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Europe’s secretive system to keep out migrants

Tired of migrants arriving from Africa, the EU has created a shadow immigration system that captures them before they reach its shores, and sends them to brutal Libyan detention centres run by militias.

Al Mabani migrant detention centre from the air, May 2021 Pierre Kattar · Outlaw Ocean Project

A collection of makeshift warehouses sits along the highway in Ghout al-Shaal, a worn neighbourhood of auto-repair shops and scrapyards in Tripoli, the capital of Libya. Formerly a storage depot for cement, the site was reopened in January 2021, its outer walls heightened and topped with barbed wire. Men in black-and-blue camouflage uniforms, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, stand guard around a blue shipping container that passes for an office. On the gate, a sign reads ‘Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration’. The facility is a secretive prison for migrants. Its name in Arabic is Al Mabani (‘The Buildings’).

At 3am on 5 February 2021, Aliou Candé, a sturdy, shy, 28-year-old migrant from Guinea-Bissau, arrived at the prison. He had left home a year and a half earlier, because his family’s farm was failing, and had set out to join two brothers in Europe. But, as he attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea on a rubber dinghy, with more than a hundred other migrants, the Libyan Coast Guard intercepted them and took them to Al Mabani.

They were pushed inside Cell no 4, where some two hundred others were being held. There was hardly anywhere to sit in the crush of bodies, and those on the floor slid over to avoid being trampled. Overhead were fluorescent lights that stayed on all night. A small grille in the door, about a foot wide, was the only source of natural light. Birds nested in the rafters, their feathers and droppings falling from above. On the walls, migrants had scrawled notes of determination: ‘A soldier never retreats’ and ‘With our eyes closed, we advance’. Candé crowded into a far corner and began to panic. ‘What should we do?’ he asked a cellmate.

No one in the world beyond Al Mabani’s walls knew that Candé had been captured. He hadn’t been charged with a crime or allowed to speak to a lawyer, and he was given no indication of how long he’d be detained. In his first days there, he kept mostly to himself, submitting to the grim routines of the place.

‘Beatings for no reason at all’

The prison is controlled by a militia that euphemistically calls itself the Public Security Agency, and its gunmen patrolled the hallways. About 1,500 migrants were held there, in eight cells, segregated by gender. There was only one toilet for every hundred people, and Candé often had to urinate in a water bottle or defecate in the shower. Migrants slept on thin floor pads; there weren’t enough to go around, so people took turns — one lay down during the day, the other at night. Detainees fought over who got to sleep in the shower, which had better ventilation. Twice a day, they were marched, single file, into the courtyard, where they were forbidden to look up at the sky or talk. Guards, like zookeepers, put communal bowls of food on the ground, and migrants gathered in circles to eat.

"The goal of the programme is clear. Make Libya the bad guy, the disguise for their policies while the good humans of Europe say they are offering money to help make this hellish system safer." - Salah Marghani

The guards struck prisoners who disobeyed orders with whatever was handy: a shovel, a hose, a cable, a tree branch. ‘They would beat anyone for no reason at all,’ Tokam Martin Luther, an older Cameroonian man who slept on a mat next to Candé’s, told me. Detainees speculated that, when someone died, the body was dumped behind one of the compound’s outer walls, near a pile of brick and plaster rubble. The guards offered migrants their freedom for a fee of 2,500 Libyan dinars — about $500. During meals, the guards walked around with cell phones, allowing detainees to call relatives who could pay. But Candé’s family couldn’t afford such a ransom.

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 organisation 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. In September 2021, around six thousand migrants were being held, many of them in Al Mabani. International aid agencies have documented an array of abuses: detainees tortured with electric shocks, children raped by guards, families extorted for ransom, men and women sold into forced labour. ‘The EU did something they carefully considered and planned for many years,’ Salah Marghani, Libya’s minister of justice 2012-14, told me. ‘Create a hellhole in Libya, with the idea of deterring people from heading to Europe.’

Gaddafi’s threat to ‘turn Europe black’

What came to be called the migrant crisis began around 2010, when people fleeing violence, poverty, and the effects of climate change in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa started flooding into Europe. The World Bank predicts that, in the next 50 years, droughts, crop failures, rising seas, and desertification will displace 150 million more people, mostly from the Global South, accelerating migration to Europe and elsewhere. In 2015 alone, a million people came to Europe from the Middle East and Africa. A popular route went through Libya, then across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy — a distance of less than 200 miles.

Europe had long pressed Libya to help curb such migration. Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s leader, had once embraced pan-Africanism and encouraged Sub-Saharan Africans to serve in the country’s oil fields. But in 2008 he signed a ‘friendship treaty’ with Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, that committed him to implementing strict controls. Gaddafi sometimes used this as a bargaining chip: he threatened, in 2010, that if the EU did not send him more than $6bn a year in aid money he would ‘turn Europe black’.

In 2011 Gaddafi was toppled and killed in an insurrection sparked by the Arab Spring and supported by a US-led invasion. Afterward, Libya descended into chaos. Today, two governments compete for legitimacy: the UN-recognised Government of National Unity, and an administration based in Tobruk and backed by Russia and the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army. Both rely on shifting, cynical alliances with armed militias that have tribal allegiances and control large portions of the country. Libya’s remote beaches, increasingly unpoliced, have been swamped with migrants headed for Europe.

One of the first major tragedies of the migrant crisis occurred in 2013, when a dinghy carrying more than 500 migrants, most of them Eritrean, caught fire and sank in the Mediterranean, killing 360 people. They were less than half a mile from Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island. At first, European leaders responded with compassion. ‘We can do this!’ German chancellor Angela Merkel said, promising a permissive approach to immigration.

A woman rescued by Maltese NGO MOAS and the Italian Red Cross off the Libyan coast, November 2016 Andreas Solaro · AFP · Getty

‘Dead bodies in the sea’

In early 2014 Matteo Renzi, at 39, was elected prime minister of Italy, the youngest in its history. A telegenic centrist liberal on the model of Bill Clinton, Renzi was predicted to dominate the country’s politics for the next decade. Like Merkel, he welcomed migrants, saying that, if Europe was willing to turn its back on ‘dead bodies in the sea’, it could not call itself ‘civilised’. He supported an ambitious search-and-rescue programme called Operation Mare Nostrum, or Our Sea, which insured the safe passage of some 150,000 migrants, and Italy provided legal assistance for asylum claims.

But as the number of migrants rose, European ambivalence turned to recalcitrance. Migrants needed medical care, jobs, and schooling, which strained resources. James F Hollifield, a migration expert at the French Institutes for Advanced Studies, told me, ‘We in the liberal West are in a conundrum. We have to find a way to secure borders and manage migration without undermining the social contract and the liberal state itself.’ Nationalist parties such as the Alternative for Germany and France’s National Rally exploited the situation, fostering xenophobia. In 2015, men from North Africa sexually assaulted women in Cologne, Germany, fuelling alarm; the next year, an asylum seeker from Tunisia drove a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12. Merkel, under pressure, eventually insisted that migrants assimilate and supported a ban on burqas.

Renzi’s Mare Nostrum programme had cost €115m, and Italy, which was struggling to stave off its third recession in six years, could not sustain the undertaking. Efforts in Italy and Greece to relocate migrants floundered. Poland and Hungary, both run by far-right leaders, accepted no migrants at all. Officials in Austria talked of building a wall on its Italian border. Italy’s hard-right politicians mocked and denounced Renzi, and their poll numbers skyrocketed. In December 2016 Renzi resigned and his party eventually rolled back his policies. He, too, retreated from his initial generosity. ‘We need to free ourselves from a sense of guilt,’ he said. ‘We do not have the moral duty to welcome to Italy people who are worse off than ourselves.’

During the next several years, Europe embarked on a different approach, led by Marco Minniti, who became Italy’s interior minister in 2016. Minniti, a onetime ally of Renzi’s, was frank about his colleague’s miscalculation. ‘We did not respond to two feelings that were very strong,’ he said. ‘Anger and fear.’ Italy stopped conducting search-and-rescue operations beyond thirty miles of its shores. Italy, Greece, Spain, and Malta began turning away humanitarian boats carrying rescued migrants, and Italy even charged the captains of such boats with aiding human trafficking. Minniti soon became known as the ‘minister of fear’.

‘Make Libya the bad guy’

In 2015 the EU created the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which has since spent nearly $6bn. Proponents argue that the programme offers aid money to developing countries, paying for Covid-19 relief in Sudan and green-energy job training in Ghana. But much of its work involves pressuring African nations to adopt tougher immigration restrictions and funding the agencies that enforce them. The programme has also supported repressive state agencies, by financing the creation of an intelligence centre for Sudan’s secret police, and by allowing the EU to give the personal data of Ethiopian nationals to their country’s intelligence service.

Minniti looked to Libya — by then a failed state — to become Europe’s primary partner in stopping the flow of migrants. In 2017 he travelled to Tripoli and struck deals with the government recognised in the country at the time and with the most powerful militias. Italy, backed by EU funds, signed a memorandum of understanding with Libya, affirming ‘the resolute determination to cooperate in identifying urgent solutions to the issue of clandestine migrants crossing Libya to reach Europe by sea’. The Trust Fund has directed half a billion dollars to Libya’s assault on migration. Marghani, told me that the goal of the programme is clear: ‘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.’

On the morning of 13 September 2019, Candé set out for Europe carrying a Quran, a leather diary, two pairs of pants, two T-shirts and €600. ‘I don’t know how long this will take,’ he told his wife that morning. ‘But I love you, and I’ll be back.’

"The EU 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." - Salah Marghani

Candé worked his way across central Africa, hitching rides in cars or stowing away on buses until he reached Agadez, Niger, once called the Gateway to the Sahara. Historically, the borders of many central African countries have been open, as in the EU. In 2015, however, EU officials pressured Niger to adopt a statute called Law 36: overnight, bus drivers and guides, who for many years had carried migrants north, were declared human traffickers and subject to 30-year prison sentences. Migrants were forced to consider more perilous routes. Candé, along with a half-dozen others, struck out through the Sahara, sometimes sleeping in the sand on the side of the road. ‘Heat and dust, it’s terrible here,’ Candé told Jacaria, by phone. He sneaked through a portion of Algeria controlled by bandits. ‘They will capture you and beat you until you’re released,’ he told his family. ‘That’s all that’s there.’

Migrants wait to be rescued by Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms, off Libya, October 2016 Aris Messinis · AFP · Getty

‘That’s the route of death’

In January 2020 he arrived in Morocco, and learned that passage to Spain cost €3,000. Jacaria urged him to turn back, but Candé said, ‘You have worked hard in Europe. You sent money to the family. Now it’s my turn.’ He heard that, in Libya, he could book a cheaper boat to Italy. He arrived in Tripoli in December, and stayed in a migrant slum called Gargaresh. His great-uncle Demba Balde, 40, a former tailor, had lived undocumented in Libya for years, doing various jobs. Balde found Candé work painting houses and pressed him to abandon his plan to cross the Mediterranean. ‘That’s the route of death,’ Balde told him.

The Libyan Coast Guard’s name makes it sound like an official military organisation, but it has no unified command; it is made up of local patrols that the UN has accused of having links to militias. Around 10pm on 3 February 2021, a smuggler led Candé and 130 others to the Libyan coast, and launched them from shore in an inflatable rubber dinghy. Some of the migrants, excited by the departure, broke into song. Roughly two hours later, the boat entered international waters. Candé, straddling the side of the dinghy, felt hopeful.

The trafficker had put three migrants in charge. A ‘boussolier’ guided the dinghy along its route using a compass. A ‘captain’ manned the motor and handled the satellite phone; once they were far enough from Libya, he was supposed to call Alarm Phone, a migration activist group, and request a rescue. A ‘commander’ kept order and made sure no one touched the plug that, if pulled, would deflate the vessel. Soon, the seas grew rough, making nearly everyone sick and turning the pooling water at their feet into a soup of vomit, faeces, candy wrappers, and baguette crumbs.

At dawn, the waters calmed, and the migrants, deciding that they were far enough from Libya, called Alarm Phone for help. A volunteer told them that there was a merchant vessel not far away. This sparked jubilation. But when the merchant vessel arrived the captain announced that he had no lifeboats and quickly steered away.

‘Shit, it’s Libyan’

By now, Candé’s boat was 70 miles from Tripoli, out of Libyan waters but still within the Coast Guard’s expanded jurisdiction. Around 5pm on 4 February, the migrants noticed an airplane overhead, which circled for 15 minutes then flew away. Data from the ADS-B Exchange, an organisation that tracks aviation traffic, show that the plane was 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,’ Mohamed David Soumahoro, Candé’s travelling companion, told me. ‘Everyone started crying and holding their heads, saying “Shit, it’s Libyan”.’ The boat rammed the dinghy three times, then Coast Guard officers ordered the migrants to climb aboard. ‘Move!’ they yelled. One hit several of the migrants with the butt of his rifle; another whipped them with a rope. The migrants were taken back to land, loaded into buses and trucks, and driven to Al Mabani.

Under Libyan law, unauthorised foreigners — including economic migrants, asylum seekers, and the victims of illegal trafficking — can be detained indefinitely, with no access to a lawyer.

Migrants captured by the Coast Guard are loaded onto buses, many supplied by the EU, and brought to the detention centres; sometimes Coast Guard units sell them to the centres. But some migrants never make it there. In the first seven months of 2021, according to the IOM, more than 15,000 migrants were captured by the Libyan Coast Guard and other authorities, but by the end of that period only about 6,000 were being held in designated facilities. Federico Soda, the IOM’s Chief of Mission in Libya, believes that migrants are disappearing into ‘unofficial’ facilities run by traffickers and militias, where aid groups have no access. ‘The numbers simply don’t add up,’ he said.

Militias also employ a variety of methods to make a profit from the facilities, such as siphoning off money and goods sent for migrants by humanitarian groups and government agencies — a scheme known as ‘aid diversion’.

The guards also engage migrants as collaborators, a tactic that keeps them divided. Mohamed Soumah, 23, from Guinea-Conakry, volunteered to help with daily tasks and was soon pumped for information: Which migrants hated each other? Who were the agitators? The arrangement became more formal, and Soumah began handling ransom negotiations. As a reward, he was allowed to sleep across the street from the prison in the cooks’ quarters. At one point, as a gift for his loyalty, the guards let him pick several migrants to be freed. He could even leave the compound, though he never went far. ‘I knew they’d find me and beat me if I tried to go away,’ he told me.

Prisoners felt ‘disappeared’

Médecins Sans Frontières visited the prison twice a week and found that detainees were covered in bruises and cuts, avoided eye contact, and recoiled at loud noises. Sometimes migrants slipped the aid workers despairing notes written on the backs of torn Covid safety pamphlets. Many told the workers that they felt ‘disappeared’ and asked that someone inform their families that they were alive. During one visit, the workers couldn’t enter Candé’s cell because it was so packed, and estimated that there were three detainees per square metre. They met with migrants in the courtyard. The overcrowding was intense, and tuberculosis and Covid-19 have since been detected. During another visit, the workers were told of beatings from the night before, and they catalogued fractures, cuts, abrasions and blunt traumas; one child was so badly injured that he couldn’t walk.

When Candé was first taken into custody, the Coast Guard had somehow failed to confiscate his cell phone. He had kept it hidden, fearing that he would be severely punished if caught with it. After the Ramadan rumour was dispelled, however, he sent a voice message to his brothers over WhatsApp, attempting to explain the situation: ‘We were trying to get to Italy by water. They caught us and brought us back. Now we are locked in prison ... You can’t keep the phone on too long here.’ He begged them to ‘find a way to call our father’. Then he waited, hoping that they would scrape together the ransom.

At 2am on 8 April, Candé awoke to a noise: several Sudanese detainees were trying to pry open the door of Cell no 4 and escape. Candé, worried that all the inmates would be punished, asked Soumahoro what to do. Soumahoro went with a dozen others to confront the Sudanese, and told them, ‘We’ve tried to break out several times before. It never worked. We were just beaten.’ The Sudanese wouldn’t listen, and Soumahoro told another detainee to alert the guards, who backed a sand truck up against the cell door.

The Sudanese yanked iron pipes from the bathroom wall and began swinging them at those who had intervened. Some migrants shouted for assistance, yelling ‘Open the door!’ Instead, the guards laughed and cheered, filming the fight with their phones through the grille. ‘Keep fighting,’ one said, passing in water bottles to keep the brawlers hydrated. ‘If you can kill them, do it.’

But at 5.30am the guards left and came back with semi-automatic rifles. Without warning, they fired into the cell through the bathroom window for ten minutes. ‘It sounded like a battlefield,’ Soumahoro told me. Two teenagers from Guinea-Conakry, Ismail Doumbouya and Ayouba Fofana, were hit in the leg. Candé, who had been hiding in the shower during the fight, was struck in the neck. He staggered along the wall, streaking blood, then fell to the ground. Soumahoro tried to slow the bleeding with a piece of cloth. Candé died within minutes.

Getting out the body

The prison’s governor, Noureddine al-Ghreetly arrived several hours later and shouted at the guards, ‘What have you done? You can do anything to them, you just can’t kill them!’ The migrants refused to hand over Candé’s body, and the panicked guards summoned Soumah, the collaborator, to negotiate. Eventually, the militia agreed to free the migrants in exchange for the body. Soumah told them, ‘I, Soumah, will open this door and you guys will get out. I will be in front of you, running with you until the exit.’ Just before 9am, guards took up positions near the gate, guns raised. Soumah opened the cell door and told the 300 migrants to follow him out of the prison, single file, without talking. Morning commuters slowed to gawk at the migrants as they left the compound and dispersed through the streets of Tripoli.

After Candé’s death, Sabadell, the EU ambassador, called for a formal investigation, but it appears never to have taken place. Ghreetly was suspended from Al Mabani, but was later reinstated.

In October Libyan authorities, including members of the militia that controls Al Mabani, rounded up more than 5,000 migrants in and around Gargaresh and sent many to the prison. Days later, guards opened fire on prisoners attempting to escape, killing at least six.


(c) 2022, Le Monde Diplomatique


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