EU ‘complicit’ in secretive Libyan prison and shadow immigration systems

An investigation by The New Yorker has shone a light on the secretive prisons and shadow immigration system created by the EU and facilitated by Libyan militants who capture migrants and send them to “brutal Libyan detention centres”.

Through on-the-ground reporting, they describe detention centres guarded by men in black-and-blue camouflage uniforms, brandishing Kalashnikovs. Migrants told their tales of being intercepted at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard and taken to the centre.

One man, Aliou Cande, explained how he was put in a cell with 200 other people with fluorescent lights that stayed on 24/7. On the walls, prisoners had scrawled messages of hope and despair, “with our eyes closed we advance” and “a soldier never retreats”.

Those detained reported they were not charged with any crime or given a chance to speak with a lawyer. No one told them how long they would be there, and phone calls were out of the question.

The prisons revealed by The New Yorker are controlled by a militia called the “Public Security Agency. They hold some 1500 people, segregated by sex amongst eight cells. Toilets were few, and detainees were given just a thin pad to sleep on. As for exercise, they were taken outside into a courtyard once a day, but forbidden to look at the sky or talk to each other.

Anyone caught disobeying the rules faced beatings with hands, hoses, cables, branches, and even shovels, one migrant said. Those that died while there were disposed of behind one of the compound walls, by a pile of rubble.

Here prisoners would languish for months, with no idea of what their fate would be. Freedom can be bought for around €500, but there was no choice but to persist for those who couldn’t afford it.

This hopeless and horrific situation has been created and funded by the European Union. As a response to the growing numbers of migrants crossing the Mediterranean in hopes of reaching EU shores, the Commission stepped in. Fearing financial costs and political discord, they created a “shadow immigration system that stops them before they [the migrants] reach Europe”.

Not only this, but they equipped and trained the Libyan Coast Guard, described by The New Yorker as a “quasi-military organisation linked to militias” to patrol the sea, “sabotaging humanitarian rescue operations and capturing migrants”.

These individuals are then detained indefinitely in “profit-making prisons”. At least 6000 are believed to be held as of September this year.

The human rights abuses being perpetrated in these places has been well documented by human rights organisations. They have sounded the alarm on electric shock torture, child rape, sexual violence against women and men, kidnapping, extortion, and violence.

In April, The Shift published testimonies from those who returned to Libya or encountered the Libyan Coast Guard’s tactics.

One woman spoke of a systematic, brutal rape at the hands of guards who left her cigarette-burned body for dead in a container on the street. Another detailed how a beating forced her to miscarry, and she was refused medical care.

In one case, a woman was forced onto a boat at gunpoint after her toddler ran away in fear, being forced to leave him behind.

In fact, both the EU and Libya knew what they were doing. Salah Marghani, the Libyan minister of justice between 2012 and 2014, told The New Yorker, “The EU did something they carefully considered and planned for many years. To create a hellhole in Libya, with the idea of deterring people from heading to Europe”.

Malta unsurprisingly got a mention in the report. Noting Europe’s approach to not conducting search and rescue operations beyond 30 miles offshore, the report continues that “Malta began turning away humanitarian boats carrying rescued migrants”.

Despite more and more accounts coming from survivors and on-the-ground in Libya, the EU continues to consider the country a “safe place” and to allow the return of thousands of people every year. Malta has also continued to court relationships with the country to send people back.

So-called “joint coordination centres” created through a 2020 agreement between Malta and Libya fail to provide human rights safeguards.

Human rights organisation Aditus has previously warned against returning migrants where they are at risk of violence and horrific violations. 

“Libya is not and must not be a port of return. We call upon the Member States to support the work of the humanitarian search and rescue vessels, to share responsibility for all asylum seekers entering the EU, regardless of the port of entry, and to enable access to safety and protection throughout the EU”.

According to a report by The New Humanitarian, 29,427 have been returned to Libya, while 1,226 have died this year alone.


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