Rejected by the homeland: Stateless Libyan Tuareg and the role of migration

Yentl de Lange, Arabist and Researcher focusing on migration and North Africa
/ 8 mins read

This blog outlines the situation of stateless Tuareg in Libya. It is based on a preliminary study conducted through interviews with sixteen Libyan Tuareg in April 2020 which investigated topics including the role of statelessness in migration decision-making amongst stateless Tuareg in Libya.

Image by M.T ElGassier via Unsplash
Image by M.T ElGassier via Unsplash

Despite [the fact] that we are Libyans by origin and not by law, we are not immigrants, we are the owners of the territory. [..] I am Libyan from father to grandfather and I grew up in Libya and I love Libya but she does not love me. - Selim (throughout this piece, all names have been changed to protect individuals' privacy)  

The case of Libyan Tuareg – settling down

The Tuareg are a nomadic group of origin who have lived as pastoralists in North Africa since the 4th century. Alongside the rise and fall of different empires, the Tuareg lived together with other groups. Until the colonial period, most Tuareg were able to live autonomously outside of the different ruling regimes. Their relatively recent settlement after centuries of nomadic life can be attributed to two processes which strongly discouraged Tuareg from continuing to live as pastoralists, resulting in many settling down in the 1970s in Libya, Algeria, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.

Firstly, climate change has led to increased desertification of the Sahel with dramatic consequences for the ability of the Tuareg to continue their pastoralist traditions. The increasing drought has led to a colossal loss of water and nutrition in the Sahel. Thus, the desolated areas and routes undertaken by Tuareg for centuries have become unsafe, endangering the life and well-being of pastoralists and their livestock. A close proximity to cities and villages has become crucial for access to water and food.

Libya climate
A map showing the desertification of the Sahel. The area used to be viable for farming, but has dried up into desert-like land as a result of intense droughts and misuse of the land. (Munion, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The second crucial process leading to increased settlement has been the intensification of border controls that started with the arrival of colonial powers in the region and continued under Gaddafi. The former leader Muammar Gaddafi implemented a strong assimilation policy that discriminated against the many non-Arab groups in Libya. Gaddafi aimed to produce a national Arab identity in Libya, while also espousing a pro-immigration in discourse and practice; Gaddafi invited Tuareg from Niger and Mali to move to Libya, to be employed in his army, promising to grant citizenship in return. He sent these young men to fight in different wars, such as in Chad and Lebanon. Most men of this group have since failed to obtain citizenship.

If you are a Targi in Libya, you have two options: the army, to work in the army. You leave your diploma, you do not go, except for the army. Do you understand me? The army, to work in the army. Or as a teacher of the Arabic language. But why the army? I will tell you about the army. The army is just to protect the borders. [Regarding being a] teacher of the Arabic language: We are not Arab. Do you understand me? We are Tuareg, not Arab, but they want us to leave [our culture] and that we become Arab. That we give up on the culture, on our culture, our language, everything. So that we become Arab. - Baragsen

In theory, Libyan legislation has offered formal pathways to citizenship. However, multiple hurdles were imposed through ever-changing laws and regulations which created obstacles for Tuareg to obtain citizenship. Gaddafi granted nationality and citizenship in the 1970s to the majority of those residing in Libya at that moment. Tuareg, who define themselves as natives of the land, needed to show documented proof of living in Libya ten years before 1951, Libya’s year of independence, in order to obtain citizenship. Many Tuareg were still living as pastoralists in this period and lacked such documents. Naturalisation was also often further hindered by favouritism and discrimination on tribal and ethnic grounds.

The new digital identification system

In 2013, a digital identification system was implemented. At the time, digitising was seen as an essential step to improving the outdated previous system of different documents for different groups. Furthermore, with a digital system, the government hoped to have more control over its borders. The issuance of this new system ensured that those without registered citizenship obtained a raqm idārī (administrative number), instead of a raqm waṭanī (national number). Those with a raqm idārī are barred from receiving government services (such as health care), opening a bank account, owning property, setting up a business and travelling abroad.

I mean, I am imprisoned in Libya only. I cannot go to any country. Even in Libya, I cannot participate in anything. Even in activities in the university. There are some students that want to win a certain activity, for example, [the university] gives him an award and he goes to another country and takes courses, and I cannot participate in anything. I was in a discussion and debate group. And I left [the group] because it joined international debates in Qatar and Tunisia. I cannot participate. Because I do not have documents or a passport. [..] - Safa

Safa continues with the story of her sister who became very sick because of a bad kidney. When she contracted Hepatitis B she had a rise in her thyroid hormones and was very tired. They went from city to city to find a treatment, but without result. They could not treat her. She says that if they would have had the Libyan nationality and if they would have had all the documents, she could have been treated abroad. For two months, Safa’s sister stayed at the hospital where the doctors did not give her any treatment because of their lack of a raqm waṭanī. She passed away a month before I interviewed her sister.

Libya is a rich country, thank God. The Libyans have money for social security; for the divorced, the widowed, the sick and the old. And everyone receives money every month. And for aid from international organizations in Libya, you need to take your identification documents to receive certain support. It means that everything that you get in Libya, if you do not have the Libyan nationality and do not have a raqm waṭanī, it means there is nothing to get. Therefore, all of our youth go into the wars and fight, just to get money. - Safa

Migrations & a connection to the homeland

A lack of citizenship does not necessarily stop stateless Tuareg from feeling connected to their homeland of Libya. Feelings of a territorial identity can exist outside the framework of a legal identity. The connection to the homeland must be understood apart from citizenship, as they influence migration choices differently. The majority of the stateless respondents talked about their strong connection to their homeland Libya. These feelings of connection to Libya made respondents wish to return or to stay in Libya. However, the lack of citizenship is a problem that respondents aim to solve in order to improve their life (goals). For many, migration is seen as a vehicle to solve this problem.

Well for me, if I had documents, I had rights, I would not migrate. I would not have any problem, if I had documents. If I had rights, I would not have migrated from Libya. I would not want to migrate. -Ali

Respondents highlighted how young Tuareg with a raqm idārī join a militia or the army to fight for their homeland. These young men feel they have no other opportunity in Libya than to fight. Most of them die. When a young stateless Targi dies, he is registered as ‘unknown’ and ‘without identity’, instead as ‘Libyan’. Respondents were very upset about this. They said that despite their fighting for the homeland, despite them even dying for the homeland, their homeland still does not recognise them as a citizen or as Libyan. They feel rejected by the homeland.

Me, personally, I will not give up on my homeland. I prefer to die than to leave it. Because the homeland is the most valuable thing that a man has. -Selim

Lybian passport
Libyan passport

(Denied) access to legal migration channels

Statelessness makes people need to move via dangerous routes, as they are often denied access to safe and legal routes. Statelessness can thus determine the route and method of migration. The respondents in this study who have migrated had chosen dangerous migration routes, because of their denied access to legal channels.

Oh yes, I went to Italy, my dream was only: that I would find a picture of me in a passport, anything, any passport. [..] I am now in Italy. After Corona, if I want to go to Tunisia, I go to Tunisia. If I want to go to Algeria, I go to Algeria. If I want to go to another place, I will go. In Libya, [because of] my [family] book (a legal document in Libya that functions as the main proof for Libyan citizenship), I am not entitled to go out to travel. - Baragsen

Respondents who had moved to Europe explained that the reason why they crossed the Mediterranean Sea was because this route was the only available route for them without a passport. If they had a passport, they would not have considered crossing the Mediterranean Sea in the first place.

It is the same regarding the borders of Tunisia: You need a passport. [You also need] a passport for Algeria, you need a passport for Niger, you need a passport … I crossed the sea and if I died, okay. If I arrived, okay. It is the only solution. There is no other solution. - Mehdi

Key conclusions

This preliminary case study observed that migration can function as a vehicle to address statelessness, ultimately clearing a pathway to reaching other more personal life goals. When someone chooses to migrate, statelessness determines the route and method of migration. Moreover, theory on territorial identity must be developed outside the notion of citizenship, as a lack of citizenship did not mean a lack of feelings of connection to their homeland. Likewise for some the feelings of connection to the homeland shape their desire to stay or to return to Libya.

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