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 Candé’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 Candé. And I pushed to detail as best I could Europe’s role in creating and supporting Libya’s fight against migrants.
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. Candé 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 locations 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 in 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.
Once taken back to land, the migrants were counted by officials from the U.N.’s International Organization of Migration, then loaded by armed Libyan guards into buses and trucks. Candé did not know it, but he was headed to one of the worst of the migrant jails in Libya, known as Al Mabani.
There are very few reporters allowed into Libya these days, but I managed to get visas for myself and three colleagues. When we arrived in Tripoli, we were placed in a hotel near the city center, and assigned a modest security team. I had the sense that we were under the watch of the authorities.
But I was determined to investigate Cande’s story, and the story of the prison he had been held in. We managed to launch a drone over Al Mabani, and captured a scene of migrants herded into a courtyard, their heads facing the ground, smacked if they looked up. It appeared they had just been fed -- a grim routine where bowls of food were placed on the courtyard and men in groups of five grabbed what they could. We’d also been able to identify and contact migrants who had been with Candé, but escaped Al Mabani.
One night in Tripoli, I went to speak with former detainees in Gargaresh, the migrant slum. Over a meal of palak paneer and chana masala that I had brought to share, Mohamad David Soumahoro, who had befriended Candé inside Al Mabani, told me about his time with Candé in the prison.
Beatings in Al Mabani could be doled out for transgressions as minor as whispering to other migrants, speaking in a native tongue, or laughing. But the worst beatings happened in a place called the “isolation room,” an abandoned gas station behind the women’s cell, with a Shell Fuel sign hanging out front. Migrants were taken to the isolation room for causing trouble, and could spend days there. The cell had no bathroom, so there was no alternative but to defecate in the corner. The smell was so bad that guards wore masks when they visited. During beatings, the guards tied the hands of a detainee to a rope suspended from a steel ceiling beam. Soumahoro told me that he watched detainees tortured there. “It’s not so bad seeing a friend or a man yelling as he’s being tortured,” Soumahoro said. “But seeing a six-foot-tall man beating a woman with a whip…” In March, Soumahoro organized a hunger strike to protest the ongoing violence from guards, and he was taken to the isolation room for a week. He was repeatedly beaten, strung upside down from the beam. “They hang you like a piece of clothing,” he said.
Several other detainees I later spoke to described witnessing sexual abuse and humiliation at the hands of guards. Adjara Keita, a thirty-six-year-old migrant from Ivory Coast, who was held at al Mabani with her 14-year-old daughter for two months, told me that women were frequently taken from her cell to be raped by the guards. “The women would come back in tears,” she said. One day, after two women escaped from Al Mabani, guards grabbed Keita, took her to a nearby office, and beat her for reasons that remain unclear.
The guards kept close watch on detainees by employing migrants as collaborators. This produced valuable intelligence and sowed mistrust: if the migrants were divided, they were more easily controlled. Mohammad Soumah, a twenty-three-year-old from Guinea-Conakry, volunteered to help with daily tasks after he arrived, and was soon being pumped for information: Which migrants hate each other? Who are the agitators? When the arrangement was formalized, other migrants took to calling him “mandoob,” Arabic for “representative.” If migrants paid ransoms to leave, he handled negotiations over the cost. As a reward, he was allowed to sleep outside his cell in the infirmary, or with the cooks who lived across the street from the compound. At one point, as a gift for his loyalty, the guards allowed him to pick several migrants to be freed, and they were permitted to go. He could even leave the compound altogether, though he never went far. “I knew they’d find me and beat me if I tried to go away,” he told me.
An aid agency visited Al Mabani twice a week. The warning signs of abuse were hard to miss: detainees were covered in bruises and cuts, avoided eye contact with guards and recoiled at loud noises. Sometimes detainees discreetly slipped the aid group’s staff notes of desperation written on the backs of torn World Health Organization pamphlets.
The migrants told the doctors they felt “disappeared,” and the first thing many of the detainees asked was whether someone could tell their families that they were alive. During one visit, staff couldn’t enter Cande’s cell because it was so packed. They estimated there were three migrants per square meter. Instead, they treated nineteen migrants in the courtyard. Acute overcrowding had also led to the spread of tuberculosis, chickenpox, fungal infections, and COVID-19. The doctors were told of beatings from the night before and cataloged fractures, cuts, abrasions, and blunt traumas. They did their best to treat one child so badly injured he could not walk.
Halfway through my meal with Soumahoro, my phone began ringing incessantly. When I picked it up, a police officer on the line began screaming at me. “You are not allowed to be talking to migrants,” he said. “You cannot be in Gargaresh.” He told me that if I didn’t exit the neighborhood immediately, I would be arrested. When I returned to my car, the police officer was standing there, and he told me that he didn’t care that I was a journalist and that, if I spoke to any more migrants, I would be thrown out of the country.
Ian Urbina is the director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington DC that focuses on environmental and human rights concerns at sea globally.