An Associated Press investigation found that the plight of migrants in Lybia produced a lucrative network of businesses for militiamen, traffickers, and coast guard members who abuse and exploit migrants.
When the issue of migration began to agitate Europe in 2015 and 2016, the European Union (EU) decided the creation of a fund to send millions of euros to Libya through the United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), with the purpose of halting migration from Africa.
At the time, the initiative was accompanied by promises to fight human trafficking and rights abuses against the migrants in the detention centers.
Four years after the fund was set up, an Associated Press investigation published Tuesday found that none of the promises were kept and that on the contrary, the plight of migrants in the North African country produced a prosperous and highly lucrative network of businesses for militiamen, traffickers, and coast guard members who abuse and exploit migrants.
After Prudence Aimee fled Cameroon in 2015, her family did not hear anything from her in a year and assumed she was dead but she was actually imprisoned at the Abu Salim detention center, located south of the capital Tripoli, without means to communicate.
She told AP that she has been seeing for months “European Union milk” and diapers delivered by U.N. staff and stolen from migrant children, including her toddler son. Aimee herself would spend two consecutive days without food or drink, she said.
In 2017, a Lybian man came looking for her with her photo on his phone.
“They called my family and told them they had found me,” she said crying. “That’s when my family sent money.”
Aimee explained her family paid a ransom of US$670 to free her from the center.
The young mother was then transferred to an informal warehouse and eventually sold to another detention center, where another ransom (US$750 this time) was requested from her family.
Her captors finally released her and she embarked on a boat that could pass the coast guard patrol after her husband paid US$850 for the passage. A European humanitarian ship rescued Aimee. Her husband, however, remains in Libya.
Aimee’s story is shared by the overwhelming majority of migrants who transit through Libya and the scenario she experienced, for some of them, can be repeated indefinitely.
The young woman was among more than 50 migrants interviewed by the AP at sea, in Europe, Tunisia and Rwanda, and in furtive messages from inside detention centers in Libya. AP journalists also met government officials in Libya, aid workers, and businessmen in Tripoli. They obtained internal U.N. emails and analyzed budget documents and contracts to conduct their research.
The EU has sent more than US$368 million to Libya, with an additional US$46 million approved in December. But in a country torn by war, plagued by corruption and without a functioning government, the money has been diverted between intertwined webs, while the chaos is perfectly serving exploiters who make money off migrants.
AP’s investigators revealed that militias in Libya - in addition of diverting funds - torture, extort and abuse migrants for ransoms in detention centers with the knowledge of the U.N., and in facilities that receive millions in European money.
They also found that many migrants simply disappear from the centers, sold to traffickers or to other centers.
The migrants interviewed recalled being cut, shot and whipped with electrified hoses and wooden boards. They also heard the screams of others emerging from the cell blocks off-limits to U.N. aid workers.
Their families in their countries of origin are made to listen during the torture or are sent videos afterward.
In a statement to the AP, the EU absolved itself of all responsibility claiming that under international law it cannot control what happens within the centers.
“Libyan authorities have to provide the detained refugees and migrants with adequate and quality food while ensuring that conditions in detention centers uphold international agreed standards,” the statement said.
The EU also said more than half of the money in its fund for Africa is used to help and protect migrants, and that it relies on the U.N. to spend the money wisely. The bloc argues the situation in Libya is highly complex, and it has to work with whoever runs the detention centers to preserve access to vulnerable migrants.
“UNHCR does not choose its counterparts,” said Charlie Yaxley, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency. “Some presumably also have allegiances with local militias.”
The militias involved in abuse and trafficking also skim off huge amounts of the funds given to feed starving migrants. For example, millions of euros in U.N. food contracts were negotiated with a company controlled by a militia leader, even as other U.N. teams raised alarms about starvation in his detention center, according to emails obtained by the AP and interviews with at least a half-dozen Libyan officials.
The same militias also maneuver with some members of Libyan coast guard units. The coast guard gets training and equipment from Europe to keep migrants away from its shores. But coast guard members return some migrants to the detention centers under deals with militias and receive bribes to let others pass to Europe.
A prominent businessman in Libya, Husni Bey, said the idea of Europe sending aid money to Libya, a once-wealthy country suffering from corruption, was misconceived from the beginning.
“Europe wants to buy those who can stop smuggling with all of these programs,” Bey said. “They would be much better off blacklisting the names of those involved in human trafficking, fuel and drug smuggling and charging them with crimes, instead of giving them money.”