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How Europe’s “Shadow Immigration System” Pays Libyan Militias to Jail Migrants in Brutal Conditions

StoryDecember 09, 2021
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Image Credit: The Outlaw Ocean Project

An explosive new investigation details how the European Union has created a shadow immigration system that captures migrants arriving from Africa before they reach Europe and sends them to brutal militia-run detention centers in Libya. “This is a climate migration story,” says Ian Urbina, investigative journalist and director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, who authored the report for The New Yorker magazine. “The policy of the EU of outsourcing migration control to a failed state in Libya … is a really doomed strategy, and it’s only going to get more perilous as more waves of people start trying to reach safer places.” Urbina’s piece is titled “The Invisible Wall: Inside the Secretive Libyan Prisons That Keep Migrants Out of Europe.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

We end today’s show looking at a shocking report in The New Yorker magazine that looks at how the European Union has created a shadow immigration system that captures migrants arriving from Africa before they reach Europe and sends them to brutal detention centers in Libya run by militias. This comes after video obtained by CNN as long ago as 2017 showed captured migrants in Libya being sold at a modern-day slave auction. The new article is titled “The Invisible Wall: Inside the Secretive Libyan Prisons That Keep Migrants Out of Europe.”

For more, we’re joined by its author, Ian Urbina, investigative journalist, director of The Outlaw Ocean Project.

Ian, your piece follows, in particular, the tragic story of a 28-year-old farmer and father of three who had fled his failing farm in Guinea-Bissau. He wanted to reach Europe. His name is Aliou Candé. Can you lay out what you found out about his life and his death?

IAN URBINA: Sure. So, Aliou, as you said, was in many ways a quintessential climate migrant. He had struggled for quite some time on his farm in Guinea-Bissau, which is a small, very poor Western African country. Two of his brothers had already made this trip to Europe. One had arrived to Italy, the other to Spain. And Aliou, as, you know, his farm couldn’t produce and the droughts and rains got worse, decided he would make the same journey himself.

He made his way from Guinea-Bissau through the Saharan Desert, a fairly perilous journey, and ultimately arrived, as many migrants do, to Libya, as the best sort of launching point, the closest launching spot for rafts to Europe. He bought his way onto a trafficker’s boat and made it out about halfway across, about 20 hours out to sea, outside of Libyan waters. And the EU-funded so-called Libyan Coast Guard captured him and about a hundred other migrants there and returned them to shore, where they were put in one of these detention centers.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ian, could you explain the origins of this Libyan Coast Guard? What is their mandate? And what did you learn about what they actually do at sea?

IAN URBINA: You know, the Libyan Coast Guard, I think, is best thought of in a sort of metaphoric or broader way. If you think of what’s happening on the Mediterranean as a war on migration, it’s an EU-led war on migration. You know, that war has three armed forces: an air force, a navy and an army.

So, the air force the called Frontex, and Frontex is the EU border agency. And Frontex puts planes and drones over the Mediterranean with the sole purpose of spotting and looking for migrant rafts that are trying to reach Europe, and they report that intelligence ultimately to the Libyans.

The navy in this war, if you will, is the Libyan Coast Guard. This is a wholly EU-created, EU-trained, -equipped, -armed force. As different from most coast guards, which face inward toward shore, you know, normally — excuse me, which face outward toward shore, normally protecting a coastline from outside threats, the Libyan Coast Guard faces inward, because actually what they’re doing is trying to protect Europe from migrants aiming to reach there. And the Libyan Coast Guard’s primary aim is to catch migrants before they reach European shores.

And then the army in this war, if you will, the on-land force in the war, is the gulag that exists in Libya, a sort of grid of about a dozen to two dozen detention centers that are militia-run, many of them EU-funded indirectly, that hold all these migrants and attempt to return them back the other direction.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ian, you mention the gulag. One of the detention facilities that you focus on is called Al Mabani, which initially you had been told by Libyan authorities you would have permission to enter. But, of course, that didn’t happen. Can you explain? I mean, this is a place where international human rights organizations have documented the most brutal abuse. You didn’t get into the facility, but you were able to get footage of what was going on inside. Can you talk about that? What did you find?

IAN URBINA: Yeah, I mean, as you say, Al Mabani is one of about a dozen official detention centers. These are all militia-run, but they are under the auspices of the U.N.-recognized federal government. These facilities, and Al Mabani in particular, which is the biggest, newest and most notorious, are typically warehouses that have been converted into armed compounds. Al Mabani is a place that, you know, in normal times may hold 2,000 migrants. More recently, due to recent raids of a migrant neighborhood in Tripoli, Al Mabani surged to about 5,000, 6,000. And as you mentioned, you know, what aid workers are — what Western and non-Western aid groups that are able to get into these facilities, Al Mabani included, what’s routinely documented is extortion, rape, torture and sometimes murder. What we were investigating, in particular, was a particularly egregious murder in which guards opened fire on migrants, and Aliou Candé, our main character, was killed.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to another migrant. This is a clip of a migrant from Guinea named Souleymane. In April, he was rescued from a rubber boat by Ocean Viking along with 235 people. Here, Souleymane describes the previous treatment he received from Libyan authorities.

SOULEYMANE: [translated] The Libyan boat, they came, and it capsized the boat. I was shouting, “Mom, Mom, I’m going to die!” I don’t know if you can imagine, but the Libyans came, and instead of saving us, as we were dying, they started to take pictures. Pictures first. After that, they sent a small boat, they picked up people, while insulting and beating us up.

AMY GOODMAN: And now I want to turn to a clip of a young Togolese man who was rescued by the Ocean Viking, describing the treatment of Black migrants in Libya. He spoke in July.

GAFARO MUHAMMAD: [translated] Even when you are not in prison, you are in prison in Libya. If you’re Black, you’re in prison. You may be in the city, but you’re imprisoned, because something could happen at any minute. For example, you could take a taxi. They take you where you’re not going. They lock the doors and call and say, “We have a 'flouze.'” That means a Black he wants to sell. He wants to sell you. He shows you a gun. You can do nothing against a gun. It’s like that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Ian Urbina, if you can talk more about these migrants who were saved, and then also talk about examples of intelligence shared by the European Union with Libya regarding immigration policy?

IAN URBINA: I think that, quite rightly, it’s important to point out, as you just did, that the rhetoric around the mission on the Mediterranean that the EU pushes forward is that the Libyan Coast Guard is funded by them because they’re engaged in rescues. It’s utterly misleading. These are arrests. Most migrants, the vast majority of migrants, desperately do not want to be stopped and taken by the Libyan Coast Guard. The Libyan Coast Guard routinely opens fire on the migrant boats, and quite often these boats are in international waters, not even in Libyan national waters. Those arrests, not rescues, result in these migrants being taken back to shore.

Your second question, you know, the Libyan intelligence being shared — excuse me, Frontex intelligence, border authority intelligence, being shared with Libyans has been extremely well documented. It’s a routine occurrence. And it’s really the only way that the Libyan Coast Guard is able to find these migrant boats on the Mediterranean, is because the drones, which we documented on film, and the planes that fly overhead spot them first, and then they call that in usually to the Italian government. The Italian government alerts the Libyan Coast Guard with the coordinates, and then the Libyan Coast Guard goes and picks the boats up, sometimes, as your recording mentioned, attempting to capsize them, opening fire on them. And if that is not the chosen method of the day, then they arrest them, beat them, bring them on shore and return them to shore.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ian, could you also talk about the really staggering scale of this crisis? You cite in your New Yorker piece figures from the International Organization for Migration, the IOM, saying the Coast Guard and other Libyan authorities have intercepted more than 80,000 migrants just in the last four years. You also say, again citing the IOM, that in just the first seven months of this year, more than 15,000 migrants were captured by the Coast Guard, but by the end of those seven months, only about 6,000 were in detention facilities. So, could you explain what you found out about where the remaining migrants were taken and whether it ever happens that the Libyan Coast Guard or Libyan authorities simply deport the migrants back to their countries of origin? Or what happens to them?

IAN URBINA: Yeah, so, I mean, there are a bunch of questions there, so let me try to roll through them. I mean, one, on the issue of scale, I mean, this is really important to bear in mind this is a climate migration story, and we’re looking at, in the next 50 years, 150 million people seeking, out of desperation typically, to move elsewhere. And so the policy of the EU of outsourcing migration control to a failed state — namely, Libya — not unlike what the U.S. government is doing in Mexico, is a really doomed strategy, and it’s only going to get more perilous as more waves of people start trying to reach safer places.

With regard to the gap in numbers, there is this really worrisome issue, which you point out, which is there are two places where there’s data. One is, when all these people are captured and brought to shore in Libya, they’re tallied by EU-funded tablets and workers in the court, so we have statistics on those numbers. They’re then put on buses and taken to the prisons, and they’re handed over to the Libyans. The next number you have is a rough estimate, month by month, from the Libyan government of how many people are in detention. There’s a huge gap there between the numbers, those that arrive to shore and those that officially arrive to the prisons.

Where do the other folks go? Those folks are probably taken to, quote-unquote, “unofficial” sites, unofficial detention centers, which are even more brutal and awful than the official ones, and where these issues of extortion, both in official and unofficial sites — i.e. squeezing the migrants, handing them a cellphone and saying, “Look, you need to call someone, have them wire to this account $500, and that’s your ticket out” — extortion is the sort of business model in the official and unofficial sites. That’s most likely what’s happening in both locations. Those that don’t show up either go to unofficial sites, are dumped at the border with Niger, some of them. Others are shipped out for forced labor on agricultural or construction sites. And some are dumped into Gargaresh, which is a migrant neighborhood in Tripoli. And those are the lucky ones.

AMY GOODMAN: So you mention Niger. You reported that in 2015 the European Union pressured Niger to adopt a statute called Law 36. If you can explain what that is and then what the alternative is? And that goes to your own organization, The Outlaw Ocean Project.

IAN URBINA: Law 36 was, in some ways, a perfect illustration of the broader policy here and one that’s really problematic, the broader policy of trying to stem the flow of people from places of desperation to places of less desperation, into the EU. You know, look, in 2015, there were half a million migrants that crossed the Mediterranean, so there was a serious crisis in how to deal with so many people arriving to Italy, Greece, Spain. So the EU decided, “Look, we’ve got to sort of choke that off further upstream.” And Law 36 is a perfect example what was done. You had this long sort of policy of open borders in these countries and a sort of steady and established and legal and, in many ways, healthy flow of people through the Saharan Desert on one main road, primarily through Agadez. And overnight, you know, bus drivers turned into traffickers because there was this law, EU-led, EU-instilled law, called Law 36, that made it illegal to cross those borders or to carry those people. And that was part of the larger agenda of trying to stop the flow.

What are the solutions here? Not an easy question to answer. One solution surely is for wealthy Western nations, be it the U.S. or the EU, to definitely not outsource migration policy to failed states. That’s certainly the first thing that should happen. In Libya specifically with the EU, what I hear from smart folks who work on these issues is that if they wanted to try to clean up and lessen the harm and abuse that are occurring quite immediately in Libyan detention centers, the way to squeeze the Libyan government — which, again, Libya is a state that is a state in name only. If they wanted to try to clean up the prisons, then they could squeeze the Libyan government through the Libyan Coast Guard, since it’s entirely funded by the EU, and say, “Look, if you want more of our assistance, then you have to immediately open the doors of the detention centers, let observers in, raise the standards, stop the abuses.” That’s a short-term pragmatic goal. But the deeper goal is there needs to be more funding to slow and more policy to slow the outflow of desperate people from their place of origin.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you for being with us, Ian Urbina, investigative journalist, director of The Outlaw Ocean Project. His recent article in the December issue of The New Yorker is titled “The Invisible Wall: Inside the Secretive Libyan Prisons That Keep Migrants Out of Europe.” We’ll link to his project on our website at

And again, if you’d like to join us for our 25th anniversary celebration that we had the other night, you can just go to and see our interviews with Noam Chomsky and Angela Davis, with Winona LaDuke and the National Book Award-winning poet Martín Espada, the performances by Lila Downs and Tom Morello and appearances by Danny DeVito and Danny Glover and Cornel West. That’s at

Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Stay safe.

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