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  • Writer's pictureIan Urbina


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


In May of 2021, I traveled to Libya to explore the troubling story of the country’s prisons for migrants captured trying to make their way to Europe. The dozen or more jails had grown up as a result of the European Union’s controversial efforts to, in effect, pay countries such as Libya to do the often-dirty work of immigration enforcement for it: with European support, Libya’s Coast Guard would work to catch the migrants as they crossed the Mediterranean, and those captured would then be held in jails throughout the North Africa country.

The partnership had provoked outrage for years, and reports of abuse and killings by the Libyan Coast Guard and the violent militias that typically ran the migrant prisons had stacked up. Europe did not not deny the horrors taking place but had only recommitted over the years to continuing its relationships with not only Libya, but other North African countries such as Tunisia and NIger.

Earlier in the spring, I had heard of the alarming story of a young migrant from Guinea Bissau, who had fled his home for Europe because his farm was failing, and he was desperate for money to feed his family. His name was Aliou Cande, and he had been imprisoned in a new, but increasingly notorious facility in Libya’s capital city of Tripoli. The jail was called Al Mabani, or “The Buildings,” in Arabic.

Once in Libya, I set about reconstructing the story of Cande’s flight toward Europe, his capture by the Libyan Coast Guard, and his treatment inside Al Mabani. I talked with relatives in Guinea Bissau and in Libya, too. I identified and interviewed migrants who had been detained along with Cande. And I pushed to detail as best I could Europe’s role in creating and supporting Libya’s fight against migrants.

Al-Nawasi Detention Site, July 12, 2021, Satellite Imagery, via Google Earth Pro (Credit:The Outlaw Ocean Project)

At 10 p.m. on February 3, 2021, I discovered, Candé and more than a hundred other migrants had pushed off from the Libyan shore aboard an inflatable rubber raft. Cande had made a long and arduous journey from Guinea Bissau to Niger, Morocco, and Algeria, dodging bandits, trying to arrange transport to Europe, and finally ending up in Libya. Now, with Libya receding in the distance, the sky was overcast, and the air cool. Some of the migrants, excited by the departure, broke into song. The boat left Libyan waters and reached the high seas around midnight. The Italian Island of Lampedusa, which was their planned destination, was only some hundred miles away, and Candé felt hopeful. He straddled the side of the raft, and confidently told others on board he was not only sure he’d make it to Europe, but that he’d begun thinking about doing it again in the future, this time with his wife and children.

A key element of Europe’s migrant policing partnership with Libya has been its support for the country’s Coast Guard. The E.U. has spent tens of millions rebuilding and backing the Coast Guard -- supplying and maintaining rigid inflatable boats, radio-satellite equipment, ambulances, and buses. EU funds underwrite the operation of a command center to help stop and detain migrants trying to get to Europe. In 2018, the Italian government, with the blessing of the E.U., helped Libya get approval from the U.N.’s International Maritime Organization to create a search-and-rescue zone granting the Libyan Coast Guard jurisdiction stretching nearly a hundred miles off of Libya’s coast—far into international waters. Just recently, the EU and Italy equipped the Libyan marine force with 30 Toyota Land Cruisers, satellite phones for patrol officers, six fiberglass speed boats, 10 shipping containers to be used as offices, and 500 uniforms.

Perhaps the most valuable help that the Europeans give to the Libyan Coast Guard comes from its border agency, Frontex. Since 2016, Frontex has worked closely with the Libyan Coast Guard. Frontex, which has a liaison officer based in Tunis, maintains near-constant aerial surveillance of the Mediterranean through drones and privately chartered maritime patrol aircraft. When it detects a migrant vessel, it sends photos and location to government partners in the region. Since Libya is considered unsafe for migrants, humanitarian groups doing at-sea rescues take the migrants to European ports instead. For this reason, Frontex does not share its intelligence with these humanitarian groups, opting instead to alert government partners, including Libya. The Libyan Coast Guard vessels then race to intercept the migrant boats and capture those aboard, sometimes firing guns at the rafts or dinghies, occasionally capsizing them. Legal experts say that Frontex’s role on the Mediterranean likely violates international law by helping facilitate the return of migrants to a place where they will likely face human rights abuses and for failing to notify the humanitarian groups in cases when they are nearest and best equipped to mount a rescue.

Candé and others on the raft that night in February eventually made it more than seventy miles from the Libyan coastline, well into international waters, but still within the Libyan Coast Guard’s official search-and-rescue zone that Europe had helped engineer. Around 5 p.m. on February 4th, Candé and the other migrants noticed an airplane overhead, which circled for fifteen minutes, then flew away. Data from the ADS-B Exchange, an organization that tracks aviation traffic, shows that the plane, named the Eagle1, was a white Beech King Air 350, a surveillance aircraft leased by Frontex. About three hours later, a boat appeared on the horizon. “The closer it came, the clearer we saw it—and saw the black and green lines of the flag,” Soumahoro said. “Everyone started crying and holding their heads, saying, ‘Shit, it’s Libyan.’”

The boat, a Vittoria P350 patrol vessel, was one of the cutters refurbished by the E.U. The boat rammed the migrants’ raft three times, then ordered the migrants to climb a ladder aboard their ship. “Move!” an officer yelled. One of the officers hit several of the migrants with the butt of his rifle. Another gave them orders on where to sit, whipping them with a rope.