Investigation points to E.U. complicity in deplorable treatment of migrants in Libya

Investigation points to E.U. complicity in deplorable treatment of migrants in Libya

  • Published on
    November 28, 2021
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  • Category:
    Human Trafficking
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“Tired of migrants arriving from Africa, the E.U. has created a shadow immigration system that captures them before they reach its shores, and sends them to brutal Libyan detention centers run by militias,” says investigative journalist Ian Urbina.  

In a hard-hitting exposé, Urbina documents the heinous treatment of migrants in Libyan detention centers, which often amounts to modern slavery. He also unpicks the E.U.’s role in bolstering this exploitative migration deterrence system. 

His eye-opening investigation, which led to the kidnapping, detention and abuse of him and his team, was published this week in the New Yorker magazine.  

Extortion and abuse in overly cramped cells: the horror of Al Mabani  

Urbina’s investigation focuses on Al Mabani, a prison in Tripoli where people on the move are taken to be extorted by a militia that calls itself the Public Security Agency. Through interviews with survivors and aid workers, Urbina uncovers the almost unspeakable suffering inflicted there. 

Around 1,500 people are packed into eight cells. Tuberculosis and COVID-19 spread among detainees. There is one toilet per 100 people, meaning detainees often have to urinate in bottles or defecate in the shower.  

Guards march the detainees out to the courtyard twice a day in silence where they place communal bowls of food on the floor from which they are expected to eat.  

The cells have fluorescent lights that stay on all night. People take turns to sleep on thin floor pads, and fight over who gets to sleep in the shower where ventilation is better.  

Those who break the rules are put into isolation with no bathroom. They are tied from a ceiling beam and beaten. Women are frequently taken out of the cells to be raped by the guards.  

When brought to Al Mabani, detainees are not allowed to speak to a lawyer. They are given no information about the motive for or the duration of their detention. They are told they can buy their freedom for a fee of around $500. Those whose relatives cannot pay the ransom wait and try not to lose hope. 

How is the E.U. supporting this exploitation? 

Urbina accuses the E.U. of being complicit in these crimes. The New Yorker reports: 

In the past six years, the European Union, weary of the financial and political costs of receiving migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, has created a shadow immigration system that stops them before they reach Europe. It has equipped and trained the Libyan Coast Guard, a quasi-military organization linked to militias in the country, to patrol the Mediterranean, sabotaging humanitarian rescue operations and capturing migrants. The migrants are then detained indefinitely in a network of profit-making prisons run by the militias.

As Urbina highlights, in 2017, Italy signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Libya, backed by funding from the E.U. The Memorandum affirmed “the resolute determination to cooperate in identifying urgent solutions to the issue of clandestine migrants crossing Libya to reach Europe by sea.” Around half a billion dollars from the E.U.’s Emergency Trust Fund for Africa has been paid to Libya for so-called migration management. 

In an interview with Urbina, Salah Marghani, Libya’s Minister of Justice from 2012 to 2014 stated that the horrific conditions migrants face in Libya are part of a conscious strategy from the E.U. He says: “The E.U. did something they carefully considered and planned for many years: create a hellhole in Libya, with the idea of deterring people from heading to Europe.” Marghani told Urbina that the E.U.’s plan was to: “Make Libya the bad guy. Make Libya the disguise for their policies while the good humans of Europe say they are offering money to help make this hellish system safer.” 

The E.U.’s involvement starts at sea 

The entrapment of migrants in this exploitative system often begins in the Mediterranean. Urbina explains how the E.U. facilitates the capture of people even after they have left Libyan shores: 

In 2018, the Italian government, with the E.U.’s blessing, helped the Coast Guard get approval from the U.N. to extend its jurisdiction nearly a hundred miles off Libya’s coast—far into international waters, and more than halfway to Italian shores. The E.U. supplied six speedboats, thirty Toyota Land Cruisers, radios, satellite phones, inflatable dinghies, and five hundred uniforms. It spent close to a million dollars last year to build command centers for the Coast Guard, and provides training to officers. 

Urbina goes on to consider the role of the E.U.’s border agency, Frontex, which is constantly monitoring the sea with drones and private aircrafts. When the agency finds a boat they suspect could be transporting migrants, it sends information to partners in the region. This information-sharing is allegedly to enable rescue missions, but Frontex does not usually inform humanitarian vessels.  

A senior official at Frontex, who chose to remain anonymous, told Urbina that the agency also streams surveillance footage to the Italian Coast Guard and Italy’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Center. The Coast Guard intercepts the boats, and takes their passengers to centers like Al Mabani.  

Enough is enough 

Freedom United has been denouncing the E.U.’s complicity in the unlawful detention, abuse, extortion and slavery of people on the move in Libya since 2017. The upcoming elections in Libya will likely lead to new negotiations on migration between the E.U. and Libya. Take the chance to send the E.U. a clear message ahead of the negotiations: supporting these crimes is not acceptable. Sign the petition today. 


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