PROJECT “LIBORG” (2019-2021)

The research project:

This project addresses the role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the management of migration in Libya. The research is carried out by Paolo Cuttitta, supervised by Antoine Pécoud and funded by an individual Marie Curie fellowship (grant number 846320 ) within the Horizon 2020 programme of the EU Commission (call: H2020-MSCA-IF-2018).

The aim of the project is to analyse NGOs’ activities in their relationship with the process of externalisation of EU migration and border policies, as well as with human rights.

Libya has long been a point of departure for people attempting the unauthorised sea-crossing to Europe. Italy (as the main landing country) and the EU have long been trying to include Libya in the process of externalisation of migration and border management, which aims at involving the governments of countries of origin and transit in their efforts to stem unwanted migration, and, more generally, at detaching border control activities from the territorial borders of destination countries. A crucial role in this process is played by international organisations (IOs) and other non-state actors, which: a) directly carry out activities in countries of origin and transit (e.g. refugee protection, repatriations, assistance to detained people, information campaigns); b) provide local state authorities with know-how and technical support.

While a growing body of research has started analysing this process, scant attention has been paid to Libya (as opposed to other countries) and to the role played by NGOs (as opposed to that played by IOs). Gadhafi’s fall allowed for many international NGOs to start activities in Libya, and for many new Libyan NGOs to be established. Since 2017, despite Libya’s political instability, the activities of NGOs in the country have increased sharply, along with the increase in funding from the EU and Italy. Extraordinary funding has been repeatedly made available to IOs, which typically subcontract part of their activities to NGOs. Moreover, nine Italian NGOs started working in Libyan detention centres under a scheme funded by the Italian government in 2018.

Importantly, human rights have long been part of all initiatives aimed at enhancing regional cooperation between Europe and its southern neighbourhood. More specifically, they are also part of the process of humanitarianisation of the Mediterranean EU border in the field of migration management. While human rights can be powerful tools of emancipation and empowerment, they can also help perpetuating existing power unbalances.

The research project will, first, map the different NGOs operating in this field. Then, it will analyse their mandates and activities, as well as the relevant funding sources, and the relations (mutual influences, dependencies, alliances etc.) they have to one another as well as to state authorities and IOs.

With regard to externalisation, the research will try to answer the following questions: In how far is the externalisation lens appropriate to analyse NGOs’ activities? What strategies do state actors put in place to include NGOs in their externalisation plans, and how do NGOs respond to these? Do NGOs passively accept the framework in which they operate, or do they (also) try to contest and transform it by putting forward alternative agendas? Do they contribute to the current trend towards the depoliticisation of migration management, or do they try to repoliticise the externalised EU border? Do activities aimed at externalising EU migration and border policies through the work of NGOs actually fulfil their goals, or may they – at least sometimes – produce opposite results, by enhancing opportunities for people to travel further to Europe?

With regard to human rights, the research will try to answer the question of which human rights (ranging from ‘negative’ rights such as the right to life and the right not to be exposed to persecution, torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, to ‘positive’ rights such as the right to leave any country, to self-determination or to a fair trial) are either prioritised or neglected in the externalisation process, and how, through the work of NGOs.

Main project results:


Journal articles

– Three articles (of which one co-authored) are currently under review in international peer-reviewed journals. A fourth one (below) has already been published:

– Ripensare l’esternalizzazione. Per una critica dell’euro-centrismo e dello stato-centrismo negli studi su migrazioni e confini. Rivista Geografica Italiana, 127(4), 2020, pp. 55-73. Online:

Book chapters

– Spazio umanitario e spazio esternalizzato. Le ONG e il controllo a distanza delle migrazioni in Libia. In: AA.VV., Atti della ‘Decima Giornata di Studio Oltre la globalizzazione – Feedback’. Franco Angeli, Milan, forthcoming

Other publications


– NGOs, Migration and Externalisation in Libya, 23 March 2021:

المنظمات غير الحكومية ، الهجرة والتضخم في ليبيا

19 March 2021:المنظمات-غير-الحكومية-،-الهجرة-والتضخ/


– Libya’s Figures About Detained Migrants and Detention Centres. The Reasons for Recent Fluctuations, 3 March 2021:


– NGOs, Migration und Externalisierung in Libyen, 23 February 2021:


– Tra spazio umanitario e spazio esternalizzato. Le ONG e le migrazioni in Libia, 17 February 2021:


– ONG e intervento umanitario in Libia, 26 June 2020:


  • Bologna University, conference ‘Migrazioni. Dove va la geografia’, 13 November 2019
  • Austrian Institute for International Affairs, Vienna, workshop ‘The Externalization of EU Border Security’, 13 December 2019
  • Al Manar University, Tunis, initial workshop of the Erasmus+ CBHE-JP project ‘Migrants’, 17 February 2020
  • Council for European Studies: 27th Virtual Conference, 22-24 June 2020 (postponed to 21-25 June 2021)
  • ESCAPES: online conference ‘Il governo della migrazione e dell’asilo. Resistenza e azione in tempi di ambivalenza e incertezze’, 26 June 2020
  • Associazione Diritti e Frontiere: online conference ‘Migrazioni, guerre e diritti nel Mediterraneo’, 20 November 2020
  • Società di Studi Geografici: online conference ‘Oltre la globalizzazione – feedback’, Florence University, 11 December 2020
  • Université Sorbonne Paris Nord: online conference ‘NGOs/CSOs, migration management and border control’, 16 March 2021
  • Association of Borderlands Studies: annual conference (online), 17 April 2021

A final online conference with 23 paper presentations, titled ‘NGOs/CSOs, migration management and border control’

was organised by Paolo Cuttitta and Antoine Pécoud on 15-16 March 2021, and will result in a special issue.

Finally, two public online roundtables were organised. Invited speakers included journalists, researchers, NGOs, donors and member of parliaments:

– ‘Libia, confine d’Europa. ONG tra controllo delle migrazioni e aiuti umanitari e allo sviluppo’, 22 April 2021

– ‘Between Migration Control and Humanitarian/Development Aid. Externalising EU Borders to Libya and North Africa’, 30 April 2021