The Tunisian-Libyan border has long been a thoroughfare for the illicit movement of material and people. To bolster efforts to secure the border, the U.S. Department of Defense is spending nearly $20 million on advanced, high-tech sensors and cameras, drawing from a joint fund it created with Germany in September 2017. Yet, like all efforts to date, this new endeavor is unlikely to address the entrenched permeability of the frontier and eliminate the underlying causes of border insecurity. A singular focus on hardening the border runs up against deep-rooted socioeconomic realities in the region, where cross-border traffic continues to be a way of life and a substantial source of livelihood. A lasting solution will require a broader approach that includes reforming institutions, pursuing alternative development opportunities, tackling corruption, and improving bilateral trade policy.
Tunisian and Libyan Border Dynamics
In both countries, informal activities represent a significant portion of the national economy. The Tunisian government—now a fledgling, semi-functioning democracy—has a strong incentive to capture that income by preventing cross-border smuggling and hardening the border. However, in Libya, there is less incentive and capacity due to a lack of political unity; weak institutions; and rival, often predatory, militias jockeying for power to control the border and profit from informal trade. In fact, official and semi-official security actors are sometimes complicit in the smuggling. Overall, because of the countries’ contrasting political and security landscapes, bilateral efforts to secure the border have been disjointed and piecemeal at best—with each side even deliberately resistant at times.
According to various reports, Tunisia’s informal economy accounts for between 39 and 50 percent of its GDP. And potentially more than half of the money circulating in Libya is in the informal sector. It is therefore not surprising that bilateral informal trade is significant for both countries. The World Bank estimated it to be valued around $498 million in 2015, including approximately $200 million for cigarettes, $148 million for fuel, and $150 million for other goods. While the smuggling of certain consumer goods (electronics, clothing, home appliances) decreased from 2013 to 2015, there was a dramatic increase in the smuggling of tobacco and fuel during that same period. The markets for both are estimated to be large. For example, 40 percent of the 380 million contraband cigarette packs consumed annually in Tunisia originate from Libya. Contraband fuel traded at the border accounted for 17 percent of Tunisian consumption in 2014.
While the World Bank attributes the decrease in trade of certain illicit goods to border enforcement, other Tunisian policies have instead led to an increase in trade of contraband items. Also complicating the situation is a reported lack of communication between Tunisian security forces and the military; the army has reportedly been reluctant to share its equipment and information (procured through foreign aid) with other Tunisian security forces, encumbering border patrol operations. Further impeding the Tunisian government’s efforts are Libyan militias, who often directly profit from illicit trade.
Since 2011, rival militias operating along the border in Libya (estimated to number around fifteen) have thwarted expanded border security efforts, and competition over smuggling profits has increased in the absence of a unified Libyan government response. Most recently, militias from the nearby Libyan towns of Zuwara and Zawiya have been repeatedly clashing over control of a vital border crossing in Ras Jedir. The growing influence of Salafi groups in this border dispute mirrors the expansion of like-minded groups across Libya’s policing sector and adds another complicating factor to the border security landscape.
Another skirmish—Libyan Major General Usama Juwaili’s offensive on Abu Khammash, a Libyan town near Ras Jedir—caused the border crossing to close in January 2018 for at least twenty-four hours and led some Libyan border officials to seek refuge in Tunisia. After a ceasefire and several days of negotiation, Juwaili and Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) reached an agreement that handed over control to official government authorities but required that Juwaili provide oversight and integrate local armed groups into the effort. The agreement, however, has largely not been implemented on the ground and has caused significant tension within Zuwara. The mayor, Hafez Ben Sassi, has accused Juwaili of forcibly taking control from ethnic Amazigh forces from Zuwara and has questioned if the GNA had in fact ordered the attack. Juwaili himself told a Libyan radio station that his offensive was part of a larger plan to establish “state control” over the entire road leading to the border.
In separate statement, another Libyan military officer, Brigadier General Hafez al-Ghali, argued that the Presidential Guard, a GNA-aligned military unit, had actually previously appointed him to protect the crossing in 2016. What seems likely is that the murky incident at Abu Khammash was an abortive attempt by the GNA’s Presidential Guard to use Juwaili and his forces to project its authority on the border, demonstrating once again how local rivalries and political disarray on the Libyan side negatively impact border stability.
Further destabilizing the situation is the counterterrorism narrative surrounding border enforcement, which has enabled local militias to consolidate their power on the pretext of fighting transnational jihadism. During one of the authors’ visit to the town of Sabratha—following the early 2016 U.S. strike on a self-proclaimed Islamic State training facility run by a Sabrathan local—a Libyan militia commander named Ahmed al-Dabbashi (or “al-Ammu”) rallied with rival clans and armed groups against Islamic State fighters inside the town and its environs. The anti–Islamic State offensive helped make al-Ammu the preeminent smuggling boss in the area (until he fled in late 2017 and was later targeted in June 2018 by UN Security Council–imposed sanctions for his involvement in human trafficking). Sabratha’s battles against the Islamic State also cast suspicion on the Tunisian expatriate worker community because many Islamic State fighters in Sabratha were Tunisian nationals.
However, despite this unstable environment, many Tunisian and Libyan residents living along the border do not view the broadening security efforts as a positive development. For example, many respondents in a 2016 survey of inhabitants from the Tunisian border towns Ben Guerdane and Dehiba viewed the tightening of restrictions and the absence of local development as a greater threat than jihadism. This is likely because 90.2 percent of people in Ben Guerdane and 89.6 percent in Dehiba consider the border a financial resource. Both Tunisian and Libyan residents’ antipathy toward border enforcement and closures has given rise to frequent protests, anger, and even violence. As a 2017 World Bank report notes, the main means of livelihood in Tunisia-Libya border towns are contraband goods and informal trade, with alternative jobs or sources of income being difficult to find.
Demonstrating this frustration, in June 2018, several Tunisian protesters blocked Ben Guerdane’s main road, which trucks use to export goods to Libya, citing mistreatment at the Ras Jedir border, as well as “unfair” Libyan trade policies. In July, as these protests turned to harassment and attacks on Libyans transiting Ben Guerdane, the Libyan government closed the border, raising diplomatic tensions with Tunisia. As of mid-August, the municipalities of Ben Guerdane and Zuwara were engaged in talks to re-open the border, which included forming a bilateral committee.
The latest closure follows a similar incident in early 2017, when Tunisian protesters disrupted border traffic in Ben Guerdane after Libyan efforts to clamp down on border smuggling, creating what local Tunisians described as a “narrowing” of their ability to trade. Video footage capturing some of these protests, which lasted for weeks, shows Tunisians setting tires on fire and throwing stones at security forces who responded with tear gas. Traders in Ben Guerdane even engaged in a sit-in for several months, hoping to put pressure on authorities by suspending business and economic activities. In an attempt to quell the protests, Tunisian and Libyan border authorities reached an agreement after five days of talks in Libya. However, other Libyan actors not involved in the talks quickly and publicly rejected the agreement, claiming that it gave Tunisian traders a significant financial advantage over Libyans by effectively legalizing smuggling at the Ras Jedir border crossing.
The Need for a Broader Approach
Despite these difficult socioeconomic realities and this local resistance, international efforts have mostly focused on security-centric measures, such as hardening the border and cracking down on smuggling.
For example, under a $24.9 million grant awarded in 2016, the U.S. government’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) continues to install an electronic security surveillance system along a completed barrier that spans almost half of the border’s length. Over the last several years, Germany has been contributing to this effort, providing some $41 million for mobile observation and surveillance equipment. The barrier, constructed by Tunisia with the help of the DTRA, is composed of a system of obstacles, including sand banks, water-filled trenches, and fences.
Adding to this U.S.-German effort, the European Union is engaged in a number of assistance efforts on border security. On November 26, 2017, the EU Border Assistance Mission in Libya (EUBAM) presented a concept note that outlines its approach to border security and management reform in Libya. And more broadly, on February 14, 2018, the head of EUBAM, Vincenzo Tagliaferri, and the Libyan minister of justice, Mohamed Abdelwahed Abdelhameed, signed a memorandum of understanding formalizing their bilateral cooperation. This agreement expands EUBAM’s jurisdiction beyond borders to “substantiat[e] a solid foundation for the Rule of Law in Libya,” providing them a broader mandate to assist the Libyan Ministry of Justice and its dependent bodies. The EU has given EUBAM a sixteen-month, $20-million mission in support of the mandate. Additionally, EUBAM has held an Organized Crime Coordination Panel with the Libyan Ministry of Interior to coordinate the fight against serious, organized crimes, including smuggling and trafficking.
Engagement with Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) on smuggling is another facet of international border efforts. The NOC, a powerful stakeholder in Tunisia-Libya relations, has been vocal about the need to clamp down on fuel smuggling—both at the Tunisian border and throughout Libya. According to the NOC’s chairman, Mustafa Sanalla, fuel smuggling costs the Libyan economy over $750 million annually. In February 2018, Ghassan Salame, the UN secretary general’s special representative to Libya and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), met with Sanalla, agreeing to “work together to combat attempts by armed groups to gain a foothold in the Libyan oil sector and to increase transparency over Libya’s oil revenues.” The meeting was followed in April 2018 by the NOC’s announcement of a major anti-smuggling initiative, which has included marking fuel to provide evidence of smuggling; encouraging international sanctions against, and prosecutions of, smugglers; and promoting reforms of the Libyan subsidy system.
Yet bureaucratic and political fissures have surfaced in this effort: on August 14, a subsidiary of the NOC, the Brega Marketing Company, dissolved a committee that combatted fuel and gas smuggling in western and southern Libya (underway since 2015) and fired its head, Milad al-Hajrasi. This was followed by an announcement that the committee had in fact been an illegal front for smuggling and that al-Hajrasi was now under investigation—a move that provoked a raid by a Tripoli armed group on the Brega company’s offices and threats against the company’s director for his dismissal of al-Hajrasi. Supporters of al-Hajrasi claim this firing was intended to undercut his growing popularity and political assertiveness (especially toward the GNA and NOC) after he declared success in resolving the fuel shortage crisis in western Libya. Other Libyan observers speculate that pressure from Libyan factions involved with smuggling is at work. Regardless, the incident underscores the continued erosion of Libyan state institutions by political and economic fissures—and the growing threat to these institutions by armed groups.
Moving forward, local and international actors must supplement security measures with a greater focus on the informal cross-border economy that continues to support the livelihoods for many in border towns. Without the participation and buy-in of local benefactors of this economy—including the cartels as well as residents—technological and physical solutions are likely to fail. Instead of simply closing the border, local authorities must distinguish between more immediately detrimental phenomena, such as human and weapons trafficking, and the small-scale smuggling of goods, such as fuel and cigarettes.
Moreover, security efforts should be accompanied simultaneously by on-the-ground policies to help relieve the socioeconomic pressure felt on both sides of the border. These efforts could focus on providing alternate sources of income through increasing agricultural competitiveness, reforming land ownership, providing skills training, improving infrastructure, and investing in development projects. International actors can assist these initiatives by specifically designating economic assistance and foreign aid for border regions.
Although large smugglers wield considerable influence, the informal sector lacks channels of representation like unions or trade associations, leaving smaller traders unable to articulate and advocate their political or economic demands to the government. This also leaves governments with little information about the informal sector. To correct this, border policies should focus more on promoting associations that support those actively participating in the informal sector.
Restoring bilateral economic relations will also be crucial. Some movement on this front has already been made. A Tunisian-Libyan business council was formed in April 2018 to further support and restore bilateral economic relations, and Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj recently announced their intention to resume direct flights and normalize bilateral trade. Tunisia’s 2016 Finance Law simplified and lowered tariffs on many products, but some imported goods can still be subject to tariff rates as high as 200 percent—a factor that likely incentivizes cross-border smuggling. More broadly, asymmetric subsidy and tariff policies in Tunisia and Libya must be addressed through increased bilateral economic cooperation that ensures the two nations work in tandem to improve the border situation. Policy recommendations range from coordinating tariffs and taxes, to encouraging bilateral investment deals, and even to creating a regional free-trade zone.
Overall, much remains to be done in both the security and economic domains. Securitization alone will not only fail to curtail smuggling and trafficking but will have deleterious ripple effects on the livelihoods of border citizens. And this could ultimately threaten regional stability as a result of increased competition among militias, violent protests, and even a resurgence of jihadism due to a lack of other economic opportunities. International security assistance must be accompanied by a broader socioeconomic strategy and pay greater attention to reforming security institutions, tackling corruption, and, in the case of Libya, supporting national political reconciliation.
Katherine Pollock was a 2017–2018 junior fellow at Carnegie.