Europe has outsourced the dirty work of border control to Libyan militias. In doing so, it has turned African migrants into commodities to be captured, sold, and traded like slaves.
TRIPOLI, Libya — The guard forced the migrants to kneel and began barking orders in Arabic, a language that few of the once-hopeful souls who had traveled to Libya from sub-Saharan Africa spoke. A gaunt, elderly man in ripped jeans and a tattered T-shirt failed to comply. The guard, wearing a crisp new uniform emblazoned with the insignia of Libya’s anti-illegal immigration police division, raised his wooden club and brought it down hard on the man’s back, driving him face down into the ground with the first blow.
It was early May, three weeks after the staff at the Triq al-Sikka migrant detention center in the Libyan capital of Tripoli had received human rights training from the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The guard struck the elderly man again on the back and clubbed the back of his legs. Then he moved methodically down the line of kneeling migrants, beating each man as if he were responsible for his fellow prisoner’s infraction. Cries of pain echoed through the barren, warehouse-like facility, where more than 100 half-starved migrants were locked away in crowded cells. Some had been there for months, enduring regular beatings and surviving on a few handfuls of macaroni and a single packet of juice each day. Others had recently been rounded up off the streets in raids targeting black African migrants.
Soon after the beatings began, other guards at the facility noticed my presence and quickly ushered me into a waiting area outside the well-appointed office of Col. Mohamed Beshr, the urbane head of Libya’s anti-illegal immigration police. Beshr is a key player in recent joint EU-Libyan efforts to halt migration to Europe, including intercepting migrants at sea and detaining them on land. He has welcomed high-level European diplomats and U.N. representatives to the Triq al-Sikka facility, and his office is filled with certificates from workshops run by IOM, the European Union, and Britain’s development agency.
Yet Beshr seemed frustrated by my questions about the abuses openly taking place at the detention center he oversaw. To hear him tell it, his European partners cared about only one thing, even if they wouldn’t say it: preventing migrants from showing up on Italy’s shores. “Are they looking for a real solution to this humanitarian crisis?” Beshr asked, smirking and raising his eyebrows. “Or do they just want us to be the place where migrants are stopped?”
Eighteen months after the EU unveiled its controversial plan to curb illegal migration through Libya — now the primary point of departure for sub-Saharan Africans crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe — migrants have become a commodity to be captured, sold, traded, and leveraged. Regardless of their immigration status, they are hunted down by militias loyal to Libya’s U.N.-backed government, caged in overcrowded prisons, and sold on open markets that human rights advocates have likened to slave auctions. They have been tortured, raped, and killed — abuses that are sometimes broadcast online by the abusers themselves as they attempt to extract ransoms from migrants’ families.
The detention-industrial complex that has taken hold in war-torn Libya is not purely the result of a breakdown in order or the work of militias run amok in a state of anarchy. Visits to five different detention centers and interviews with dozens of Libyan militia leaders, government officials, migrants, and local NGO officials indicate that it is the consequence of hundreds of millions of dollars in pledged and anticipated support from European nations as they try to stem the flow of unwanted migrants toward their shores.
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