In July of 2018, an Italian-flagged oil supply ship called the Asso 28 that was crossing the Mediterranean Sea encountered a stalled rubber raft carrying a hundred desperate migrants. Trying to make the dangerous journey from Libya to Europe, the migrants had reached international waters when the supply ship rescued them and its captain opted to take them not to a port of safety in Europe, as required by law, but back to a gulag of migrant detention facilities in Libya where the United Nations and others have documented systematic torture, rape, extortion, forced labor and death.
In October of this year, the captain of that supply ship, Giuseppe Sotgiu, paid a heavy price for his decision: an Italian judge sentenced him to a year in prison for violating humanitarian law. The painful irony of this conviction is that Sotgiu is headed to jail for what EU officials have been doing on a far grander scale for several years — pushing migrants back to a place of extreme human rights abuses.
Since at least 2017, the EU, led by Italy, has trained and equipped the Libyan Coast Guard to serve as a proxy maritime force, whose central purpose is to stop migrants from reaching European shores. The Libyan Coast Guard is highly effective in this mission thanks to aerial intelligence provided by the EU border agency, Frontex. Flying drones and airplanes over the Mediterranean, Frontex locates migrant rafts, then alerts the Italians, who, in turn, inform the Libyan authorities. Once captured by the Libyan Coast Guard, tens of thousands of these migrants are then delivered into a dozen or so detention centers run by militias.
For the EU, and for the individual ship captains working the Mediterranean, the challenge of how best to handle desperate migrants fleeing hardships in their native countries is only going to grow more pronounced. Climate change is expected to displace 150 million people across the globe in the next 50 years. Rising seas, desertification, famine — all of it will drive the desperate to places like Europe and the U.S., testing the moral character and political imagination of countries better prepared to survive an overheated planet.
And for the big players in that global drama, the men and women working commercial ships in the Mediterranean, they will ever more frequently find themselves in an impossible bind. Those captains who, unlike Sotgiu, abide by humanitarian law and decide to bring the migrants to Europe sometimes face dire consequences.
In August 2020, for instance, the crew of a Danish-flagged oil tanker called the Maersk Etienne rescued 27 migrants, including a pregnant woman and a child, at the request of Maltese authorities. Malta then denied the Maersk ship entry to its port to offload the migrants, leading to a long and costly standoff that ended only after the migrants were handed over to a humanitarian NGO. Italian prosecutors later alleged that Maersk had paid the NGO more than $100,000 to take the migrants in a possible violation of immigration laws. Maersk called the payment a donation meant to help the NGO cover the costs of assisting with the migrants.
But most migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean never make it onto merchant ships because they are instead caught by the Libyan Coast Guard. Though it routinely opens fire on migrant rafts, has been tied to human trafficking and murder and is now run by militias, the Libyan Coast Guard continues to draw strong EU support. This fall, the EU shipped four new speed boats to the Libyan Coast Guard so that it could more effectively capture migrants and send them to the same detention centers that the UN has described as being involved in state-sponsored crimes against humanity.
I had long been interested in reporting on Libya’s gulag of migrant jails. There had been reports for years of unimaginable horrors: torture, rape, extortion, forced labor. There were repeated calls for the EU to halt its support of Libya’s treatment of captured migrants, but they went unheeded.
Even though the EU routinely denies financing the abuse of migrants in Libya, an investigation by The Outlaw Ocean Project, my nonprofit news organization in Washington D.C., showed that EU money, typically flowing through humanitarian aid agencies, was nonetheless essential to the operation of both the Coast Guard and the jails where the migrants were kept. The offices for the Coast Guard staff benefited from EU money; the EU gave a fleet of SUVs to Libyan immigration personnel to chase down migrants in the desert. When the migrants were taken from the Coast Guard boats to the jails, they often traveled on buses paid for in part by EU money. The modest materials given to the migrants upon their detention — blankets, slippers, clothes for when it got cold — came via Europe. The body bags used when tragedy struck — at sea or in the jails — were courtesy of the EU.
Much of it all — the showers that got built in the jails, the hygiene kits that got distributed — were born of good will, and likely saved lives. But the good acts indisputably have sustained a horrific system of detention and punishment.
A month before I was to head to Libya, there was a report of the latest outrage: the killing of a young migrant from North Africa in one of Libya’s most notorious detention centers, Al-Mabani or “The Building” located in the heart of the capital city of Tripoli.
I first learned of Aliou Candé’s captivity this past April, a few weeks after he was captured and I began reconstructing his journey. Candé grew up on a farm near the remote village of Sintchan Demba Gaira, Guinea Bissau, a place without many of the basics of plumbing or electricity. He was a fan of soccer and music, and in addition to speaking French and English, he was learning Portuguese in the hopes of joining a brother in Portugal. He had a reputation as a dogged worker, who avoided trouble of any kind. “People respected him,” his brother Jacaria said.
But the 28-year-old would become a climate migrant — droughts in Guinea Bissau had become more common and longer; flooding became more unpredictable and damaging; Candé’s crops — cassava, mangoes, and cashews — were failing and his children were hungry. Milk production from his cows was so meager, his children were allowed to drink it once a month. The shift in climate had made for more mosquitos, and with them more disease.
But there was another way — to go to Europe. His brothers had done it. His family encouraged him to try.
In the late summer of 2019, Candé set out for Europe. He took with him 600 Euros, and nothing other than two pairs of pants, a T-shirt, a leather diary and a romance novel. He told his wife he was not sure how long he’d be away, but he did his best to be optimistic. “I love you,” he told her, “and I’ll be back.”
Candé traveled by car across central Africa to Agadez, Niger, once called the Gateway to the Sahara. In January, he arrived in Morocco, tried to pay for passage on a boat to Spain, and learned that the price was 3,000 Euros, more than he had.
Candé then headed to Libya, where he could book a cheaper raft to Italy. In February, he and more than a hundred other migrants pushed off from the Libyan shore aboard an inflatable rubber raft. He never made it.
Roughly 70 miles from Libya, the Libyan Coast Guard rammed the migrants’ raft three times, then ordered them to climb a ladder to the ship. The migrants were taken back to land, loaded by armed guards into buses and trucks, and driven to Al-Mabani.
Alongside hundreds of others who meet a similar fate in these jails, Candé was killed at the hands of guards and buried in an overcrowded migrant cemetery in Tripoli, more than 2,000 miles from his family in Guinea Bissau.
In Tripoli, I interviewed dozens of other migrants who had been imprisoned with Candé at Al-Mabani. They told me of cells so crowded the detainees had to sleep in shifts. They spoke of a special room where migrants were sometimes beaten while hung upside-down from ceiling beams. They shared with me the audio message that Candé recorded on a cell phone secreted into the jail where he made a final plea to his family to send the ransom he needed to be set free.
No one was punished for Candé’s death. EU officials called for an investigation, but then went silent. It all felt like one latest example of the impunity with which Libyan officials deal with some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
And then I got my own taste of Libyan impunity. A week into my reporting on Candé’s killing, I was abducted in my hotel room, and held for almost a week by Libya’s intelligence service, run by a militia called Al-Nawasi. I was blindfolded, two of my ribs were broken, and I was held incommunicado for five days before my eventual release. My crime? Reporting on migrants.
We were later forced at gunpoint by our captors to sign a confession document written on Libyan Intelligence Service stationary, the cover letter of which bore the signature of Major General Hussein Muhammad Al-A’ib.
There is some recent hope of accountability for the EU and that its partnership with Libya might be approaching an end. The conviction of the ship captain in October points to a growing discomfort with the illegality of delivering migrants back to Libya. So too do two landmark cases brought this year by migrants against Frontex, Europe’s border agency, before the Court of Justice of the European Union, the EU’s chief judicial authority. The cases allege Frontex’s agents and/or officials either ignored evidence of rights abuses perpetrated by EU member states or themselves participated in the illegal turning back of migrants seeking asylum.
Of course, the EU is not alone in trying to outsource the dirty work of containing migration. For the past decade, the U.S. government has sought to reduce the flow of Latin American migrants by requiring those coming through Central America to stay in Mexico while applying for resettlement. So-called “remote vetting” also enables U.S. immigration authorities to avoid the quandary of what to do with people whose asylum applications were denied but who come from places that lack deportation agreements. Migrants in these centers face beatings by guards, spoiled food, lack of access to clean water, extreme temperatures, overcrowding, lice and scabies, according to The Global Detention Project, a human rights NGO based in Geneva.
Countries surely have a right and a duty to manage their borders, but the way the U.S. and the EU are handling the first waves of these migrants is neither effective nor humane. Putting merchant ship captains in the middle of this crisis is hardly the solution. Worse still is outsourcing the problem to failed states like Libya where human rights abuses are a foregone conclusion.