III. Background

Libya’s Geography

Libya is a large country, 1,759,540 square kilometers (679,363 sq. miles), with relatively few people, just over 5.3 million.2 The vast Sahara Desert encompasses more than 90 percent of the country, and the majority of the population lives on the Mediterranean coast.

The northern coast is approximately 1,770 kilometers long, and is some 300 kilometers from Italian territory at its closest point (the island of Lampedusa). In the east, south and west, Libya shares borders with Egypt (1,150 km.), Chad (1,055 km.), Algeria (982 km.), Tunisia, (459 km.), Sudan (383 km.) and Niger (354 km.). Most of the land borders in the remote desert are not marked.

Libya’s Political System

Libya’s contemporary political system has its origins in the al-Fateh Revolution of 1969, a bloodless coup d’etat that overthrew the monarchy and installed a Revolutionary Command Council headed by Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi. Al-Qadhafi has remained the country’s leader, and despite having no official title (he is variously referred to as “Brother Leader” and “Guide to the Revolution”) he controls all major aspects of the country’s political and economic life.

During the 1970s, al-Qadhafi developed a political philosophy, the Third Universal Theory, a hybrid of Socialism and Islam, and elaborated a system of government he termed Jamahiriya, or “state of the masses.” In the Jamahiriya all citizens are obliged to participate in Basic People’s Congresses, which exist in every local administrative unit, where they debate all matters of government, from budgets to defense. Each Basic People’s Congress elects a People’s Committee as an executive body, which appoints a local representative to the General People’s Congress, the equivalent of a national legislative assembly. The General People’s Congress in turn is run by its own people’s committees, which are the equivalent of ministries. Since 1977, when this system was enshrined by the Declaration of the People’s Authority, the country has been formally known as the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.

Al-Qadhafi and the current Libyan government characterize the system based on the Basic People’s Congresses as the most advanced form of democracy, noting that citizens do not elect representatives but participate themselves directly in government affairs. At the same time, the government bans the formation of political parties and any group activity based on a political ideology opposed to the principles of the al-Fateh Revolution. The Revolutionary Committees – which exist in virtually all sectors, including the various people’s congresses, workers’ unions, universities, state companies and the media – are a parallel mechanism maintaining ideological and political control of Libya’s economic, social and political life.

With Africa’s largest crude oil reserves, Libya is the second wealthiest country on the continent, after South Africa, and notably more developed than other countries in the north. At the same time, Libya’s wealth is centralized in the hands of the elite, and Libyan citizens and government officials both complain of endemic corruption.

For much of the period of al-Qadhafi’s leadership, Libya has had poor international relations with the United States and most of the major European powers. An improvement in relations with the U.S. and Europe began in 1999 after Libya’s co-operation on the Lockerbie case (involving the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Scotland in 1988) and has continued, with Libya in 2003 disclosing its weapons programs, agreeing to scrap its weapons of mass destruction, and cooperating with the U.S.-led “war on terror” in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. On May 15, 2006 the U.S. government announced that the two countries were resuming full diplomatic relations and the Bush administration requested the U.S. Congress to remove Libya from the U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism. The Congress obliged on June 30.

Human Rights in Libya3

Since coming to power in 1969, al-Qadhafi has used repressive measures to maintain control. In 1973 police and security forces arrested hundreds of Libyans who opposed, or the authorities feared could oppose, the new political system. In what some Libyans call a cultural revolution to “educate the masses,” police and security forces rounded up academics, lawyers, students, journalists, Trotskyists, Communists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Some of them were forcibly disappeared. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, state repression increased in a wave of revolutionary fervor, with critics imprisoned or forcibly disappeared. The state assumed control of religious institutions.

In 1988 Libya saw slight reform, including the release of some political prisoners, and in June of that year the General People’s Congress adopted the Great Green Charter for Human Rights in the Jamahiriyan Era, which recognized some basic rights and prohibited any punishment that “would violate the dignity and the integrity of a human being.” In particular, the charter guarantees the independence of the judiciary (article 9), freedom of thought (article 19), equality between men and women (article 21), and says the goal of Jamahiriya society is to abolish capital punishment – a goal not yet achieved. However, the next year saw another wave of internal repression, and there were no further signs of improvement for a decade.

The human rights situation has improved again since 1998, although there remains a long way to go for the country to meet its obligations under international human rights law. Al-Qadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam al-Qadhafi founded the Qadhafi International Foundation for Development in 1998, which began a human rights program run by a former political prisoner, and in 2003 it began a campaign against torture. In 2001 and 2002 the authorities released approximately 300 prisoners, some of whom the government had imprisoned since 1973 for peaceful political activity.

In April 2004 Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi called for a series of legal reforms, including the abolition of the People’s Court, which primarily tried political crimes (abolition came in January 2005), a reduction in the number of crimes for which the death penalty was applicable, and a more stringent application of Libyan laws with regard to due process. In February 2006, the authorities granted a pardon to 132 political prisoners, most of whom had spent more than seven years in detention, imprisoned for nonviolent activities after unfair trials.4 In general, however, the promises of reform have been greater than the reform itself. Libya remains tightly controlled from the top, with very little room for expression or organizations that criticize the ruling ideology or its implementers.

Foreigners in Libya

As already noted, Libya has a population of approximately 5.3 million. It declares itself to be a culturally and socially homogenous state, and does not acknowledge the existence of national, ethnic or religious minorities.5Although no reliable statistics exist, as of 2005 the Libyan government estimated that 600,000 “legal” foreign workers resided in the country, which means they had registered with the authorities. Additionally, the government estimates the country has between 1 and 1.2 million “illegal” migrants. According to the government, between 70,000 and 100,000 foreigners of both varieties enter the country every year.6

The high number of foreigners has various causes. First, the country’s 4,400 kilometers of mostly desert borders with six countries are difficult to patrol. Second, the relatively prosperous economy draws people from poorer countries looking for work. Third, in the past the government pursued an open-door policy, first for Arabs and later for sub-Saharan Africans.

The influx began in the 1970s as Libya swiftly developed with revenues from oil, first discovered in 1959. Libya needed manpower for ambitious projects, including the massive Great Man-Made River project, which pumps water from the desert to the coastal towns. The workers came predominantly from Egypt and Tunisia, and Egyptians are still the largest group of foreign nationals in Libya today.7

Throughout the 1990s, al-Qadhafi turned his attention away from the Arab world towards Africa, disappointed with Arab governments’ response to his increasing international isolation after the airplane bombings over Lockerbie and Niger.8 He began to articulate a policy of pan-Africanism, which included an open door for individuals south of the Sahara.

Libya signed a series of bilateral and multilateral agreements with countries such as Sudan and Chad. It advertised in African newspapers, encouraging workers to come.9 And in 1998 it was instrumental in forming the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD), an organization of twenty-one African countries, headquartered in Tripoli.  CEN-SAD says it works towards “facilitating the free movement of individuals, capital and meeting the interest of member states citizens” as well as “freedom of residence, work, ownership and economic activity.”10

Al-Qadhafi articulated his welcoming policy at a September 1999 extraordinary summit of the Organization of African Unity, where he declared himself a pan-Africanist and expressed Libya’s intention to welcome immigrants of African origin, while continuing such a policy for Arab immigrants.11 Africans with passports could freely enter Libya, he said, and could stay without visas for three months with easier access to residency and work permits than other foreigners. The least populous country in North Africa, Libya still relied heavily on foreign labor for its economic growth, particularly in sectors such as agriculture and construction.12

Tens of thousands of Africans answered al-Qadhafi’s call. While most came for the economic opportunities, motivations were mixed. Some were fleeing persecution or war back home.

A fourth reason for the large foreigner population is Libya’s transition in recent years from a destination country to a place of transit. Since around 2000, Libya has increasingly become a gateway from Africa to Europe. Smugglers’ routes have flourished both into the country through the desert and out of the country on rickety boats, especially since states around Europe such as Turkey and other Balkan countries have tightened their border controls.

“Geography is not nice to us,” said Shukri Ghanim, General Secretary of the General People’s Congress until March 2006. Libya is “between rich Europeans and poor Africans.”13 In late 2004, a European Commission report on migration in Libya noted “a sharp rise in illegal immigration through the Sicily Channel and the strengthening of the Libyan transit route.”14

Some of the migrants, asylum seekers and refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch for this report said that some Libyan officials were involved in smuggling operations. “It is all organized by the Libyan authorities, and in some cases there are Libyan brokers who collect the money in advance,” alleged Ephrem S., a twenty-one-year-old student from Ethiopia of mixed Ethiopian-Eritrean parentage. “I have seen the military allow a big bus of people to come to the coast and then the captain who steers the boats is given an international mobile telephone.”15  

According to the Libyan government, all of the foreigners in Libya are economic migrants, either looking for jobs in the country or planning to travel further north, and none of them have a legitimate fear of returning home. “We do not have political refugees,” Assistant Secretary of Foreign Liaison and International Cooperation (Foreign Affairs) Sa`id Eribi Hafiana, told Human Rights Watch. “The problem is Africans who came in the framework of illegal immigration.”16 Head of the Passports and Nationality Office Muhammad al-Ramalli agreed. “I have worked here for more than twenty years,” he said. “We have not received these people. Most people go on to the West.”17

Indeed, according to UNHCR and other migration experts, the vast majority of people who enter Libya come for economic reasons, either seeking to stay in Libya or to reach Europe. A number of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they hoped to find work in Libya but then moved north when they could not find a job. “I came because I am from a poor family,” said one Nigerian man, who came to Libya in 2003 and was subsequently arrested for dealing drugs. “I just wanted to earn some money and set up a business back home.”18

But not all people came to Libya for economic reasons, either to work in Libya or to transit to Europe. Some were fleeing persecution in their home countries. They had either fled directly to Libya in search of protection or they went to Libya from other countries, such as Sudan, where they no longer felt safe. A man from Darfur, Sudan, for example, told Human Rights Watch how in 1993, at age fifteen, he fled Sudan because of attacks by a government-backed militia on his village. “I was looking to find a place where I could return to a school to study,” he said.19 A young Eritrean man who fled arrest in Eritrea for resisting conscription in September 2002 walked from Asmara to Kassala, Sudan, and then hitched a ride to Khartoum. “My intention was to stay, but… it looked like they would repatriate Eritreans because of an accord between Sudan and Eritrea, so I decided to escape again [to Libya].”20

Whether migrants, asylum seekers or refugees, people enter Libya through centuries-old trade, caravan and migration routes. The most common route taken by those Human Rights Watch interviewed was from Sudan or Chad, across the desert in the south, towards the Libyan town of Kufra in the southeast. East Africans (and sometimes Asians) enter from this direction, while migrants from the states on the Gulf of Guinea such as Ghana and Nigeria enter mostly through Niger and Mali (and often then head further west to depart from Morocco to Spain).21Those who travel from Sudan often break the journey for some days in Kufra to change vehicles. From Kufra the next stop is usually Benghazi, where migrants attempt to purchase Libyan documentation. Many individuals eventually make their way to the capital, Tripoli.

Some enter Libya in other ways. According to a Libyan official dealing with migration, Tunisian officials sometimes “dump” migrants against their will on the Libyan side of the border, either after they are caught trying to go to Europe or after their Tunisian work or study permits expire.22Human Rights Watch spoke with six men at al-Fellah deportation facility (three Liberians, an Ivorean, a Guinean and a Congolese) who said they had been working in Tunisia until early April 2005, when Tunisian authorities dumped them on the Libyan side of the border.23

According to the Libyan government, the influx of foreigners has strained Libya’s resources. “We try to provide a work opportunity for all, but due to our population, about 5.5 million, we can absorb only one million or less,” immigration official Muhammad al-Ramalli explained. “The true problem is with the individuals who enter the country illegally without documentation,” the Libyan government said in an April 2006 memo to Human Rights Watch. “They pose a threat to public security, the issue that necessitates taking the legal steps with regard to them.”24

Due to the high unemployment among foreigners, officials told Human Rights Watch, Libya’s crime rate has soared. According to Nasr al-Mabruk, Secretary of Public Security (Minister of Internal Affairs) until March 2006, foreigners commit 30 percent of all crimes. “We suffer a lot from this phenomenon,” he said.25 Officials at the Libyan immigration department appealed for sympathy. “When you have a meal for yourself, you can always share it with another person, but it is impossible to share it with five other people,” Muhammad al-Ramalli said.26Other Libyan officials described the country as “exposed to a flood” of migrants.27 Many of them expressed the belief that irregular immigration is threatening public health and introducing new types of crime, such as drugs and prostitution.28 Secretary of Social Affairs Amal Nuri Safar, when asked about violence against women in Libya, replied: “It might not come from a Libyan but it might be from cultures that are from outside Libya.”29

A number of Libyan officials and citizens also said that sub-Saharan Africans are introducing HIV/AIDS. In an informational film on immigration produced by the General People’s Committee for Public Security, the government claims the HIV/AIDS infection rate is rising with the immigration rate, although it provides no statistics or evidence that the virus is being transferred beyond the migrant population.30  According to Shukri Ghanim, General Secretary of the General People’s Committee at the time of Human Rights Watch’s visit, “poor Africans are pouring in and bringing AIDS, drugs, crime.” He complained that African farm workers were attacking Libyans and their property on isolated farms.31

The government’s concerns were articulated in a report by the European Commission delegation that visited Libya in November-December 2004 to look at the issue of migration. The report concluded:

According to the Libyan authorities, the uncontrolled movement of illegal immigrants to and through Libya has reached the level of a national crisis, in particular with regards to immigration originating from sub-Saharan Africa. Authorities are concerned about the management of this situation and its possible consequences: criminal activities, a degradation of the overall health situation with particular emphasis on the possible spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, economic disruption due to an excess of availability of cheap labor, cultural difficulties resulting in tensions between Libyan and foreign communities, and the possible infiltration of terrorists. Yet there seems to exist little understanding of the need for a strategic approach, except at the level of [a] few interlocutors at a high level.32

Anti-foreigner sentiment in the country has also risen. The most serious incident occurred in late September 2000 in the town of Zawiyya, west of Tripoli, where a mob of Libyans clashed with foreigners primarily from Sudan and Chad, killing up to fifty people, according to press reports (see Chapter VIII, “Other Abuses Against Migrants, Asylum Seekers and Refugees”).33 According to the Libyan government, seven people died. The General People’s Congress subsequently ordered the authorities to stem the private sector’s hiring of foreigners, and the police began large-scale arrests.

The problem intensified as Libya’s relations with Europe improved, especially after the U.N. lifted sanctions in September 2003. European governments, in particular Italy, began pressuring Libya to better control the outflow of migrants from its shores, and Italy began forcibly expelling migrants and asylum seekers who had come from Libya.

Today Libya is far from the welcoming country for foreigners that al-Qadhafi had said it would be seven years before. Most of the non-Libyans interviewed for this report complained of unchecked discrimination and racist violence in Libya. For some, whether their motivation to be in Libya had been work or refuge, the xenophobia has inspired them to move on to Italy. “At first I had no clear idea to go to Italy,” said Marta T., an Eritrean woman now recognized as a refugee in Italy. “I stayed in a private house with six other people [in Tripoli]. We couldn’t go outside because we were afraid. The one time when I went to buy something with my friend, they threw a Coca-Cola can at her head.”34

A Sudanese man now in Italy shared his sense of betrayal with Human Rights Watch: “In my experience, the Libyan government is deceiving the world that it is helping the Africans. Africans come in the name of African unity, and then the Libyan government doesn’t give them anything.”35

2 “Libya’s Population Numbers 5.3 Million—Census,” Reuters, June 1, 2006.

3 The current state of human rights in Libya is addressed in detail in Human Rights Watch’s January 2006 report, “Words to Deeds: The Urgent Need for Human Rights Reform,” available at, as of May 7, 2006. See also Human Rights Watch’s February 2006 report, “A Threat to Society: Arbitrary Detention of Women and Girls for “Social Rehabilitation,” available at, as of May 7, 2006.

4 See Human Rights Watch, “Libya: Hopeful Sign as 132 Political Prisoners Freed,” March 2, 2006, available at, as of May 7, 2006.

5 Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Fifteenth, Sixteenth and Seventeenth periodic reports of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, February 25, 2003, UN Doc. CERD/C/431/Add.5. CCPR, concluding observations on the Third periodic report of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, November 6, 1998. UN Doc ICCPR/C/79/Add 101.

The head of the Committee for Human Rights and Legal Affairs in the General People’s Congress, Husni al-Wahaishi, likewise told Human Rights Watch: “Libya has no minorities. No racial minorities. No religious minorities. We thank God for this advantage.” Human Rights Watch interview with Husni al-Wahaishi, Tripoli, April 27, 2005.

6 Human Rights Watch interview with Muhammad al-Ramalli, General Director of Passports and Nationality Office (immigration department), April 25, 2005. The Libyan government also gave these numbers to a technical mission from the E.U. that visited the country in November-December 2004. See European Commission, “Technical Mission to Libya on Illegal Immigration, 27 Nov – 6 Dec 2004, Report,” Brussels, April 4, 2005, available at, as of May 7, 2006. In a Libyan government memo to Human Rights Watch, provided on April 18, 2006, the government said that Libya had approximately 1.5 million foreigners, although it did not specify how many resided legally in the country (see Appendix I).

7 Sara Hamood, African Transit Migration Through Libya to Europe: The Human Cost, (Cairo: American University of Cairo, 2006), p. 17. According to official Egyptian statistics, approximately 323,000 Egyptians legally resided in Libya as of January 2005 (Hamood, p. 24.).

8 The U.N. Security Council imposed an air and arms embargo on Libya in 1992 after the airplane bombings over Lockerbie in 1988 and Niger in 1989, followed by a limited assets freeze and embargo on select oil equipment in 1993. The U.N. lifted sanctions in September 2003.

9 Hamood, p. 18.

10 CEN-SAD website. See, as of March 9, 2006.

11 The summit produced the Sirte Declaration, precursor to the 2000 Constitutive Act of the African Union, the Organization of African Unity’s (OAU) successor organization. See, as of May 7, 2006. See also Gamal Nkrumah, “Time for African Unity,” Al-Ahram Weekly Online, Cairo, September 16-22, 1999, available at, as of May 7, 2006.

12 International Labour Organization, Workers Group Secretariat 2004 Factsheet, available at, as of March 6, 2006.

13 Human Rights Watch interview with Shukri Ghanim, then-General Secretary of the General People’s Committee, Tripoli, April 28, 2005. In March 2006, Ghanim was removed from his post and became head the state-owned Libya National Oil Company.

14 European Commission, “Technical Mission to Libya on Illegal Immigration, 27 Nov – 6 Dec 2004, Report,” Brussels, April 4, 2005, available at, as of May 7, 2006.

15 Human Rights Watch interview with Ethiopian refugee Ephrem S., Rome, May 24, 2005.

16 Human Rights Watch interview with Sa`id Eribi Hafiana, Assistant Secretary of the Committee for Foreign Liaison and International Cooperation,Tripoli, April 21, 2005.

17 Human Rights Watch interview with Muhammad al-Ramalli, April 25, 2005.

18 Human Rights Watch interview with Henry O., Misrata, May 4, 2005.

19 Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmad A., Rome, May 27, 2005.

20 Human Rights Watch interview with Abraha M., Rome, May 26, 2005. The governments of Eritrea and Sudan signed an accord with UNHCR for the repatriation of Eritrean refugees in March 2002. See UNHCR News Stories, March 27, 2002, available at, as of September 7, 2005.

21 In early 2004, the Italian journalist Fabrizio Gatti traveled incognito into Libya from the Niger border. He reported that he saw four or five trucks of migrants entering every day, each carrying 150-300 people. Other migrants paid higher fees to travel in four-wheel-drive vehicles, each stuffed with twenty-five to thirty passengers. Human Rights Watch interview with Fabrizio Gatti, Rome, May 26, 2005.

22 Human Rights Watch interview with `Ali Mdorad, General Director of Consular Affairs, General People’s Committee for Foreign Liaison and International Cooperation, Tripoli, April 30, 2005.

23 Human Rights Watch interviews with detainees in al-Fellah deportation camp, Tripoli, April 25, 2005.

24 Libyan government memo to Human Rights Watch, April 18, 2006. See Appendix I.

25 Human Rights Watch interview with Nasr al-Mabruk, then-Secretary of Public Security, Tripoli, April 26, 2005.

26 Human Rights Watch interview with Muhammad al-Ramalli, Tripoli, April 21, 2005.

27 Human Rights Watch interview with Brig. Salih Rajab, then-Assistant Secretary of Public Security, April 21, 2005. Brig. Rajab became Secretary of Public Security in March 2006.

28 Human Rights Watch interview with Sa`id Eribi Hafiana, Tripoli, April 21, 2005.

29 Human Rights Watch interview with Amal Nuri Safar, Secretary of Social Affairs in the General People’s Congress, Tripoli, April 25, 2005.

30 Video on illegal immigration by the General People’s Committee for Public Security, November 2004. The Libyan government provided Human Rights Watch with the video in May 2005.

31 Human Rights Watch interview with Shukri Ghanim, Tripoli, April 28, 2005.

32 European Commission, “Technical Mission to Libya on Illegal Immigration, 27 Nov – 6 Dec 2004, Report.”

33 “Libya Tightens Security,” BBC, September 27, 2000, available at, as of March 6, 2006. Some media reports from Nigeria said up to 500 people had died. (“At Least 500 Nigerians Reported Dead in Libya,” PANA news agency, October 8, 2000.)

34 Human Rights Watch interview with Marta T., Rome, May 26, 2005.

35 Human Rights Watch interview with `Abd al-M., Rome, May 27, 2005.