Postcoloniality of Energy and Displacement in Libya


Mathias Hatleskog Tjønn
Martin Lemberg-Pedersen


Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Mathias Hatleskog Tjønn and Martin Lemberg- Pedersen. Mathias is a PhD Fellow affiliated with the NORMS-project, housed at the Institute for Social Research (ISF) in Oslo. He holds an MPhil in Modern International and Transnational History from the University in Oslo (2019), and has worked as a research assistant at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). Tjønn is interested in migrant return policies, migration, colonial history and European contemporary history. Martin is Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Warwick, and the Head of Policy and Documentation at Amnesty International Denmark. He has worked as Associate Professor at the Centre for Advanced Migration Studies, University of Copenhagen, and been Visiting Fellow at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford. This is the sixth post of Border Criminologies’ themed series on 'Postcoloniality and Forced Migration' organised by Eva Magdalena Stambøl, Sharla M. Fett, Nina Sahraoui, Martin Lemberg-Pedersen and Lucy Mayblin.

This blogpost is based on our chapter for the edited volume Postcoloniality and Forced Migration: Mobility, Control, Agency. We demonstrate that a postcolonial inquiry on Libya reveals how an ahistorical and Eurocentric gaze advanced by policymakers have perpetuated flawed assumptions about the underexamined geopolitical nexus between energy policy and migration control. This yields insights into the strategic uses and counter-uses of colonial and anti-colonial discourse by various imperial actors engaged in Libya, but also by different Libyan governments. We show how a longue durée of migration control practices, and competing imperial and geopolitical interests in energy, have shaped displacement in Libya for over a century.


Route within the Soluch concentration camp
Route within the Soluch concentration camp.

We understand postcoloniality not as a page turned on history, nor as part of a historical trajectory towards civilizational progress. Instead, we deploy the approach as critical scrutiny of still unfolding, contingent reoccurrences of power relations following colonial encounters. And here, Libya is a somewhat paradoxical case. On the one hand, Libya has been central to discussions of European migration control across media and scholarship, since the mid-00´s, with attention intensifying after the “Long Summer of Migration” in 2015–16 and the onset of a Libyan civil war between rivalling government. On the other hand, Libya has also been “doubly marginalized” in both Italian and colonial studies, through an epistemological erasure of the brutal aspects of the colonization of Libya from Italian archives, alongside the relative neglect of Italian colonialization from the international scholarship. Today, Western states often represent Libya as a failed ‘transit state’ in constant humanitarian crisis leading both to European-bound immigration, and the necessity of external interventions in the form of migration control so that order can be re-imposed (see for example work by Lemberg-Pedersen and Mayblin and Turner).

Imperial and colonial trajectories are relevant for understanding dynamics and practices in current Libyan displacement politics in two ways. First, from the beginning of the 1912 colonial Italian campaign into Libya, by then three Ottoman provinces Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan, and then to the re-colonization effort by Mussolini in 1923, a doctrine of Italian settler colonialism aimed to create a spazio vitale (living space) for Italian workers. Through transformation of the landscape, it was to support industry and agriculture for Italian interests. This entangled displacement politics and energy politics closely together: the Italian ambitions required water, but also the cleansing of nomadic and Beduin populations, supported by Ottoman guerillas, from the coveted land, as well as the subsequent control, detention and circulation of those displaced. In July and August 1930, the Italian army displaced more than 100,000 civilians from the coastal town of Cyrenaica, marching them to 16 concentration camps along the coast (Ahmida, 2020). Entire villages were emptied and abandoned as columns of thousands of people were moved days on end. It is estimated that around 10,000 dead were left in the wake of these marches, who were enforced by Italian troops alongside colonial Askari and Quadi troops drafted from Italian territories in current-day Eritrea and Somalia. The concentration camp system was dismantled in 1933, after 60.000 had died from diseases and starvation.

Mussolini in Tobruk, Libya (1937)
Mussolini in Tobruk, Libya (1937)

It was on this brutal backdrop that the Italian energy politics were pursued through a series of missions of water exploration south of Tripoli by the Italian School of Agriculture. These missions coincidentally also led to the first crude oil finds, and the settler colonial ambitions are therefore contingently linked to Libya´s postwar petroleum and gas extraction, and onwards to key factors still determining the country´s current and contested political fate. After World War II, investments in the existing colonial infrastructures accelerated the access to oil fields and inland/offshore installations of Italian companies like ENI. And like the Italian colonization early in the twentieth century, the Italian-EU border externalization since the 00´s, also facilitated contracts to commercial Italian interests in Libya, including military and surveillance technology companies such as AGI and Leonardo, whose parent companies had also been involved in the 1920s colonization of the country. This instrumentalization of forced displacement and its control constitute a remarkable postcolonial continuity in Libyan geopolitics.

A second postcolonial insight about Libya is how attention to ongoing effects of colonial encounters makes visible strategic discourses about (post)colonial actors´ energy and displacement politics. Some instrumentalize the country´s history as cultural-political capital during moments of geopolitical ruptures. Thus, ENI has moved from pro-colonization discourses, over fascist geostrategies, and onwards to post-war allegedly decolonial self-presentation. Another example is how, during the Italian colonial warfare, Arab newspapers and commentators were fiercely anti-colonial (for instance the Egyptian daily al-Mu´ayyad, or La Nation Arabe, as well as Amir Shakib Arslan´s booklet “The Italian cruelties in Tripolitania”). These discourses were supported by Turkey, who, after the implosion of the Ottoman Empire, had moved from enforcing an imperial tradition and legacy of its own, to an anti-colonialism shaped by its resistance to European powers. Today, this Turkish discourse is being instrumentalized as justification for Turkish military presence in Libya, through the narrative where Libyan nomadic tribes are portrayed as former members of an extended Ottoman family.


From the Second Berlin Conference on Libya, June 23, 2021
From the Second Berlin Conference on Libya, June 23, 2021. Source: Wikimedia Commons, US State Department photo by Ron Przysucha.

Remarkably, the EU’s narration of colonialism in Libya is in stark contrast to those of Italy and Turkey. It simply disregards the colonial encounters on the territory altogether. While both countries recognize certain – albeit highly selective – aspects of their respective colonial legacies, the EU conducts what we call an epistemological erasure of its own past. One reason is that the EU from its inception has depicted itself as a decolonizing and democratizing global force, as something new and apart from the crude power politics of old empires. This narrative glosses over that, at the start of the Union, four out of 6 founding members were still active colonial powers (see Hansen and Jonsson). This creates peculiar differences between Italy, Turkey and the EU when it comes to the perception of Libyan energy politics and displacement dynamics. The manner in which the EU’s general lack of colonial awareness has facilitated flawed, nationalistic understandings of dynamics of displacement, becomes no less striking.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

M. Tjønn and M. Lemberg-Pedersen. (2023) Postcoloniality of Energy and Displacement in Libya. Available at: Accessed on: 28/09/2023

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