US State Department Report Accuses GNA of Colluding with Criminal and Human Trafficking Networks
The Government of National Accord (GNA) and its leaders Fayez al-Sarraj and Ahmed Maitig have spent exorbitant amounts of Libyan public funds on PR companies to clean up their image in Washington DC. Yet all proves to no avail as the new annual report on human trafficking issued by the US State Department confirms that officials of the Tripoli-based GNA continue to cooperate with criminal networks and ringleaders involved in illegal immigration. The report cites several cases of the Tripoli government’s involvement in criminal activity in connection to trafficking.
[Libya, 30 June 2019] – The official US document, the 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report for Libya issued by the US State Department, comes in the wake of the Government National Accord (GNA) wasting millions of dollars from Libya’s public funds to bolsters their public image in Washington, DC. GNA’s marketing drive has been in the form of lavish contracts with public relations’ firms in the United States, pressure groups, and extensive meetings organized by the Libyan American lobby groups loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Esam Omeish, a leading Muslim Brotherhood figure, with members of the sub-committees in US Congress.
However, these generously-funded PR campaigns have failed to improve the Government of National Accord’s reputation in US decision-making circles. The GNA tarnished image if a reflection of its ongoing impasse as can be inferred from the content and language in the US report, a document issued by the most important sovereign country in the world.
The GNA seems to have turned a blind eye to it and has hitherto issued no official response on embarrassing disclosures in thee US State Department document. Official and semi-official organs and media platforms also did not provide any comments. In addition, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the Presidential Council did not comment on the matter and rejected a press request in this regard.
The Ministry of the Interior has also not issued any official statement or comments on the information contained in the report which falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior. All the concerned GNA ministries concerned have refused to comment on the content of the document, especially the Ministry of Defense, which is headed by Fayez al-Sarraj.
Failed Public Relations Efforts
For lobbying efforts in Washington DC, the Government of National Accord concluded an agreement worth in the tune of a couple of million US Dollars with Mercury Public Affairs (MPA). The GNA hired MPA early May to lobby decision makers and influential circles at both the US Congress and the Trump Administration.
Meanwhile, Tripoli-based Libyan Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maitiq also signed a similar lobbying contract. However, the value of the latest remains undisclosed.
In spite of the generosity of the referred to lobbying contracts, these firms succeeded only in soliciting a low-level Washington visit for Maitiq that went unnoticed. Maitiq met with a few public officers at the US State Department and a handful of Democrats at the US Congress.
Public relations’ benefits for Fayez Sarraj were not much different from those of his deputy. The Wall Street Journal gave Sarraj some of its editorial space in the international affairs’ section to contribute an op-ed that drew little traction from the public and not much interest among analysts and journalists. It is quite evident that both men have not achieved anything short of trying to make their voices audible at very loud cocktail party to which they were uninvited.
Serious Allegations of Human, Sex and Labour Trafficking
“The government did not have any policy structures, institutional capacity, or resources to proactively identify and protect trafficking victims among vulnerable groups, such as foreign migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, women and girls in prostitution, child victims of sexual abuse, and children recruited and used by armed groups. The government also did not provide permanent or temporary residency status to trafficking victims.” [2019 Trafficking in Persons Report for Libya]
There have been continuing reports that criminal networks, militia groups, government officials, and private employers have been exploiting migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in sex and labor trafficking. Endemic government corruption and militia influence over government ministries have contributed to the GNA’s inability to effectively address the problem of trafficking.
Al Marsad focuses here on the parts of the US State Department report on the Libyan case. The State Department referred to cases of corruption among GNA-aligned elements and lack of real control on the armed groups that report to some GNA ministries as obstacles to the eradication of the human trafficking problem.
The report mentioned that several credible sources continue to report that migrants held in detention centres controlled by both the GNA Department of Combating Irregular Migration and non-state armed groups and militias were subjected to serious human rights violations and severe abuse, rampant sexual violence, denial of medical care, and forced labor.
The report also mentioned that the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord has been struggling to “govern large swaths of Libyan territory, as it did not exercise control in several parts of the country. The judicial system was not fully functioning, as courts in major cities throughout the country have not been operational”. The report also stated that illegal armed militias continued to fill the security vacuum under multiple names and also committed human rights violations, including unlawful killings.
The report stated: “During the reporting year, there were continued reports that criminal networks, militia groups, government officials, and private employers exploited migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in sex and labor trafficking.” Rampant corruption in the government and the influence of militias on ministries have ensured the GNA’s inability to effectively address human trafficking issue. This is how the US State Department assessed the situation in Tripoli.
“During the reporting year, there were continued reports that criminal networks, militia groups, government officials, and private employers exploited migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in sex and labor trafficking.” [2019 Trafficking in Persons Report for Libya]
The United States reiterated in the report that the Libyan criminal justice system was not fully operational in 2018. The Ministry of the Interior of the Government of National Accord (GNA), “which was nominally responsible” for law enforcement efforts to combat human trafficking, was unable to carry out any anti-trafficking operations during the period of the report.
Furthermore, Libyan police forces were not “adequately staffed or funded”. The report states: In late 2018, the Ministry of the Interior formed a Human Rights Office, which was granted authority to arrest and the responsibility to investigate human rights abuses, including human trafficking crimes, perpetrated by police officers. Moreover, in order to improve law enforcement capabilities, the GNA, in partnership with international organizations, provided anti-trafficking training to several hundred police officers in Tripoli in December 2018.
Notwithstanding, the GNA’s Ministry of Justice has not published “statistics on prosecutions or convictions of trafficking offenders, including government officials who were allegedly complicit in trafficking crimes or government-aligned militias and other armed groups that recruited and used child soldiers.”
The State Department referred also to “rampant complicity” of government officials involved in human trafficking and migrant smuggling operations, including Libyan Coast Guard officials, immigration officers, security officials, Ministry of Defense officials, members of armed groups formally integrated into state institutions, as well as officials from the Ministry of the Interior and its affiliated Department of Combating Irregular Migration (DCIM).
The report also confirmed that prison officials and guards at GNA detention camps forced migrants and detained refugees to work in detention centres run by the DCIM, as well as in farms and construction sites.
“According to an international organization, the Special Deterrence Force, which nominally operated under the Ministry of the Interior, was involved in the trafficking of detained migrants and benefited from extortion payments sent by the migrants’ family members for the migrants’ release,” the report continued.
Furthermore, during the reporting period, the GNA Ministry of Defense “continued to operate an anti-illegal migration unit with strong affiliation to one of the two armed groups involved in migrants smuggling and human trafficking in northwestern Libya.” This allegiance, according to the State Department report, “allowed the armed group to continually shift its activities from committing smuggling and trafficking crimes, to policing migrants for the government.”
In June 2018, the United Nations and the United States imposed sanctions on Abdel Rahman al-Miladi, aka al-Bija, a senior Libyan Coast Guard commander in the western coastal city of al-Zawiya and the commander of the Shuhada al-Wadi militia, who ran the GNA-controlled Nasr Migrants’ Detention Centre, due to his suspected involvement in human trafficking and migrant smuggling. The report states that the GNA has removed the accused Coast Guard official from his post, but has not initiated further investigations or prosecuted any of those responsible.
However, as Al Marsad has revealed last week, Al Bija is still officially active. He was recently seen in photos published by a leading Italian publication, stealing an engine from the same dinghy used by 53 migrants rescued last week by Sea Watch. Al-Bija continues to work wearing the official uniform of the Libya Coast Guard and benefits from EU largesse under the cover of the GNA, and continues to retain a stranglehold on the lucrative human trafficking business along the Zawiya coast.
The US State Department report stated: “The government did not have any policy structures, institutional capacity, or resources to proactively identify and protect trafficking victims among vulnerable groups, such as foreign migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, women and girls in prostitution, child victims of sexual abuse, and children recruited and used by armed groups. The government also did not provide permanent or temporary residency status to trafficking victims.”
The US State Department also referred to the issue of vulnerability of migrant women as victims of trafficking and other crimes to sexual harassment and degrading treatment by mostly “male law enforcement and judicial officials in Libya.” It added, “The government continued to operate rehabilitation centres for women in prostitution and victims of sex trafficking and other forms of sexual abuse; however, these centres reportedly operated as de facto prisons, and international observers documented incidents of abuse in these centres.”
Criticizing the mismanagement of the irregular migrants’ dossier by the Tripoli government, the US State Department concluded in one of parts of its report that the GNA “regularly arrested, detained, and otherwise punished victims for unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit, such as immigration and prostitution violations. Department of Combating Irregular Migration operated more than 20 official detention centres across the country where it arbitrarily and indefinitely detained approximately 5,000 male, female, and child migrants during the reporting period.”
According to the report, the number of migrants in detention centres dropped substantially below the 20,000 migrant detainees level at the end 2017 due to “concerted efforts” by international organizations and donor countries to voluntarily repatriate migrants throughout 2018. Yet the “detention facilities suffer from severe overcrowding, lack of basic infrastructure, dire sanitation problems, and food shortages.”
As for providing legal counsel to the detained migrants, including trafficking victims, the report confirmed that the detainees “had no access to medical care, legal aid, and other forms of protective services.” Furthermore, guards at the detention centres “subjected the illegal detainees to severe abuse, forced labor, unlawful killings, rape and other forms of sexual violence.”
The report noted that the GNA-affiliated Department of Combating Irregular Migration did not assign female guards at the detention centres, except for Tariq al-Sekka detention centre, where in January 2018 it hired an unspecified number of women staff to administer a section of the facility reserved for women and child migrants.
The report referred to an international case study that strongly criticized the continuing policy of “impunity for sexual violence and lack of safeguards in these centres” which create an environment in which women and girls were vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
The report refers also to the issuance of instructions in 2018 by the Chairman of the Department of Combating Irregular Migration to 26 detention centres managed by his forces through “clear directives to treat detained migrants humanely, which included issuing information to migrants about their rights under Libyan law.” But the report states that despite these directives, many militia groups responsible for these detention centres did not comply with the updated policy instructions and procedures because they simply benefited from involvement in trafficking crimes. The Chairman of the GNA Department of Combating Irregular Migration also ordered the closure of five centres run by his administration where serious human rights violations took place.
According to the report, the Government also had no formal procedures for the safe and humane treatment of identified victims of human trafficking, whether for those detained, arrested, or in custody migrants.
The report states that Tripoli Government cooperated with international and non-governmental organizations to provide assistance to refugees and migrants highly vulnerable to trafficking in official detention centres run by the GNA.
However, the US State Department believes that the Government of National Accord did not have systematic policies to identify potential victims of trafficking among those apprehended at the detention centres where the Libyan authorities continued to cooperate with international organizations to “repatriate, resettle, or evacuate migrants, which likely included unidentified trafficking victims.”
According to the US State Department, the Government of National Accord issued the “necessary permits and facilitated exit visas to allow an international organization to conduct more than 16,000 flights to repatriate migrants in 2018; it also allowed the evacuation of 4,080 refugees and asylum seekers.” However, victims of trafficking have not been provided with legal alternatives to their transfer to countries where they may face hardship or retaliation.
Libya was one of the signatories of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children, referred to as the UN TIP Protocol. It was signed in Palermo, the Republic of Italy, and was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2000 and entered into force on 25 December 2003. Although Libya is a party to the UN TIP Protocol, the Tripoli government “lacked the institutional capacity and resources to prevent human trafficking”, according to the report. “Alleged government complicity further exacerbated the overall human trafficking problem in the country and the region”, the report confirmed.
The State Department report concludes that while the Tripoli government’s efforts to close some detention facilities prevented migrants in those locations from further exploitation, migrants in other detention centres, administered by the GNA Department of Combating Irregular Migration, remained highly vulnerable to trafficking.
“During the reporting period, the GNA continued to coordinate with the Italian government to disrupt human trafficking and migrant smuggling operations, substantially reducing the flow of irregular migrants crossing the Mediterranean. However, some European and international Non-Governmental Organizations criticized this coordinated effort of turning migrant boats back to Libya and stopping other migrants from attempting the crossing to Italy, citing severe security and human rights conditions and an increased risk of trafficking for migrants forced to remain in Libya,” the US State Department continued.
However, these organizations condemned the deteriorating security conditions, low human rights and increased risk of trafficking in migrants forced to remain in Libya. However, the Italian government and other European countries have documented how International NGOs working to assist migrants partnered with smuggling groups inside Libya in order to help these migrants cross the Mediterranean.
The US State Department reiterated that the GNA did not have a national coordinating body responsible for combating human trafficking. The GNA had not launched any public awareness campaign whatsoever to combat human trafficking, and did not take any action to reduce sexual abuse against women and forced labor activities.
The US State Department report pointed out to a partnership agreement between the GNA-aligned Criminal Investigation Department of the Ministry of the Interior and an international organization. The partnership programme involved training for police officers to combat documents’ counterfeiting, including those used by traffickers and smugglers of migrants. However, the Tripoli Government of National Accord has not taken tangible steps to prevent the recruitment and abuse of children by militias, affiliated armed groups or allied groups and other armed groups, and has not provided anti-human trafficking training to its diplomatic staff.