Migrant smuggling and human trafficking from Libya to Europe

Migrant smuggling and human trafficking from Libya to Europe

Migrant smuggling and human trafficking from Libya to Europe


The abuse of migrants by organised criminals, traffickers and armed groups has become a common feature of the current migration crisis in Libya. While not all migrants fall victim to trafficking, many experience some form of threat, coercion or exploitation, and many are subjected to forced labour and prostitution. This study analysed the ways in which a sample of English-language news media covered the topics of migrant smuggling and human trafficking from Libya, and the frequency of words used to denote slavery, abuse and financial transactions.

Key points

  • News articles analysed in this paper often used the terms ‘smuggling’ and ‘trafficking’ interchangeably, and rarely used specific language to denote experiences of migrant vulnerability and exploitation.
  • Language in media reports tends to focus on the scale of immigration into Europe, giving lower priority to other important factors, such as abuse of migrants and vulnerability to trafficking.
  • Clearer distinctions in media reports between smuggling and trafficking could contribute to a better public understanding of the migration crisis and help improve responses.
  • Improving the capacity of news organisations on both sides of the Mediterranean is key to improving public understanding of the complexities of migration.


The dramatic increase in migration to Europe since 2011 has become a key focus of the European press. The United Nations’ (UN) Global study on smuggling of migrants reported that in 2016 about 375 000 people took smuggling routes across the Mediterranean to Europe and that about 480 000 people journeyed from sub-Saharan countries to North Africa.1 A recent Europol report estimated that 90% of the migrants reported to have crossed the Mediterranean were aided by smugglers.2

Libya has witnessed some of the biggest increases in migrant smuggling and human trafficking in the region since 2011, and with it a steep increase in media coverage. During this time, news articles started to appear worldwide with dramatic headlines using terms such as ‘wave’ and ‘flood’, alongside photos of boats of migrants and refugees.3 Migrant smuggling and human trafficking emerged as hot topics.

This paper presents an analysis of the ways in which migrant smuggling and human trafficking were represented in English news media from around the world reporting on the European migration crisis – specifically, on migration from Libya to Europe – from 2011–2017. It argues for greater scrutiny of how the media frames migration, and for increased support for independent journalism on both sides of the Mediterranean.

Read more here.