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EU Externalization of Migration and Border Management to Libya: the Role of Non-Governmental Organizations and Human Rights Implications

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - LIBORG (EU Externalization of Migration and Border Management to Libya: the Role of Non-Governmental Organizations and Human Rights Implications)

Reporting period: 2019-05-03 to 2021-05-02

Libya, besides being itself an immigration country, is also a transit country for migrants attempting the irregular sea crossing to Europe. Since the 1990’s, European countries, such as Italy, as well as the European Union, have tried to involve the Libyan authorities, as well as non-state actors, in the process called ‘externalisation’ of migration control, meaning that controls are carried out by proxy in Libyan territory in the interest and on behalf of European destination countries. In Libya, most undocumented migrants live in extremely harsh conditions. This is the case of those held in detention facilities but also of most of those that are not detained. Abuses and exploitation are perpetrated by state and non-state actors alike. In this context, part of the activities aimed at ‘managing’ migration in Libya are carried out by NGOs (non-governmental organisations). The research question was therefore: what do NGOs do in Libya in the field of migration? Who is funding them? In how far do do they work in the interest of their (mostly European state) donors? In how far do they contribute to the externalisation of European migration control policies? How do their migration-related activities in Libya impact on the human rights of migrants? Which human rights are supported, and which ones are not, through the work of NGOs in Libya? And how does this relate to EU externalisation?
The project aimed at: a) mapping the different NGOs operating in the field of international migration in Libya; b) analyzing their mandates and activities, as well as the relevant funding sources; c) analyzing the relations they have to one another as well as to state authorities and IOs; d) assessing the relationship NGOs have with externalization and with human rights.
This is an important issue for the European society because the externalisation of migration and border controls is part of the EU’s external action. According to article 21 of the Treaty on European Union, “[t]he Union’s action on the international scene shall be guided by the principles which have inspired its own creation, development and enlargement, and which it seeks to advance in the wider world: democracy, the rule of law, the universality and indivisibility of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for human dignity, the principles of equality and solidarity, and respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter and international law”.
Moreover, NGOs, as an essential part of civil society, and their work thus represents a cornerstone of the principle of participatory democracy enshrined in article I-47 of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe.
Project activities consisted in: a) document and literature analysis; b) continuous training through diverse activities (internal meetings with colleagues, attending seminars and conferences, etc.) c) preparation of the fieldwork (workshop; preparation of semi-structured interviews; preparation of a provisional list of potential interview partners); d) short visits to Tunisia (where international organisations and international NGOs operating in Libya, as well as embassies to Libya, had to relocate their Libya offices due to Libya’s instability) and Italy (where many of the international NGOs operating in Libya have their headquarters); e) remote interviews even after the short visits; f) evaluation of the data collected through the interviews; g) publications and other dissemination and communication activities.

The research shows that international and Libyan NGOs participate to some extent in the externalisation of the European migration and border regime. This is also facilitated by the organisations’ tendency to blur the boundaries between humanitarian and development aid.
The action of international NGOs in Libya oscillates between compliance with and opposition to externalisation logics. In between these two poles there is a grey zone in which NGOs remain trapped in the care-control nexus.
NGOs’ activities only support a limited number of rights: the right to life, to healthcare and to asylum (all three with heavy limitations), and the right to return to one’s own country. These rights all serve the goal of externalisation (‘keeping them there’). Other rights, such as the right to a fair trial, are not supported – not to mention the right to self-determination or even that to leave any country, as this may encourage the sea crossing.
The project’s findings are made publicly available through the following dissemination and communication activities:
- Creation of a project webpage
- Organisation of an academic workshop
- Organisation of an academic conference
- Organisation of two conference panels
- Organisation of two public meetings with researchers, journalists, NGOs, donors and policymakers (both video-recorded and available online)
- Publication of six opinion pieces in four different languages
- Eight paper presentations at conferences (7) and workshops (1)
- Two invited talks
- Submission of six scientific papers (one already published)
- Four further scientific papers scheduled for 2021-22
The project contributes to research on the role of NGOs/CSOs in the governance of migration, and addresses the existing gap in research on so-called transit countries. Unlike international organisations (IOs), which have long been the object of specific attention within migration and border studies, NGOs were long under-researched. Recent scholarship on this topic has highlighted the NGOs’ implication with power at increasingly humanitarianised borders, the inevitable entanglement of care and enforcement – notably the NGOs’ involvement as state partners in restrictive governmental policies such as deportations, border securitisation or border control – and even the emergence of anti-migrant NGOs calling for harsher border policing. Research has also shown that NGOs across the continents may engage in politically motivated activities aimed at supporting the freedom of movement and choice of (would-be) migrants.
Literature on the role of NGOs in migration governance has mainly focused on wealthy destination countries of the Global North. Only recently did scholars start looking at so-called countries of transit and origin, and, more specifically, at the relationship between NGOs’ activities and externalisation.
By looking at international and local NGOs operating in Libya in the migration field, the project addresses a gap in the research on EU externalisation to Libya, which has only focused on state-state relations, or, more rarely, on state-IOs relations.
A further original contribution to the state of the art is the focus on the convergence between development aid and humanitarian aid as a basis for externalised border work through NGOs.
Finally, the relationship between externalisation and human rights has long been the object of attention from researchers, activists and policymakers alike. However, the specific role played by NGOs at the intersection of externalisation and human rights in the European neighbourhood has been hardly analysed.
Project results will be useful for both policymakers and practitioners, including NGOs and IOs, as well as for the media. They provide new insights into the situation of migrants in Libya, and into the role actually played by civil society actors. Therefore, they could inspire policymakers, NGOs and IOs in revising their policies and practices in Libya.
screenshot from the project webpage