Libya, facing increasing pressure over the mistreatment of migrants seeking a path to Europe, will work to crack down on human smugglers, but European nations must do more to address illegal migration, the head of Libya’s U.N.-backed government said this week.
Fayez al-Serraj, prime minister of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), said he expects results soon from an investigative committee tasked with looking into reports that African migrants are being bought and sold at underground “slave markets” in western and southern Libya.
The issue, brought into focus by a CNN report, has created difficult questions for Serraj even before his first official visit to Washington. Reports of migrants being auctioned off to perform manual labor have triggered protests in Western capitals and brought threats of retaliation, including sanctions, at the United Nations.
In an interview, Serraj said his government was seeking to identify those who may be involved in such auctions, if they are taking place as depicted.
“This will require joint intelligence efforts by all countries in order to pressure these organizations, if they exist,” he said. “They need to be hit with an iron fist.”
But the prime minister also sought to highlight the responsibility of migrants’ countries of origin, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, and of European nations, where migrants hope to end up.
“We call on the international community, the European Union and African countries to work with us to end this humanitarian crisis. Libya cannot bear sole responsibility for this,” Serraj said.
The prime minister said European nations have been slow in responding to a phenomenon that had resulted in some 20,000 migrants being held in special detention centers across Libya. He urged increased European pressure on African authorities and expanded development activity that might reduce migration.
Serraj noted some European nations were seeking to shut out migrants at the same time they criticize Libya for failing to care for those who make their way across its porous borders.
Serraj arrived in Washington last week to meet with U.S. leaders, including President Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
The high-level visit underscores the Trump administration’s interest in restoring stability to Libya, which has been gripped by violence and political feuds since the revolution that ousted Moammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Serraj’s GNA was established following a long U.N. mediation process designed to unify rival governments. While the GNA is recognized by Western powers, it wields limited authority outside the Libyan capital and must exert influence through allied militias.
Hanan Salah, senior Libya researcher with Human Rights Watch, said Libyan authorities had taken little action to address years of migrant mistreatment, including forced labor. She said this abuse continues by forces aligned with the GNA, including the coast guard and those in charge of migrant detention centers.
“Despite limited reach on the ground in western Libya, the GNA has failed to break the cycle of impunity and has been slow to proactively investigate, prosecute and hold perpetrators to account,” Salah said.
Serraj said no migrant auctioning of the sort depicted by CNN had occurred at government-affiliated detention centers, but the investigation would seek to determine whether it had taken place elsewhere.
U.S. officials hope Serraj’s government will succeed, in part because they see in it a viable counterterrorism partner. U.S. Special Operations forces provided support to GNA-aligned local fighters who last year cleared the Islamic State from Sirte, a major stronghold on Libya’s coast.
About 50 U.S. troops remain in Libya in an effort to ensure that the Islamic State and other militant groups aren’t able to threaten Europe or the United States. Serraj expressed hopes for continued security cooperation and said his government would work to address extremist groups.
It’s not clear what effect if any the criticism regarding Libya’s handling of the crush of migrants might have on its partnership with the United States.
The Trump administration, like the Obama administration before it, is urging Libyans to set aside their differences and form a unified government that would end the country’s de facto partition.
Ben Fishman, a former White House official and associate fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the migrant situation could not be separated from the larger political crisis in Libya.
“Without a longer-term political solution in Libya, and, more importantly, demobilizing the militias, the crisis of poor treatment of migrants stuck in Libya will almost certainly continue,” he said.
Sudarsan Raghavan contributed to this report.