21 Nov, 2019

Migration and the Libyan hunger trap

by Alessandro Balduzzi

For those stranded in Libya, food is a reason of major concern throughout their migration experience. That is according to a survey conducted in the North African Country by the United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM) in partnership with the World Food Program (WFP). 

Their analysis was based on a combination of face-to-face and web-based interviews to 4,195 migrants currently in Libya. In spite of originating from 36 countries, most of them – roughly two thirds – came from neighbouring countries in Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa, such as Algeria, Egypt, Niger, Chad and Sudan.

Libya has been a favourite destination for economic and seasonal migration since the late 1960s. Most migrants came from Arab and African countries and were warmly welcomed by a country in need of labour force for low-skilled jobs such as construction, agriculture and domestic work. For this purpose, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya adopted an open-door policy which granted foreign low-qualified workers visa-free access to the country. 

This strategy produced a massive influx from abroad: some of the migrants aimed to reach Europe afterwards, others planned to settle down in Libya and succeeded in doing so. Prior to the 2011 revolution, Gaddafi’s Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya – as Libya used to be ostentatiously called – hosted around 2,5 million migrant workers. 

Most of them left the country due to the civil war, whereas 655,000 migrants were still present in the country as of July 2019 according to the IOM. Those who did not leave and those newly arrived have been trying hard to make a living mainly in the crumbling oil sector. 

In spite of being the main revenue source of Libyan economy, oil infrastructure has been severely damaged during the conflict and production has been proceeding in fits and starts since the beginning of the fights. 

Earlier this year, a spike in the conflict around Tripoli – that is the most densely populated area of the country – caused a significant deterioration of security and led to 301,407 internally displaced people (IDPs) as of July 2019, according to IOM. 

This latest entanglement worsened the situation on the ground and led to a competition between migrants and Libyans around their survival after prolonged years of conflict. 

Food security numbers are doubtless among the stakes. Migrants are not new to this. The strongest migration drivers identified among respondents thanks to the IOM-WFP survey were not only economic reasons, insecurity, persecution, conflict, but also environmental degradation, climate-related shocks and the largely correlated limited ability to meet food needs. 

18% of the respondents referred to high levels of food insecurity as the main trigger to migration. Unluckily, their arrival to war-torn Libya did not improve their situation as to food supply. Most market assessment reports show that food is generally available, but it turns out to be largely inaccessible for a large share of migrants and Libyans due to currency devaluation, food prices inflation and inability to get cash because of liquidity issue in the country. 

20% of the respondents reported high food prices as their main worry now and 12% said to be facing issues in meeting their food needs. Coherently, face-to-face interviews showed that a third of migrants have poor and borderline food consumption (poor food consumption affects households that are not consuming staples and vegetables every day and never or very seldom consume protein-rich food such as meat and dairy, whereas borderline food consumption refers to households that consume staples and vegetables every day, accompanied by oil and pulses a few times a week). 

As mentioned above, Libyan citizens are not exempt from food-related concerns either. Still, their percentage amounts to a much lower percentage (12%).

Geographically speaking, migrants from East African and South/Southeast Asian countries were found to be the most vulnerable to food insecurity (37% of them consumed only one meal in the previous day).

In light of probable lack of food or means to buy it, 57% of migrants adopted food coping strategies such as going a whole day without eating, which occurred to one in four migrants in the previous month.

As this IOM-WFP survey showed, the link between food and migration cannot be neglected in its multidimensionality. Food insecurity is among the main migration drivers and has been progressively worsened by climate change-related shocks during the last decade at least. Migrants fleeing hunger ended up with being caught in a spiral of desperation and food-related concerns where their very survival is at stake. 

Libya is a further example of how the chain of forced migration and conflict for resources cannot be broken if a decent livelihood is not granted. Access to food is among the main prerequisites to fulfil this ambitious goal.