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  • Writer's pictureIan Urbina is an investigative reporter and the director of The Outlaw Ocean Project

Despite Calls for Reform, Libya Appoints Notorious Militia Leader to Handle Migrants

The Libyan government has named as the new director of immigration enforcement a militia commander who previously ran one of the country's most infamous migrant prisons, where rape, beatings and extortion were commonplace.

Mohamed al-Khoja was confirmed on December 23 as the next head of the Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM), where he will be responsible for overseeing Libya's roughly 15 migrant detention centers.

Libyan authorities, with help from European Union funding, use these facilities to detain tens of thousands of migrants each year, most of whom are captured as they try to cross the Mediterranean in overcrowded rafts. The prisons are the result of the E.U.'s efforts to stem the flow of migrants from Africa and the Middle East making their way to European shores. The E.U. has for years sent millions of Euros to Libya to train and equip the Libyan Coast Guard, which in effect serves as a proxy force for Europe.

At a time when European, African and Middle Eastern human rights advocates, lawmakers and researchers are increasingly calling for the E.U. to reconsider its involvement with human rights abuses in Libya, the recent appointment of Al-Khoja is especially noteworthy since he has an unusually checkered past. For years, al-Khoja ran the Tariq al-Sikka prison in Tripoli, a place where one report after another has documented a ghastly array of crimes against thousands of migrants held there.

“His appointment exemplifies the pattern of impunity in Libya which sees individuals reasonably suspected of involvement in crimes under international law be appointed to positions of power where they can repeat violations, rather than face investigations,” said Hussein Baoumi a researcher with Amnesty International whose organization repeatedly documented human rights violations in Tarik al-Sikka including arbitrary detention, torture and forced labor during al-Khoja’s leadership.

Other organizations came to similar conclusions. In 2019, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime concluded that al-Khoja had used the migrant detention facility as a base to train his militia's fighters. Migrant detainees at al-Sikka were used – in clear violation of international law – to clean and store weapons and munitions, according to a 2019 report from Human Rights Watch. A team from the Associated Press in 2019 reported that al-Khoja was behind a multi-million dollar scheme to divert to his militia money meant to feed migrants at a United Nations facility in Tripoli.

Migrants n cell: Credits Giulia Tranchina

This year, Amnesty International interviewed migrants held at al-Sikka who said they had been conscripted into forced labor such as construction and farm work. Another Amnesty International report from 2020 on conditions in the Tariq al-Sikka facility he ran included the account of a migrant who watched two friends die of tuberculosis in the facility for want of adequate care. Migrants at the prison were used to build a shelter for horses belonging to al-Khoja, according to reporting in the Guardian produced last year by Sally Hayden.

"His appointment suggests that the abusive detention center system, which relies on violence and extortion, will continue without hope for reforms," said Wolfram Lacher, a researcher on Libya at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

The United Nations have said that “crimes against humanity” are occuring in the detention centers, whose population continue to swell. In 2021, 32,425 people were captured at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard, often with help from the EU border agency, which flies drones and surveillance airplanes over the Mediterranean to spot the fleeing refugees. Once back in Libya, many of these migrants end up in arbitrary detention. This week, Libyan authorities violently raided two migrant protest camps, one of which was outside the headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, detaining more than 600 migrants and transferring most of them to a detention center called Ain Zara, which is among those that Al Khoja will now oversee. The International Rescue Committee said it was treating several injured migrants following the raid, including one person who suffered a gunshot wound.

An investigation by The Outlaw Ocean Project published in November in partnership with the New Yorker magazine detailed how even European money meant to make these prisons more humane had instead sustained what has become a gulag of grim and lawless facilities. The investigation showed how E.U. money pays for everything from the buses that transport captured migrants at sea from port to the prisons to the body bags used for the migrants who perish at sea or while detained.

The E.U. has long acknowledged the horrors happening in the migrant prisons that its policies helped produce, but it has done little to alter those policies or hold abusers in Libya to account.

The appointment of al-Khoja casts further doubt on the E.U.’s ability or willingness to exert control over the detention system it helped create. These facilities are full of migrants in large measure due to the increasingly efficient work of the E.U.-funded Libyan Coast Guard, which gets considerable help from surveillance drones and airplanes operated by Frontex, the E.U. border agency that patrols the Mediterranean for the sake of reporting the coordinates of migrant rafts to Libyan authorities.

The DCIM is also a direct benefactor of E.U.'s funds. In 2019, for example, the agency received 30 specially modified Toyota Land Cruisers to intercept migrants in Libya's southern desert. E.U. money also purchased DCIM 10 buses to ship captive migrants to prisons after they are caught.