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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Libya

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date August 2011
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Libya, August 2011, available at: [accessed 1 December 2015]
Comments In October 2015, MRG revised its World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, overview texts were not themselves updated, but the previous 'Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples' rubric was replaced throughout with links to the relevant minority-specific reports, and a 'Resources' section was added. Refworld entries have been updated accordingly.
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Last updated: August 2011


Libya, located on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, is the continent's fourth largest country. It borders Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Algeria and Tunisia. Most of the country's south is a sparsely populated desert. Libya has rich reserves of oil and natural gas.


Berbers have lived in Libya for millennia. Parts or all of today's Libya were conquered by Phoenicia, Carthage, Ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire before Arabs moved into the region in the seventh century. Berbers and other indigenous peoples began adopting Islam and the Arabic language.

After centuries of continued foreign rule by Ottoman Turks beginning in 1551, followed by Italy, France and Britain, Libya gained independence in 1951 as the United Kingdom of Libya. In 1969, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi led a military coup that ended the monarchy and proclaimed the Libyan Arab Republic. In 1977 the country's official name changed to Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (state of the masses): Gaddafi has served as de facto ruler ever since.


Main languages: Arabic, Berber (Tamazight)

Main religions: Sunni Islam

Population: 6,420,000 (United Nations, 2010)

Main minority groups: Berber (Amazigh) est. 236,000 to 590,000 (4-10%), Tuareg est. 17,000 (0.3%), foreigners, 600,000 documented (10%) and 1.1-1.2 million undocumented (18-20%)

[Note: Reliable statistics for Libya are unavailable. Estimates for the numbers of Berber speakers vary between four and ten per cent. The number of Tuareg is from the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights in 2009. The numbers for foreigners are Libyan government figures cited by Human Rights Watch (HWR) in 2006.]

Demographic data for Libya is scarce, but around 90 per cent of the population belongs to the Arabic-speaking majority of mixed Arab-Berber ancestry. The Sunni branch of Islam is the official and nationally dominant political, cultural and legal force. Berbers, who retain the Berber language and customs, are the largest non-Arab minority. Libyan Berbers call themselves Amazigh (plural: Imazighen) and are one of the indigenous populations of North Africa. They are made of up of different ethnic groups, including nomadic Tuareg.

Berbers live along the Algerian border and in the Oasis of Ghat and Ghadamis in the west of Libya. Once traders on the north-south Sahara caravan route, the ending of this and the 'pacification' of the desert deprived them of their traditional way of life. Berbers adhere to a form of Sunni Islam intermeshed with Sudanese and West African beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft. Marriages are monogamous and women have a high status in Berber society. Both men and women wear veils as a protection against dust storms.

Other minorities include the Arabic-speakers of West African ancestry, who inhabit the southern oases, and the Berber-related Tuareg and Tebu (Toubou), who live in the south of the country. Though converted to Islam by Sanussi missionaries in the nineteenth century, Tebu retain many of their earlier religious beliefs and practices. Their language is related to a Nigerian language. Centred in the Tibesti Mountains and other parts of southern Libya, early Tebu economy was based on pastoralism with the margins of survival widened by caravanning, slavery and raiding. In the latter half of the nineteenth century Tebu mobility was curtailed by conquest and policing of the southern desert, first by colonial powers and later by the independent states of Libya and Chad. Since the second half of the twentieth century, Tebu have been administered from centres such as Benghazi and Baida in Libya.

According to 2011 UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) statistics, there are 8,000 refugees in Libya, mainly from Palestine and sub-Saharan Africa.


Since 1959 petroleum and gas have financed the transformation of Libya from a poor nation at the time of independence to a rich one with vast sums to spend on social, agricultural and military development. The country is loosely governed on the basis of the Qur'an and sharia law, as well as Gaddafi's 'Green Book', published in 1975. The book rejects western liberal democracy, arguing instead for a form of direct democracy based on popular committees, institutions which Gaddafi subsequently created.

Gaddafi has varyingly attempted to lead pan-Arab and pan-African movements. He has provided support to rebellions across the Middle East and the African continent. This included support to the African National Congress battling Apartheid in South Africa, but more often has involved training and sponsorship of warlords and despots, including Charles Taylor of Liberia, Foday Sankoh - the former leader of Sierra Leone's brutal Revolutionary United Front, Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, and recently, the widely ostracized Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

Libya's support of international terrorism in the 1980s led to confrontation with the United States. The US bombed Libya in 1986 in response to alleged Libyan involvement in a terrorist attack in Germany that killed US soldiers. In 1992, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Libya over its involvement in the Lockerbie bombing in 1988. In the 1990s these sanctions isolated Libya, but they were suspended in April 1999 and finally lifted in September 2003, after Libya accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing. In 2003, this admission and the decision to stop developing weapon of mass destructions have improved relations with the United States and Europe (which desire access to Libya's oil reserves). As a result of this, western politicians have visited Libya, as well as many working-level and commercial delegations, and Gaddafi made his first trip to Western Europe in 15 years, when he travelled to Brussels in April 2004.


None listed.


Minority based and advocacy organisations

Libya Watch for Human Rights (UK)
Tel: +44-7-830-307-035

Libyan Union for Human Rights Defenders (Holland)

Libyan Working Group

Sources and further reading

Human Rights Watch, Stemming the Flow: Abuses Against Migrants, Asylum Seekers and Refugees, September 2006.

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