Border Politics: The Ruling Divide Between Tunisia and Libya

2015-12-11    |   

Border Politics: The Ruling Divide Between Tunisia and Libya


October 12, 2015


Sabratha, a city situated in western Libya 60 km from the Tunisian border


An armed Libyan group detains approximately 50 Tunisians working in Libya and transports them to the Barem Military Camp. The group promptly explains that the detention operation is directly related to the Tunisian authorities’ arrest of Sabratha municipal council member Hussein al-Zawadi at the Tunis–Carthage International Airport on October 11, 2015. The next day, the Tunisians are released and the Tunisian authorities release al-Zawadi

A very similar incident occurred earlier, in mid-June 2015, in Al-Khums, a city situated in western Libya 120 km from the capital Tripoli. Armed militias controlling Al-Khums and Misrata detained approximately 50 Tunisians working in the former General Security Headquarters in Al-Khums following the Tunisian authorities’ detention of a man called Walid al-Qalib, an influential leader in the Libya Dawn forces. The latter control western Libya and the capital Tripoli. Tunisian authorities said that al-Qalib stands accused in cases linked to terrorism, and that the investigation concerning him was ongoing. They did not comply with calls to release al-Qalib made by his supporters in Libya, which compelled these supporters to detain the 50 Tunisians in Al-Khums, as well as 8 others at a gateway in the Qasr Bin Ghashir region situated between Al-Khums and Misrata. The incident ended in the same manner; Tunisian authorities released al-Qalib in return for the release of the held-up Tunisians.

The location and timing of these detention incidents are different, but the means and objectives of both are not. The means is the use of armed groups, and the objective is to exert pressure beyond Libya’s borders –specifically in Tunisia– to facilitate the release of an influential Libyan figure being prosecuted on accusations related to terrorist activities.


Detentions have become a language of diplomatic dealings between Tunisia and its neighbors in western Libya. While the use of detention as a means of diplomatic discourse is usually attributed to armed Libyan outlaw groups, on some occasions, it has become evident that these groups are better characterized as part of the government. On June 12, 2015, the detention of Tunisian diplomats inside Tunisia’s Consulate General in Tripoli revealed that there is a connection between the use of detention as a means of communicating with neighboring Tunisia, and exerting diplomatic pressure on it, on the one hand, and the political authorities in western Libya, on the other. On this date, a Libyan armed group deliberately stormed the consulate and detained personnel inside in order to trade their release for the release of the Libyan citizen Walid al-Qalib, a relative of the minister of justice in the Tripoli-based National Salvation Government. As always, the release of the detainees was then coupled with the Tunisian courts’ release of the detained Libyan, in this case Walid al-Qalib.

I tried investigating the detention issue. I could not gain access to the groups that participated in the detention operations because their members abide by strict rules relating to their activity. When my investigation led me to a Tunisian worker who had been a detention victim, he agreed to give his testimony. However, he insisted that we withhold his full identity because he feared for his safety, especially as he still works in Libya.

I shall refer to him as M. A. He said that a security patrol of the military brigades controlling Misrata arrested him and took him to the former General Security Headquarters in Al-Khums. He recounted: “When they took me into the General Security Headquarters, I found a number of Tunisians detained there. I don’t know the exact number, but I believe that there were more than 50. They addressed us with a slightly harsh tone, but none of us were mistreated or humiliated. They did not even tell us why we were detained or whether there were accusations made against us.” But he added, “We actually didn’t feel very scared. Our employers and some of our Libyan friends visited us. They told us not to be afraid, for this was just a means of pressure for the release of a person in Tunisia, and we would return to our jobs or to Tunisia soon”.

This testimony revealed that detention of Tunisians in Libya has become a quasi-normal occurrence. This normalization of detention is related to the frequency of detention operations that have ended peacefully. Consequently, detention, in effect, appears less stressful than kidnapping, robbery, and forced disappearance, which are risks that commonly haunt foreign workers within Libyan territory in the wake of the state’s collapse and the increased lack of security.

Remarkably, the seriousness of the security situation in Libya has not prevented Tunisians from crossing the border to find work and escape unemployment. This journey remains less dangerous than taking the ‘death boats’ towards the northern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, although it requires no less courage on the part of unemployed Tunisians searching for the right to work and residency outside of Libya.

The Vulnerability of Tunisian Labor in Libya: Under the Rule of the Law but Outside of its Protection

Libya’s department of borders and foreigners in Tripoli, as well as Tunisian authorities were only able to provide an estimate of the number of Tunisians working in the country (around 100,000). Tunisian human rights activist Mustapha Abdelkebir, who heads the Tunisian-Libyan Committee for resolving border problems confirmed to us that the Tunisian community in Libya resides mainly in western Libya, where Tunisians number around 35,000. There is also a Tunisian community in the southern region in the city of Sabha and its neighboring villages; it consists of 3,000 people. On the other hand, only 1,000 Tunisians are settled in the eastern regions.

Abdelkebir also confirmed that only 3,000 of the Tunisians residing in Libya have legal residency permits, and they work mainly in hotels, services, and state institutions. Hence, the number of workers without legal residency permits is 35,000. To this number can be added 20,000 workers who are not settled in Libya and instead constantly move –sometimes daily– between Tunisia and Libya. These workers are mainly active in parallel trade, i.e., the smuggling of commodities between the two countries.

These numbers are likely to be reliable given that Abdelkebir, although a non-governmental party, heads a committee consisting of the most prominent local government officials responsible for the border regions in both Tunisia and Libya. The distribution of Tunisian labor in Libya reveals that the minority within that community have legal residency, while the majority are outside of the law’s protection and at risk of deportation.

Of all Tunisian workers in Libya, 35,000 lack residency documents. Therefore, these workers are beyond the law’s protection and consequently have no social or health coverage. They are also constantly targeted by security operations and are at risk of deportation, especially as Libyan law states that every foreigner staying illegally is a clandestine migrant and may be deported in accordance with the first Article of Law 6 of 1987, which regulates the entry and stay of foreigners in Libya.

The rule of guns gives armed groups and militias extra-judicial power over foreigners in Libya. Hence, the foreigners are at their mercy. The law gives employers power no less acute over the largest portion of foreign labor, for it encourages them not to settle the residency status of their workers so that these workers constantly acquiesce to them out of fear of deportation. The law does not protect workers from employer abuse while its provisions concerning them are strict with regards to residency documents, even though they are not responsible for their employers’ refusal to declare them as legal laborers. The vulnerability of the labor situation increases the further one heads east, i.e., the further one travels away from the Tunisian-Libyan border, and towards the areas under the influence of the jihadist groups. Yet these areas harbor an active Tunisian outlawed community. Hence, to distance oneself from the border is to distance oneself from protection, and is a sign of a change in the relationship with the country of origin and the host state.


Eastern Libya: Off-Limits to Labor and a Realm of Trans-Border Thought

Since the cities of eastern Libya are further from Tunisia’s border, they are less likely to attract Tunisians. The tense security situation in the eastern cities, from Benghazi to Bayda and Derna, further discourages Tunisians from migrating eastward. Yet, a Tunisian presence has taken shape in this region. Its members reject geographical division and oppose concepts of citizenship or nationhood in favor of jihad and an Islamic state.

Abdelkebir stated that there are no less than 1,500 Tunisian jihadists in eastern Libya, among whom more than 150 are leaders in jihadist groups. This was confirmed by the Libyan journalist Muhammad al-Misrati, who stated that most foreign jihadists in Libya are Tunisian.

The jihadist phenomenon has redrawn the geography of the Maghrebi region. The route from Tunisia to Libya has become part of a religious war targeting the concept of statehood. This war has turned some Tunisians into subjects of terrorist-designated groups, and others into emirs [commanders] within these groups in the context of a declared invasion of Libyan territory. Following this invasion movement, the participants hope to invade Tunisia. Some have also headed towards the Arab East to pursue the same jihadist goal; for them, Libya is a stopover.

After border procedures were tightened at airports, Tunisians who decide to join ISIS in Libya or Syria began, in the first stage [of their journey], heading to the Tunisian-Libyan border, namely the Ben Gardane region. From there they go to the Ras Ajdir border crossing or through the Tataouine Governorate to the routes leading to the Libyan desert. They then settle permanently or temporarily in Derna or Misrata, which are among the Libyan cities controlled by the terrorist-designated groups. Some of these people stay in training camps run by these groups in Libya, particularly in Sirte, and some continue on their way to Syria via Turkey.

Not all of those who go to Libya and then to Syria have passports, which means that they cross the borders illegally. This has been confirmed by a number of families whose sons contacted them from Libya and Syria and confirmed that they used smugglers to move from Tunisia’s border cities into Libyan territory.

As Tunisia has become one of the biggest exporters of the extremists fighting in Syria and Iraq, the Tunisian government recently adopted some measures that it believes will stem the flow of Tunisian youth into Libya via the land border gateways. It banned persons younger than 35 years old from traveling to Libya. However, this measure has prohibited hundreds of Tunisian youth who were working in Libya from returning to work, and forced most of them to quit their jobs and give in to the reality of unemployment in Tunisia.

At the Ras Ajdir border crossing, a week after Eid al-Fitr in 2015, hundreds of youth trying to return to their jobs in the cities of western Libya were prevented from doing so by the border police. In his explanation of the prohibition, the head of the border police station merely told me that “they are instructions from the Ministry of Interior”. When I tried to ask the youths who had been banned from travel by an unwritten government decision about the issue, none of them questioned the legality or legitimacy of the ban, perhaps due to their ignorance on the matter. But all of those to whom we listened expressed their rejection of a decision barring them from the right to work without providing them an alternative. Ahmad, a young man from Nabeul Governorate in northern Tunisia, told us that “I have worked in a barber shop in Tripoli for 3 years. I am married and my wife is pregnant…I’m not a terrorist who should be prevented from going to work…the state has not provided me with work in Tunisia”.

Showing signs of frustration, two other young men from the city of Sidi Bouzid expressed their extreme sadness and displeasure: “We won’t go to ISIS…do our faces suggest that we’re ISIS members? We are trying to make a living, which we haven’t been able to do in Tunisia. Isn’t this government ashamed of its actions? Isn’t it ashamed of preventing us from going to work in Libya? They want us to live without dignity in Tunisia. They want us to stay there without work or money. They want us to turn to crime and theft. It’s shameful…shameful.”

I glimpsed much bitterness among the dozens of young people with whom I spoke. Some had lost hope finding a job in Tunisia and had found themselves suspended at the crossing for two or three days. Others had been compelled to bring their families to the border police station to convince them that they owned a private enterprise in Libya and that, their interests having been disrupted, they must return to Libya, but to no avail.

The Tunisian government has strengthened its authority over border crossings to prevent the movement of an age cohort of inhabitants towards Libya in the course of confronting what is referred to as international terrorism. The measures it has adopted pose multiple questions about respect for citizens’ right to leave the country, which is stipulated in Article 24 of the Tunisian Constitution.

The same government has begun constructing an earthen berm along its border with Libya in order to block the movement of militants. Thus, the borders have become a focus of the state’s authority. Yet the smuggling phenomenon reveals that outlaws benefit the most from the stringency of the border barriers, especially in relation to the free movement of commodities.

The Border is an Imaginary Line Creating Wealth for Persons Outside of Their Authority

The border separates Tunisia from Libya, and the same border separates families that share origins and customs that are linked by kinship and marriage. Hence, the borders, while framing the state’s territory, are a cause of the separation of families and reformation of social relationships. The borders limit communal life and the movement of individuals and commodities. On the other hand, they create one kind of life at the crossings, and another life outside of them.

Life at the Crossings

Ras al-Jadir is not the only crossing between Tunisia and Libya: the Dehiba-Wazin border crossing shares its legal status. The state imposes its authority over the crossings, preventing the supply of some commodities, imposing customs taxes on others, and verifying the identities of the persons entering their area. On the other hand, those who cross the border allege that the crossings are abodes of administrative corruption in the areas of customs and security. The state’s control of the crossings has not prevented the spread of petty corruption within them, while the absence of the state on the Libyan side of the crossings has allowed armed groups to extra-judicially control the movement of inhabitants and commodities. Thus, the crossings are the haven of persons who abide by the state’s laws, although in many cases the crossings do not provide them with protection. As for the others living on the border, their movement occurs outside of the crossings and their codes.

Life Outside the Crossings

Persons arriving from Libya do not need to look for a bank to exchange their money. Currency is exchanged openly on the roadside within the Ben Gardane township, even though Tunisian law criminalizes the acquisition of foreign currencies outside of the legal channels. Similarly, people in the border cities do not need to look for petrol stations because smuggled Libyan petrol is sold on the roadside for less than the approved prices in Tunisia, even though it is a price-controlled substance. Amid Ben Gardane and most of the cities of southern Tunisia, the ‘Libyan market’ is where people can find smuggled goods; goods that are sold openly in regulated municipal markets.

The smugglers do not recognize the border and operate outside the law. Therefore, they benefit the most from the border, as their audacity towards it and towards the state creates their wealth and power. Meanwhile, others accept the border and hence are subject to its authority. They are also under the power of a branching system of administrative corruption that itself benefits from the border, and connects the state to those who break its laws.

The state has become accustomed to focusing customs units along the route between the border regions and the rest of Tunisia’s cities. Customs officials confiscate commodities that they discover with passing persons on the pretext that those commodities are smuggled, even though they were bought in Tunisian markets. The positioning of customs [units] does not appear to be spontaneous: it indicates tolerance towards smuggling in the border regions coupled with an attempt to blockade it outside these regions.

The state chose to accept the law of the border regions and to sacrifice its own law mask its neglect of those regions. The development of the border regions has fundamentally depended on the movement of inhabitants and goods to and from Libya. The Tunisian state quasi-openly sanctioned smuggling as a developmental alternative, and failed to revise this choice before and after the revolution. Hence, its attempt to control parallel trade in these regions led to protest movements that forced it to back down.

It seems that the state, after the border threat evolved due to the smuggling of arms and persons accused of terrorism, has become more determined to impose the rule of its law over the border. News circulating in Tunisia’s media reveals that the security forces have begun confronting major smugglers in the region of Ben Gardane and Southern Tunisia.

The berm along the Tunisian-Libyan border and the open confrontation with the major smugglers restrict the movement of commodities between Tunisia and Libya, and are attempts to contain them within their legal framework. Before 2011, the value of trade between the two countries reached around TND 2 billion [approximately USD $1.4 billion in January 2011]. However, it dropped after the revolution, reaching TND 800 million in the first half of 2014 before falling to TND 400 million in the first half of this year.

Libya is Tunisia’s largest economic partner in the Maghreb and Arab region, and its fifth largest partner worldwide, after France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. Government statistics also show that around 1.5 million Libyans visit Tunisia each year for tourism and medical treatment. On the other hand, the evolution of the security situation in Libya threatens Tunisia with repercussions on the border in which Tunisia’s ISIS members may play an instigating role. Subsequently, the movement and interaction that occurs on the border governs Tunisia’s relationship with Libya, and the movement of Tunisians across the border has an impact on the border itself.

The border is becoming, with regards to Tunisians’ relationship with Libya as well as Libyans’ relationship with Tunisia, a gateway into another world, a world into which some of those seeking a livelihood are prevented from crossing. Meanwhile, others whose dreams go beyond just making a living are choosing to perpetually roam around, orbiting the demarcation line between the two worlds to benefit from the existing border by virtue of their ability to evade it. Currently the dividing line is again being redrawn in search of border security and out of fear of new thinking that has come to threaten the survival of the state, and propose the idea of a state that does not recognize territory as one of its constituents. Consequently, the situation of Tunisians in Libya does not concern a specific community so much as it expresses the relationship of peoples with a border that they did not participate in creating, and that they find difficult to accept give the legal implications of its existence.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

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