Looking out the window as I flew from Tunis to Tripoli in March, I thought about the first time I saw Libya from the air, flying south towards my first diplomatic posting in Africa in 1963. The Libyan people have seen much suffering since then: tyrannical dictatorship, violent uprising and ongoing insecurity.

Add to this that Libya has an extremely complex migration situation. This is clear when you are in the country. There are different migratory flows moving through and towards Libya, driven by underdevelopment, state fragility, marginalization and security threats in West Africa, East Africa and the Middle East. The migration situation is compounded by political insecurity and conflict in Libya, which is further exacerbating existing vulnerabilities of all affected communities in the country, including Libyans themselves. Fostering a stable environment to bring about a much-needed holistic approach to migration governance is now a priority.

The UN Migration Agency’s (IOM) Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) has been able to identity nearly 400,000 migrants in Libya. However, the total number of migrants in Libya is estimated to be between 700,000 and 1 million – close to what it had been before the 2011 uprising. Many migrants are hoping to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, but many others had intended to stay and work in Libya (up to 60% by our count), while others would now like to return home.

Adrift in their own country

Tragically, there have already been over 1,000 migrant deaths in the Mediterranean this year alone. Another tragedy: the thousands of internally displaced Libyans due to the ongoing insecurity – many of them homeless since the outbreak of the crisis in 2011. The majority have been displaced from areas in the north-east and north-west of the country, particularly in Sirte and some parts of Benghazi. Displaced Libyans are suffering from a lack of access to essential services, including critical medical assistance and economy opportunities. IOM works with local government and communities to promote stability and development for internally displaced people, migrants and local host communities in Libya, as well as to help establish a better system of managing the migration situation on the ground.

More than 7,100 migrants are held in the 27 Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM)-managed detention centers inside Libya. I was appalled by the conditions in the Libyan centres. The situation was far worse than anything I could have expected. I met men who had been beaten and women with their children, who had been born in detention, desperate to get back home. The overcrowding is still extremely vivid in my mind – thin old mattresses crammed together, hardly an inch between them. Basic hygiene denied.

IOM has stepped up its support in Libya and to the Libyan authorities to help both migrants and Libyans affected by the conflict. Last week, we completed the rehabilitation of two detention centers to improve the living conditions for the detained migrants. We are currently working on two more.

Reaching boiling point

Relations between migrants and the host community are difficult, with multiple incidents of tension in 17% of Libya’s municipalities. Migrants can have a positive impact on the local labour market, contributing to a stronger economy and more jobs, and in some areas in Libya they already are.

I travelled to Tripoli, the first head of an international organization to visit since 2011, with the hope that scaling up IOM’s presence in the country would lead to a greater international commitment to Libya and its people. If we can be present throughout Somalia, which is an extremely insecure setting, then we can be helping throughout Libya too. We cannot accept that the problem is beyond our capacity to overcome it. We cannot be hopeless.

With top decision-makers from Gulf Cooperation Council countries, the Levant and North Africa, as well as key international stakeholders from the United States, Europe, East Africa and other regions, all together this week at the World Economic Forum, it is the time for bold collective thinking and action by world leaders to develop a truly comprehensive approach to the governance of migration that will ensure channels for safe and regular migration. Regular migration can be an opportunity for greater global development, a vital lifeline for many and also an effective method for dispelling the fear we have seen in many destination countries.