with extensive reporting by media and security experts on the political motivations of militias and tribes who profit from smuggling, these sources have provided important insights to those monitoring Libya’s migration and security landscape from afar.

Yet it is also important to keep in mind the limitations of these bodies of data. Most research draws from the work that a distinct, small group of predominantly non-Libyan researchers has been able to carry out in Libya, for the country remains to this day off-limits to most researchers given its security conditions.  And while migrant smuggling figures prominently in the EU discourse and security agenda, in-depth empirical research on its dynamics is scant.

This case study, crafted in the context of the EU-LISTCO project, seeks to reduce these research gaps. Drawing from interviews carried out in Italy with migrants who travelled to and spent time in Libya as part of their successful journeys into Europe, and supplemented with field observations and interviews carried out along the Libya-Tunisia border, this presentation outlines the dynamics of the practice known as migrant smuggling in Libya, following the collapse of the Ghaddafi regime.  It argues that the narratives of blood-thirsty and profit-driven smuggling militias and tribes palatable to a security-minded Europe, differ and in some instances even clash with the lived experiences of the migrants who relied on, experienced or even participated in the provision of clandestine mobility services in Libya. In so, it joins a growing body of scholarship demonstrating how across Africa, the transformation of mobility facilitation strategies –smuggling being only one of them --has not taken place in a vacuum. It is instead a direct consequence of the EU-dictated migration enforcement and control practices, which by virtue of creating further barriers to mobility have increased the levels and kinds of risks faced by migrants, in turn fostering the emergence of often unequal interactions between them and those facilitating their journeys.  The latter, however, rather than being   the monolithically portrayed fearless and barbaric desert tribes and militias, are men, women and children from marginalized and impoverished communities (including migrants themselves), whose involvement in the facilitation in smuggling is reflective of increasing and pervasive levels of inequality and marginalization amid the spread of EU-sponsored migration and border controls.  


Gabriella Sanchez is fellow at the Migration Policy Centre (MPC) of the European University Institute, where she leads the Migrant Smuggling research agenda.

A socio-cultural anthropologist with a background in law enforcement, her work focuses on the study of irregular migration facilitation and the crimes often associated with it (migrant smuggling, human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, scams, forgery, fraud, transnational/transborder organizations, corruption). Her work (carried out in the Americas, North Africa, the Middle East and Europe) is recognized for relying on a community-centred, human rights approach for the study of mobility. It draws from direct interactions and research contributions from smuggling facilitators and seeks to reduce the research gaps between the experiences of people on the migration pathway and the policy responses that target them.

She has hold academic posts at the University of Maryland, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Wellesley College, Monash University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Texas in El Paso.   She is the author of Human Smuggling and Border Crossings (Routledge 2016) and co-editor of the 2018 Special Issue on Migrant Smuggling of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. She is affiliated with the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime and is a co-editor for Border Criminologies, based at Oxford University's Criminology Department. Currently she is part of a US-Mexico border based initiative on young people's roles in the facilitation of migrant journeys, conducts fieldwork as part of a EU-funded project on migrant smuggling in Libya and Tunisia, and is working on a new book project on the emergence of smuggling as a global policing practice.