The late Aliou Candé. His photo was sent by his brother Jacaria Candé. Candé died in a detention centre in Libya.

| Jacaria Candé

The secret prisons that keep migrants out of Europe

What you need to know:

  • Tired of migrants arriving from Africa, the European Union has created a shadow immigration system that captures them before they reach its shores, and sends them to brutal Libyan detention centres run by militias.

Several makeshift warehouses sit along the highway in Ghout al-Shaal, a worn neighbourhood of auto-repair shops and scrap yards in Tripoli, the capital of Libya. Formerly a storage depot for cement, the site reopened in January 2021, its outer walls heightened and topped with barbed wire.

Men in black-and-blue camouflage uniforms, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, stand guard around a blue shipping container that passes for an office. On the gate, a sign reads, “Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration.” The facility is a secretive prison for migrants. Its name, in Arabic, is Al Mabani — The Buildings.

Al Mabani main complex on May 18, 2021.

Photo credit: Pierre Kattar/The Outlaw Ocean Project

At 3am on February 5, 2021, Aliou Candé, a sturdy, shy 28-year-old migrant from Guinea-Bissau, arrived at the prison. He had left home a year and a half earlier, because his family’s farm was failing, and had set out to join two brothers in Europe. But as he attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea on a rubber dinghy, with more than 100 other migrants, the Libyan Coast Guard intercepted them and took them to Al Mabani.

They were pushed inside Cell No. 4, where some 200 others were being held. There was hardly anywhere to sit in the crush of bodies, and those on the floor slid over to avoid being trampled. Overhead were fluorescent lights that stayed on all night. A small grille in the door, about a foot wide, was the only source of natural light. Birds nested in the rafters, their feathers and droppings falling from above. On the walls, migrants had scrawled notes of determination: “A soldier never retreats,” and “With our eyes closed, we advance”. Candé crowded into a far corner and began to panic. “What should we do?” he asked a cellmate.

No one in the world beyond Al Mabani’s walls knew that Candé had been captured. He hadn’t been charged with a crime or allowed to speak to a lawyer, and he was given no indication of how long he’d be detained. In his first days there, he kept mostly to himself, submitting to the grim routines of the place.

The prison is controlled by a militia that euphemistically calls itself the Public Security Agency, and its gunmen patrolled the hallways. About 1,500 migrants were held there, in eight cells, segregated by gender. There was only one toilet for every 100 people, and Candé often had to urinate in a water bottle or defecate in the shower.

Aliou Candé standing in park with backpack in an undated photo.

Photo credit: Jacaria Candé

Migrants slept on thin floor pads; there weren’t enough to go around, so people took turns — one lay down during the day, the other at night. Detainees fought over who got to sleep in the shower, which had better ventilation. Twice a day, they were marched, single file, into the courtyard, where they were forbidden to look up at the sky or talk. Guards, like zookeepers, put communal bowls of food on the ground, and migrants gathered in circles to eat.

The guards struck prisoners who disobeyed orders with whatever was handy: a shovel, a hose, a cable, a tree branch. “They would beat anyone for no reason at all,” Tokam Martin Luther, an older Cameroonian man who slept on a mat next to Candé’s, told me. Detainees speculated that when someone died, the body was dumped behind one of the compound’s outer walls, near a pile of brick and plaster rubble.

The guards offered migrants their freedom for a fee of 2,500 Libyan dinars — about $500. During meals, the guards walked around with cell phones, allowing detainees to call relatives who could pay. But Candé’s family couldn’t afford such a ransom. Luther told me, “If you don’t have anybody to call, you just sit down.”

In the past six years, the European Union, weary of the financial and political costs of receiving migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, has created a shadow immigration system that stops them before they reach Europe. It has equipped and trained the Libyan Coast Guard, a quasi-military organisation linked to militias in the country, to patrol the Mediterranean, sabotaging humanitarian rescue operations and capturing migrants.

The migrants are then detained indefinitely in a network of profit-making prisons run by the militias. In September of this year, around 6,000 migrants were being held, many of them in Al Mabani. International aid agencies have documented an array of abuses: detainees tortured with electric shocks, children raped by guards, families extorted for ransom, men and women sold into forced labour.

“The EU did something they carefully considered and planned for many years,” Salah Marghani, Libya’s minister of justice from 2012 to 2014, told me. “Create a hellhole in Libya, with the idea of deterring people from heading to Europe.”

Three weeks after Candé arrived at Al Mabani, a group of detainees devised an escape plan. Moussa Karouma, a migrant from Ivory Coast, and several others defecated into a waste bin and left it in their cell for two days until the stench became overpowering. “It was my first time in prison,” Karouma told me. “I was terrified.”

Inside Al Mabani

When guards opened the cell door, 19 migrants burst past them. They climbed on top of a bathroom roof, dropped 15 feet over an outer wall, and disappeared into a warren of alleys near the prison. For those who remained, the consequences were bloody. The guards called in reinforcements who sprayed bullets into the cells, then beat the inmates.

“There was one guy in my ward that they beat with a gun on his head until he fainted and started shaking,” a migrant later told Amnesty International. “They didn’t call an ambulance to come get him that night... He was still breathing but he was not able to talk… I don’t know what happened to him… I don’t know what he had done.”

In the weeks that followed, Candé tried to stay out of trouble and clung to a hopeful rumour: the guards planned to release the migrants in his cell in honour of Ramadan, two months away. “The lord is miraculous,” Luther wrote in a journal he kept. “May his grace continue to protect all migrants around the world and especially those in Libya.”

What came to be called the migrant crisis began around 2010, when people fleeing violence, poverty, and the effects of climate change in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa started flooding into Europe. The World Bank predicts that, in the next 50 years, droughts, crop failures, rising seas, and desertification will displace 150 million more people, mostly from the Global South, accelerating migration to Europe and elsewhere.

In 2015 alone, one million people came to Europe from the Middle East and Africa. A popular route went through Libya, then across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy — a distance of fewer than 200 miles.

Europe had long pressed Libya to help curb such migration. Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s leader, had once embraced Pan-Africanism and encouraged sub-Saharan Africans to serve in the country’s oil fields. But in 2008 he signed a “friendship treaty” with Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, that committed him to implementing strict controls. Gaddafi sometimes used this as a bargaining chip: he threatened, in 2010, that if the EU did not send him more than $6 billion a year in aid money, he would “turn Europe Black”.

In 2011, Gaddafi was toppled and killed in an insurrection sparked by the Arab Spring and supported by a US-led invasion. Afterward, Libya descended into chaos. Today, two governments compete for legitimacy: the UN-recognised Government of National Unity, and an administration based in Tobruk and backed by Russia and the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army.

Both rely on shifting, cynical alliances with armed militias that have tribal allegiances and control large portions of the country. Libya’s remote beaches, increasingly unpoliced, have been swamped with migrants headed for Europe.

One of the first major tragedies of the migrant crisis occurred in 2013, when a dinghy carrying more than 500 migrants, most of them Eritrean, caught fire and sank in the Mediterranean, killing 360 people. They were less than half a mile from Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island. At first, European leaders responded with compassion.

“We can do this!” Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor, said, promising a permissive approach to immigration. In early 2014, Matteo Renzi, at 39, was elected prime minister of Italy, the youngest in its history. A telegenic centrist liberal in the model of Bill Clinton, Renzi was predicted to dominate the country’s politics for the next decade.

Like Merkel, he welcomed migrants, saying that if Europe was willing to turn its back on “dead bodies in the sea”, it could not call itself “civilised.” He supported an ambitious search-and-rescue programme called Operation Mare Nostrum, or Our Sea, which ensured the safe passage of some 150,000 migrants, and Italy provided legal assistance for asylum claims.

Former Italy Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and former German Chancellor Angela Merkel back in 2016.

Photo credit: AFP

As the number of migrants rose, European ambivalence turned to recalcitrance. Migrants needed medical care, jobs, and schooling, which strained resources. James F. Hollifield, a migration expert at the French Institutes for Advanced Studies, told me, “We in the liberal West are in a conundrum. We have to find a way to secure borders and manage migration without undermining the social contract and the liberal state itself.”

Nationalist parties such as the Alternative for Germany and France’s National Rally exploited the situation, fostering xenophobia. In 2015, men from North Africa sexually assaulted women in Cologne, Germany, fuelling alarm. The next year, an asylum seeker from Tunisia drove a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12. Merkel, under pressure, eventually insisted that migrants assimilate and supported a ban on burqas.

Renzi’s Mare Nostrum programme had cost 115 million euros, and Italy, which was struggling to stave off its third recession in six years, could not sustain the undertaking. Efforts in Italy and Greece to relocate migrants floundered. Poland and Hungary, both run by far-right leaders, accepted no migrants at all. Officials in Austria talked of building a wall on its Italian border.

Italy’s hard-right politicians mocked and denounced Renzi, and their poll numbers skyrocketed. In December 2016, Renzi resigned, and his party eventually rolled back his policies. He, too, retreated from his initial generosity. “We need to free ourselves from a sense of guilt,” he said. “We do not have the moral duty to welcome to Italy people who are worse off than ourselves.”

During the next several years, Europe embarked on a different approach, led by Marco Minniti, who became Italy’s minister of the interior in 2016. Minniti, a one-time ally of Renzi’s, was frank about his colleague’s miscalculation. “We did not respond to two feelings that were very strong,” he said. “Anger and fear.”

Italy stopped conducting search-and-rescue operations beyond 30 miles of its shores. Italy, Greece, Spain, and Malta began turning away humanitarian boats carrying rescued migrants, and Italy even charged the captains of such boats with aiding human trafficking. Minniti soon became known as the “Minister of Fear.”

In 2015, the EU created the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which has since spent nearly $6 billion dollars. Proponents argue that the programme offers aid money to developing countries, paying for Covid-19 relief in Sudan and green-energy job training in Ghana. But much of its work involves pressuring African nations to adopt tougher immigration restrictions and funding the agencies that enforce them.

In 2018, officials in Niger allegedly sent “shopping lists” requesting gifts of cars, planes, and helicopters in exchange for their help in pushing anti-immigrant policies. The programme has also supported repressive state agencies, by financing the creation of an intelligence centre for Sudan’s secret police, and by allowing the EU to give the personal data of Ethiopian nationals to their country’s intelligence service.

The money is doled out at the discretion of the EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, and not subject to scrutiny by its Parliament. (A spokesperson for the Trust Fund told me, “Our programmes are intended to save lives, protect those in need, and fight trafficking in human beings and migrant smuggling.”)

Minniti looked to Libya — by then a failed state — to become Europe’s primary partner in stopping the flow of migrants. In 2017, he travelled to Tripoli and struck deals with the government recognised in the country at the time and with the most powerful militias. Italy, backed by EU funds, signed a memorandum of understanding with Libya, affirming “the resolute determination to cooperate in identifying urgent solutions to the issue of clandestine migrants crossing Libya to reach Europe by sea”.

Crossing the Mediterranean

The Trust Fund has directed $500 billion dollars to Libya’s assault on migration. Marghani, the former justice minister, told me that the goal of the programme is clear: “Make Libya the bad guy. Make Libya the disguise for their policies while the good humans of Europe say they are offering money to help make this hellish system safer.”

Former Interior Minister Marco Minniti attends the swearing in ceremony of the new government led by Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni on December 12, 2016 at the Quirinale presidential palace in Rome.

Photo credit: AFP

Minniti has said that the European fear of unchecked migration is a “legitimate feeling — one democracy needs to listen to.” His policies have resulted in a stark drop in migrants. In the first half of this year, fewer than 21,000 people made it to Europe by crossing the Mediterranean.

Minniti told the press in 2017, “What Italy did in Libya is a model to deal with migrant flows without erecting borders or barbed wire barriers.” (Minniti has since left government and now heads the Med-Or Foundation, an organisation founded by an Italian defence contractor; he did not respond to requests for comment for this piece.)

Italy’s right wing, which helped unseat Renzi, applauded Minniti’s work. “When we proposed such measures, we were labelled as racist,” Matteo Salvini, then the leader of Italy’s Northern League, a nationalist party, said. “Now, finally, everyone seems to understand we were right.”

Aliou Candé grew up on a farm near the village of Sintchan Demba Gaira. It has no cellphone reception, paved roads, plumbing, or electricity. As an adult, he worked the farm with his family, and lived in a clay house, painted yellow and blue, with his wife, Hava, and their two young sons. He listened to foreign musicians and followed European soccer clubs; he spoke English and French, and was teaching himself Portuguese, hoping one day to live in Portugal.

Jacaria, one of Candé’s three brothers, told me, “Aliou was a very lovely boy — never in any trouble. He was a hard worker. People respected him.”

Candé’s farm produced cassava, mangoes, and cashews, a crop that accounts for around 90 percent of Guinea-Bissau’s exports. But local weather patterns had begun to shift, likely as a result of climate change. “We don’t feel the cold during the cold season anymore, and the heat comes earlier than it should,” Jacaria said.

Heavy rains left the farm accessible only by canoe for much of the year. Dry spells seemed to last longer than they had a generation earlier. Candé had four skinny cows that produced little milk. There were more mosquitoes, which spread disease. When one of Candé’s sons came down with malaria, the journey to the hospital took a day, and he almost died.

Aliou Cande's son, Boubacar, kicking a soccer ball in their village in Guinea Bissau on May 26, 2021.

Photo credit: Ricci Shryock/The Outlaw Ocean Project

Candé, a pious Muslim, worried that he was failing before God to provide for his family. “He felt guilty and envious,” Bobo, another of Candé’s brothers, told me. Jacaria had immigrated to Spain, and Denbas, the third brother, to Italy. Both sent money and photographs of fancy restaurants. Candé’s father, Samba, told me, “Whoever goes abroad brings fortune at home.”

Aliou’s father, Samba, and his mother, Aminata, holding a family photo in Guinea Bissau on May 26 this year.

Photo credit: Ricci Shryock/The Outlaw Ocean Project

Hava was eight months pregnant, but Candé’s family encouraged him to go to Europe, too, promising that they would look after his children. “All the people of his generation went abroad and succeeded,” his mother, Aminatta, said. “So why not him?”

On the morning of September 13, 2019, Candé set out for Europe carrying a Quran, a leather diary, two pairs of pants, two T-shirts, and 600 euros. “I don’t know how long this will take,” he told his wife that morning. “But I love you, and I’ll be back.”

Candé worked his way across central Africa, hitching rides in cars or stowing away on buses until he reached Agadez, Niger, once called the Gateway to the Sahara. Historically, the borders of many central African countries have been open, as in the EU, though the arrangement was less formalised. In 2015, however, EU officials pressured Niger to adopt a statute called Law 36: overnight, bus drivers and guides, who for many years had carried migrants north, were declared human traffickers and subject to 30-year prison sentences.

Migrants were forced to consider more perilous routes. Candé, along with a half-dozen others, struck out through the Sahara, sometimes sleeping in the sand on the side of the road. “Heat and dust, it’s terrible here,” Candé told Jacaria by phone. He sneaked through a portion of Algeria controlled by bandits. “They will capture you and beat you until you’re released,” he told his family. “That’s all that’s there.”

The route of death

In January 2020, he arrived in Morocco, and learned that passage to Spain cost 3,000 euros. Jacaria urged him to turn back, but Candé said, “You have worked hard in Europe. You sent money to the family. Now it’s my turn.” He heard that in Libya he could book a cheaper boat to Italy.

He arrived in Tripoli last December, and stayed in a migrant slum called Gargaresh. His great-uncle Demba Balde, a 40-year-old former tailor, had lived undocumented in Libya for years, doing various jobs. Balde found Candé work painting houses and pressed him to abandon his plan to cross the Mediterranean. “That’s the route of death,” Balde told him.

This past May, I travelled to Tripoli to investigate the system of migrant detention. I had recently started a nonprofit called The Outlaw Ocean Project, which reports on human rights and environmental issues at sea, and I brought along a three-person research team. In Tripoli, the coastline was dotted with half-built offices, hotels, apartment buildings, and schools. Armed men in fatigues stood at every intersection.

Almost no Western journalists are permitted to enter Libya, but, with the help of an international aid group, we were granted visas. Shortly after we arrived, I gave my team tracking devices and encouraged them to put photocopies of their passports inside their shoes. We were placed in a hotel near the city centre and assigned a small security detail.

The Libyan Coast Guard’s name makes it sound like an official military organisation, but it has no unified command; it is made up of local patrols that the UN has accused of having links to militias. (Humanitarian workers call it the “so-called Libyan Coast Guard.”) Minniti told the press in 2017 that building up the patrols would be a difficult undertaking: “When we said we had to relaunch the Libyan Coast Guard, it seemed like a daydream.” The EU’s Trust Fund has since spent tens of millions of dollars to turn the Coast Guard into a formidable proxy force.

In 2018, the Italian government, with the EU’s blessing, helped the Coast Guard get approval from the UN to extend its jurisdiction nearly 100 miles off Libya’s coast — far into international waters, and more than halfway to Italian shores. The EU supplied six speedboats, 30 Toyota Land Cruisers, radios, satellite phones, inflatable dinghies, and 500 uniforms. It spent close to a million dollars last year to build command centres for the Coast Guard, and provides training to officers.

In a ceremony in October 2020, EU officials and Libyan commanders unveiled two state-of-the-art cutters that had been built in Italy and upgraded with Trust Fund money. “The refitting of these two vessels has been a prime example of the constructive cooperation between the European Union; an EU member state, Italy; and Libya,” Jose Sabadell, the EU’s ambassador to Libya, said in a press release.

Perhaps the most valuable help comes from the EU’s border agency, Frontex, founded in 2004 partly to guard Europe’s border with Russia. In 2015, Frontex began spearheading what it called a “systematic effort to capture” migrants crossing the sea. Today, it has a budget of more than half a billion euros and its own uniformed service, which it can deploy in operations beyond the EU’s borders.

The agency maintains near-constant surveillance of the Mediterranean through drones and privately chartered aircraft. When it detects a migrant boat, it sends photographs and location information to local government agencies and other partners in the region — ostensibly to assist with rescues — but does not typically inform humanitarian vessels.

A spokesperson for Frontex told me that the agency “has never engaged in any direct cooperation with Libyan authorities”. But an investigation by a coalition of European news organisations, including Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel, Libération, and ARD, documented 20 instances in which, after Frontex surveilled migrants, their boats were intercepted by the Coast Guard. The investigation also found evidence that Frontex sometimes sends the locations of the migrant boats directly to the Coast Guard.

In a WhatsApp exchange earlier this year, for example, a Frontex official wrote to someone identifying himself as a “captain” in the Libyan Coast Guard, saying, “Good morning sir — we have a boat adrift [coordinates]. People pouring water. Please acknowledge this message.”

Legal experts argue that these actions violate international laws against refoulement, or the return of migrants to unsafe places. Frontex officials recently sent me the results of an open-records request I made, which indicate that from February 1 to February 5, around the time that Candé was at sea, the agency exchanged 37 emails with the Coast Guard. (Frontex refused to release the contents of the emails, saying that it would “put the lives of migrants in danger”.)

A senior Frontex official, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation, told me that the agency also streams its surveillance footage to the Italian Coast Guard and Italy’s Maritime Rescue Coördination Centre, which, the official believes, notify the Libyan Coast Guard. (The Italian agencies did not respond to requests for comment.) The official argued that this indirect method didn’t insulate the agency from responsibility: “You provide that information. You don’t implement the action, but it is the information that provokes the refoulement.”

80,000 migrants

The official had repeatedly urged superiors to stop any activity that could result in migrants being returned to Libya. “It didn’t matter what you told them,” the official said. “They were not willing to understand.” (A Frontex spokesperson told me, “In any potential search and rescue, the priority for Frontex is to save lives.”)

Once the Coast Guard has the coordinates, it races to the boats, trying to capture the migrants before rescue vessels arrive. Sometimes it fires on the migrant boats or directs warning shots at humanitarian ships. In the past four years, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Coast Guard and other Libyan authorities have intercepted more than 80,000 migrants.

In 2017, a ship from the aid group SeaWatch responded to distress calls from a sinking migrant boat. As SeaWatch deployed two rescue rafts, a Libyan Coast Guard cutter, called the Ras Jadir, arrived at high speed, its swells causing some of the migrants to fall overboard. Coast Guard officers then pulled the migrants out of the water, beating them as they climbed aboard.

Johannes Bayer, the head of the SeaWatch mission, later said, “We had a feeling the Coast Guard were only interested in pulling back as many people to Libya as possible, without caring that people were drowning.” One migrant jumped overboard and clung to the Ras Jadir as it accelerated away, dragging him through the water.

According to Sea-Watch, at least 20 people died, including a two-year-old boy. A migrant told Amnesty International that this past February a Coast Guard ship damaged a migrant boat while officers filmed with their cell phones; five people drowned.

The Coast Guard appears to operate with impunity. In October 2020, Abdel-Rahman al-Milad, the commander of a Coast Guard unit based in Zawiya, who had been added to the UN Security Council’s sanctions list for being “directly involved in the sinking of migrant boats using firearms”, was arrested by Libyan authorities. Milad had attended meetings with Italian officials in Rome and Sicily in 2017, to request more money. This past April, authorities released him, citing a lack of evidence.

The Coast Guard, which did not respond to requests for comment for this piece, has often pointed to its success in limiting migration to Europe, and argued that humanitarian groups hinder its efforts to combat human trafficking.

“Why do they declare war on us?” a spokesman told the Italian media. “They should instead cooperate with us if they actually want to work in the interest of the migrants.” The spokesperson for the Trust Fund said that the EU’s work with the Coast Guard is intended “to save the lives of those making dangerous journeys by sea or land”.

This past May, a documentarian from my team, Ed Ou, spent several weeks aboard a Doctors Without Borders vessel, filming its attempts to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean. The organisation located migrant boats with the help of radar and volunteer planes, but in many cases the Coast Guard beat them there and captured the migrants. Occasionally, aid workers saw a Frontex drone — an IAI Heron, capable of operating continuously for up to 45 hours — circling overhead.

The Doctors Without Borders ship was careful to conduct rescues only in international waters, but threats from the Coast Guard crackled over the radio. “Get away from the target,” an officer said. “Don’t enter Libyan waters. Otherwise, I’ll deal with you, and we resort to other measures.”

After one successful rescue, several Sudanese migrants spoke about what they had seen in Libya. One said that he had been beaten and tortured by the Coast Guard when he was captured on an earlier voyage. Another had watched detainees shot to death in a Libyan detention centre. A third migrant wore a homemade T-shirt that read “F*** to Libya”.

Deflate the vessel

Around 10pm on February 3, 2021, a smuggler led Candé and 130 others to the Libyan coast, and launched them from shore in an inflatable rubber dinghy. Some of the migrants, excited by the departure, broke into song. Roughly two hours later, the boat entered international waters. Candé, straddling the side of the dinghy, felt hopeful. He told others on board that he was thinking about bringing his wife and children to join him.

The trafficker had put three migrants in charge. A “bussolier” guided the dinghy along its route using a compass. A “captain” manned the motor and handled the satellite phone; once they were far enough from Libya, he was supposed to call Alarm Phone, a migration activist group, and request a rescue. A “commander” kept order and made sure no one touched the plug that, if pulled, would deflate the vessel.

Soon, the seas grew rough, making nearly everyone sick and turning the pooling water at their feet into a soup of vomit, faeces, candy wrappers, and baguette crumbs. Several migrants tried to bail out the boat using plastic water bottles cut in half. A fight erupted, and someone threatened to slash the dinghy with a knife before he was subdued.

Mohamed David Soumahoro, who befriended Candé on the boat, recalled, “Everyone started calling out for their God — one for Allah, the other calling Jesus, another calls this one and another that one. Women began crying, and once they saw people panicking, the babies began crying, too.”

At dawn, the waters calmed, and the migrants, deciding that they were far enough from Libya, called Alarm Phone for help. A volunteer told them that there was a merchant vessel not far away. This sparked jubilation. “Bosa, free, bosa, free,” the migrants chanted, using a celebratory Fula expression. Candé turned to Soumahoro, his eyes lighting up, and said, “Inshallah, we’re going to make it! Italy!” But when the merchant vessel arrived, the captain announced that he had no lifeboats and quickly steered away.

By now, Candé’s boat was 70 miles from Tripoli, out of Libyan waters but still within the Coast Guard’s expanded jurisdiction. Around 5pm on February 4, the migrants noticed an airplane overhead, which circled for 15 minutes, then flew away. Data from the ADS-B Exchange, an organisation that tracks aviation traffic, show that the plane was the Eagle1, a white Beech King Air 350 surveillance aircraft leased by Frontex. (The agency declined to comment on its role in the capture.)

About three hours later, a boat appeared on the horizon. “The closer it came, the clearer we saw it — and saw the black and green lines of the flag,” Soumahoro told me. “Everyone started crying and holding their heads, saying, ‘Sh*t, it’s Libyan.’”

The boat, a Vittoria P350 made of steel, fibreglass, and Kevlar, was one of the cutters unveiled by the EU. It rammed the dinghy three times, then Coast Guard officers ordered the migrants to climb aboard. “Move!” they yelled. One hit several of the migrants with the butt of his rifle; another whipped them with a rope. The migrants were taken back to land, loaded into buses and trucks, and driven to Al Mabani.

When I got to Libya, government officials told me that I would be allowed to tour Al Mabani. But after several days, it became clear that this would not happen. Late one afternoon, my team and I went to an alley and launched a small video drone, flying it high enough over the prison so that it would not be noticed by the guards. On the monitor, I saw them preparing to march the migrants from the courtyard back into their cells. Roughly 65 detainees sat in a corner, unmoving, heads down, legs folded, each man’s hands touching the back of the man in front of him. When one man glanced to the side, a guard struck him on the head.

Aerial drone footage on Al Mabani detention centre

Under Libyan law, unauthorised foreigners — including economic migrants, asylum seekers, and the victims of illegal trafficking — can be detained indefinitely, with no access to a lawyer. There are currently some 15 recognised detention centres in the country, of which Al Mabani is the largest. An IOM official told me that tens of thousands of migrants have been held in the detention centres since 2017. Earlier this year, six women who had been held at a centre called Shara’ al-Zawiya told investigators from Amnesty International that women there had been raped or subjected to other forms of sexual violence.

At Abu Salim, at least two migrants were killed during an escape attempt this past February. “Death in Libya, it’s normal: no one will look for you, and no one will find you,” a migrant there told Amnesty investigators. Diana Eltahawy, who works on North African issues at Amnesty International, declared in July, “The entire network of Libyan migration detention centres is rotten to its core.”

Sexually assaulted

Migrants captured by the Coast Guard are loaded onto buses, many supplied by the EU, and brought to the detention centres; sometimes Coast Guard units sell them to the centres. But some migrants never make it there. In the first seven months of 2021, according to IOM, more than 15,000 migrants were captured by the Libyan Coast Guard and other authorities, but by the end of that period, only about 6,000 were being held in designated facilities. Federico Soda, IOM’s chief of mission in Libya, believes that migrants are disappearing into “unofficial” facilities run by traffickers and militias, where aid groups have no access. “The numbers simply don’t add up,” he said.

Al Mabani was created early this year under the supervision of Emad al Tarabulsi, a senior leader in the Public Security Agency militia. The group has links to the Zintan tribe, which helped overthrow Gaddafi and held his son Seif prisoner for years. Today, the militia is aligned with the National Unity government, and Tarabulsi briefly served as its deputy head of intelligence. He built the prison in a corner of the city controlled by the militia and selected Noureddine al-Ghreetly, a soft-spoken commander, to run it. (Tarabulsi could not be reached for comment.)

An old family photo of Aliou’s family.

Photo credit: Ricci Shryock/The Outlaw Ocean Project

Previously, Ghreetly oversaw a migrant prison called Tajoura, near a military base on the eastern outskirts of Tripoli. In a 2019 Human Rights Watch report, six detainees there, including two 16-year-old boys, described being severely beaten, and one woman said that she’d been repeatedly sexually assaulted. The report’s authors recounted seeing a female detainee attempting to hang herself.  

Prisoners were forced to do labour at the facility, including cleaning weapons, storing ammunition, and offloading military shipments, according to UN investigators. In July 2019, during the latest outbreak of civil war, a bomb struck the detention centre, levelling a hangar where the migrants were held. More than 50 were killed, including six children. Most of the survivors wound up at Al Mabani.

Horrific detention centres

The EU concedes that the migrant prisons are brutal. The Trust Fund spokesperson told me by email, “The situation in these centres is unacceptable. The current arbitrary detention system must end.” Last year, Josep Borrell, a vice-president of the European Commission, said, “The decision to arbitrarily detain migrants rests under the sole responsibility” of the Libyan government. In its initial agreement with Libya, Italy promised to help finance and make safe the operation of migrant detention. Today, European officials insist that they do not directly fund the sites.

The Trust Fund’s spending is opaque, but its spokesperson told me that it sends money only to provide “lifesaving support to migrants and refugees in detention”, including through UN agencies and international NGOs that offer “healthcare, psychosocial support, cash assistance and non-food items”. Tineke Strik, a member of the European Parliament, told me that this doesn’t relieve Europe of responsibility: “If the EU did not finance the Libyan Coast Guard and its assets, there would be no interception, and there would be no referral to these horrific detention centres.”

She also pointed out that the EU sends funds to the National Unity government, whose Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration oversees the sites. She argued that, even if the EU doesn’t pay for the construction of facilities or the salaries of their gunmen, its money indirectly supports much of their operation. The Trust Fund pays for the boats that capture migrants, the buses that bring them to prisons, and the SUVs that hunt them down on land. EU-funded UN agencies built the showers and bathrooms at several facilities, and pay for the blankets, clothes, and toiletries migrants receive when they arrive.

The Trust Fund has committed to buying ambulances that will take detainees to the hospital when they are sick. And EU money pays for the body bags they’re put in when they die, and for the training of Libyan authorities in how to handle corpses in a religiously respectful manner. Some of these efforts make the prisons more humane, but, taken together, they also help sustain a brutal system, which exists largely because of EU policies that send migrants back to Libya.

How EU money is supporting migrant detention in Libya

Militias also employ a variety of methods to make a profit from the facilities, such as siphoning off money and goods sent for migrants by humanitarian groups and government agencies — a scheme known as “aid diversion”. The director of a detention centre in Misrata told Human Rights Watch that militia-linked catering companies that serviced the facility pocketed some 85 percent of the money sent to supply meals.

Clean and load weaponry

A study financed by the Trust Fund in April 2019 found that much of the money that it sent through humanitarian groups ended up going to militias. “Most of the time, it is a profit-making exercise,” the study says.

Gaddafi-era laws allow unauthorised foreigners, regardless of age, to be forced to work in the country without pay. A Libyan national can pick up migrants from a prison for a fee, become their “guardian”, and oversee private work for a fixed amount of time. In 2017, CNN broadcast footage of a slave market in Libya, at which migrants were sold for agricultural labour; bidding started at 400 dinars, or about $90, per person.

This year, more than a dozen migrants from detention centres, some as young as 14, told Amnesty International that they had been forced to work on farms and in private homes, and to clean and load weaponry at military encampments during active hostilities. Perhaps the most common money-making scheme is extortion.

At the detention facilities, everything has a price: protection, food, medicine, and, the most expensive, freedom. But paying a ransom doesn’t guarantee release; some migrants are simply resold to another detention centre. “Unfortunately, as a result of the high number of centres and the commodification of migrants, many are detained by another group after their release, leading to them having to make multiple ransom payments,” the Trust Fund-financed study says.

In a meeting with the German ambassador to Libya earlier this year, General Al-Mabrouk Abdel-Hafiz, who runs the Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration, portrayed himself, and his country, as being tasked with an impossible job. “Libya is no longer a transit country, but rather a victim left alone to face a crisis that the countries of the world failed,” he said. (Abdel-Hafiz declined to comment for this piece.) When I called Ghreetly, the director of Al Mabani, and asked about allegations of mistreatment there, he replied, “Abuse does not happen,” and quickly ended the call.

Several days after I arrived in Libya, I travelled to Gargaresh, the migrant slum where Candé briefly stayed, to speak to former detainees. During the Second World War, the Italian and German militaries used the area, then called Campo 59 or Feldpost 12545, as a prisoner-of-war camp. Today, it is a honeycomb of alleys and narrow streets, surrounded by fast-food restaurants and cellphone stores. Raids carried out by militiamen are part of daily life.

Candé’s friend Soumahoro, who was taken to Al Mabani with him when their dinghy was intercepted, met me on the main road and whisked me into a windowless room occupied by two other migrants. Over a meal of chana masala, he told me of his time in prison. “Talking about this is really hard for me,” he said.

Migrants in Al Mabani were beaten for whispering to one another, speaking in their native tongues or laughing. Troublemakers were held for days in the “isolation room”, an abandoned gas station behind the women’s cell with a Shell fuel sign hanging out front. The isolation room had no bathroom, so prisoners had to defecate in a corner; the smell was so bad that guards wore masks when they visited. Guards tied the hands of detainees to a rope suspended from a steel ceiling beam and beat them.

“It’s not so bad seeing a friend or a man yelling as he’s being tortured,” Soumahoro said. “But seeing a six-foot-tall man beating a woman with a whip…” In March, Soumahoro organised a hunger strike to protest violence by the guards, and was taken to the isolation room, where he was strung upside down and repeatedly beaten. “They hung you like a piece of clothing,” he said.

Random act of retribution

Several former detainees I spoke with in Tripoli said that they had witnessed sexual abuse. Adjara Keita, a 36-year-old migrant from Ivory Coast, who was held at Al Mabani for two months, told me that women were frequently taken from their cells to be raped by the guards. “The women would come back in tears,” she said. After two women escaped from Al Mabani, guards took Keita to a nearby office and beat her, in an apparently random act of retribution.

The guards also engaged migrants as collaborators, a tactic that kept them divided. Mohamed Soumah, a 23-year-old from the Republic of Guinea, sometimes called Guinea Conakry, volunteered to help with daily tasks and was soon pumped for information: Which migrants hated each other? Who were the agitators? The arrangement became more formal, and Soumah began handling ransom negotiations.

As a reward, he was allowed to sleep across the street from the prison in the cooks’ quarters. At one point, as a gift for his loyalty, the guards let him pick several migrants to be freed. He could even leave the compound, though he never went far. “I knew they’d find me and beat me if I tried to go away,” he told me.

One international aid organisation visited the prison twice a week and found that detainees were covered in bruises and cuts, avoided eye contact, and recoiled at loud noises. Sometimes migrants slipped the aid workers notes of desperation written on the backs of torn Covid-safety pamphlets. Many told the workers that they felt “disappeared” and asked that someone inform their families that they were alive.

During one visit, the workers couldn’t enter Candé’s cell because it was too packed, and estimated that there were three detainees per square metre. They met with migrants in the courtyard. The overcrowding was intense, and tuberculosis and Covid-19 have since been detected. During another visit, the workers were told of beatings from the night before, and they catalogued fractures, cuts, abrasions, and blunt traumas; one child was so badly injured that he couldn’t walk.

Graffiti done by migrants on a wall in Gharyan Detention Centre.

Photo credit: The Outlaw Ocean Project

In the weeks after Candé’s arrival, members of another aid group brought water and blankets that the facility had requested. But, after discovering that guards had kept some of the supplies for themselves, they decided that they would no longer assist Al Mabani. Near the end of March, Cherif Khalil, a consular officer from the Embassy of Guinea Conakry, visited the prison. Candé, pretending to be from Guinea Conakry, asked if the Embassy could help him, but Khalil was powerless. “He was desperate,” Khalil told me.

Demand to be released

Halfway through my meal with Soumahoro, my phone rang. It was a police officer. “You are not allowed to be talking to migrants,” he screamed at me. “You cannot be in Gargaresh.” He told me that if I didn’t leave immediately, I would be arrested. When I returned to my car, the police officer was standing there. He said that if I spoke to any more migrants I would be thrown out of the country. After that, my team and I weren’t allowed to venture far from our hotel.

As Candé sat in his cell, waiting for Ramadan, he and Luther passed the time playing dominoes. Luther wrote in his journal of a protest by female inmates: “They are in underwear and sitting on the floor because they also demand to be released.”

He and Candé called the guards nicknames based on the orders they barked. One was known as Khamsa Khamsa, Arabic for “five, five,” which he yelled during meals to remind migrants that five people had to share each bowl. Another guard, called Gamis, or “sit down,” ensured that no one stood. Keep Quiet policed the chatter.

At one point, Candé and Luther cared for a migrant who had sustained a blow to the head during a beating and seemed to be suffering a mental break, thrashing and screaming. “He was so mad,” Luther wrote, that they had to restrain him “so that we could sleep in peace.” Eventually, the guards took the detainee to a hospital, but a few weeks later he returned, as disturbed as ever. “Unbelievable situation,” Luther wrote.

Near the end of March, the migrants learned that they would not be freed during Ramadan. Luther wrote, “This is how life is in Libya. We will still have to be patient to enjoy our freedom.” But Candé seemed increasingly desperate. When he was first taken into custody, the Coast Guard had somehow failed to confiscate his cell phone. He had kept it hidden, fearing that he would be severely punished if caught with it.

After the Ramadan rumour was dispelled, however, he sent a voice message to his brothers over WhatsApp, attempting to explain the situation: “We were trying to get to Italy by water. They caught us and brought us back. Now we are locked in prison… You can’t keep the phone on too long here.” He begged them, “Find a way to call our father.” Then he waited, hoping that they would scrape together the ransom.

'Hope of my entire family'

At 2am on April 8, Candé awoke to a noise: several Sudanese detainees were trying to pry open the door of Cell No. 4 and escape. Candé, worried that all the inmates would be punished, asked Soumahoro what to do. Soumahoro went with a dozen others to confront the Sudanese. “We’ve tried to break out several times before,” Soumahoro told them. “It never worked. We were just beaten.” The Sudanese wouldn’t listen, and Soumahoro told another detainee to alert the guards, who backed a sand truck up against the cell door.

The Sudanese yanked iron pipes from the bathroom wall and began swinging them at those who had intervened. One migrant was hit in the eye; another fell to the ground, blood gushing from his head. The groups began pelting each other with shoes, buckets, shampoo bottles, and pieces of plasterboard. Candé told Soumahoro, “I’m not going to fight. I’m the hope of my entire family.”

The brawling lasted three and a half hours. Some migrants shouted for assistance, yelling, “Open the door!” Instead, the guards laughed and cheered, filming the fight with their phones through the grille. “Keep fighting,” one said, passing in water bottles to keep the brawlers hydrated. “If you can kill them, do it.”

But at 5.30am the guards left and came back with semi-automatic rifles. Without warning, they fired into the cell through the bathroom window for 10 minutes. “It sounded like a battlefield,” Soumahoro told me. Two teenagers from Guinea Conakry, Ismail Doumbouya and Ayouba Fofana, were hit in the leg. Candé, who had been hiding in the shower during the fight, was struck in the neck. He staggered along the wall, streaking blood, then fell to the ground. Soumahoro tried to slow the bleeding with a piece of cloth. Candé died within minutes.

Al Mabani Detention Center: Cell phone footage of detainees trying to help sick emaciated man

Ghreetly arrived several hours later and shouted at the guards, “What have you done? You can do anything to them, you just can’t kill them!” The migrants refused to hand over Candé’s body, and the panicked guards summoned Soumah, the collaborator, to negotiate. Eventually, the militia agreed to free the migrants in exchange for the body. Soumah told them, “I, Soumah, will open this door and you guys will get out. I will be in front of you, running with you until the exit.”

Just before 9am, guards took up positions near the gate, guns raised. Soumah opened the cell door and told the 300 migrants to follow him out of the prison, single file, without talking. Morning commuters slowed to gawk at the migrants as they left the compound and dispersed through the streets of Tripoli.

By my eighth day in Tripoli, my team and I were piecing together the details of Candé’s death. We had interviewed dozens of migrants, officials, and aid workers. I had the distinct impression that the hotel staff and our private security guards were reporting our movements to the authorities.

On Sunday, May 23, shortly before 8pm, I was sitting in my hotel room, on the phone with my wife, when someone knocked on the door. As I opened it, a dozen armed men burst in. One held a gun to my forehead and yelled, “Get on the floor!” They placed a hood over my head, kicked and punched me, and stepped on my face, leaving me with two broken ribs, blood in my urine, and damage to my kidneys. Then they dragged me from the room.

Whispered sexual threats

My research team was on their way to dinner near the hotel; their driver spotted cars following them and turned back. Several cars blocked the road, and armed men in masks leaped out. They took my team’s driver from the van and pistol-whipped him, then blindfolded my colleagues and drove them away. We were all taken to an interrogation room at a black site, where I was punched again in the head and ribs. Still hooded, I could hear the men menacing the others. “You are a dog!” one yelled at our photographer, Pierre Kattar, striking him across the face. They whispered sexual threats to the female member of our team, Mea Dols de Jong, a Dutch filmmaker, saying, “Do you want a Libyan boyfriend?” After a few hours, they removed our belts and jewellery and placed us in cells.

I’ve since discovered — by comparing satellite imagery with the little we glimpsed of the surrounding area — that we were held at a secret jail several hundred yards from the Italian Embassy. Our captors told us that they were part of the Libyan Intelligence Service, nominally an agency of the National Unity government, which also oversees Al Mabani, though it has ties to a militia called the Al-Nawasi Brigade. Our interrogators bragged that they had worked together under Gaddafi. One, who spoke conversational English, claimed that he had spent time in Colorado at a US government-run training programme for prison administration.

MSF Volunteers collect Covid-19 samples as migrants sit on the floor in masks.

Photo credit: Ed Ou/The Outlaw Ocean Project

I was placed in an isolation cell, which contained a toilet, a shower, a foam mattress, and a ceiling-mounted camera. Guards passed me yellow rice and bottles of water through a slot in the door. Every day, I was questioned in an interrogation room for hours at a time. “We know you work for the CIA.,” a man kept telling me. “Here in Libya, spying is punished by death.” Sometimes he put a gun on the table or pointed it at my head.

To my captors, the steps I had taken to safeguard my team became proof of my guilt. Why would we wear tracking devices and carry copies of our passports in our shoes? Why did I have two “secret recording devices” in my backpack (an Apple Watch and a GoPro), along with a packet of papers titled “Secret Document” (a list of emergency contacts that was actually labelled “Security Document”)?

The fact that I was a journalist was less a defence than a secondary crime. My captors told me that it was illegal to interview migrants about abuses at Al Mabani. “Why are you trying to embarrass Libya?” they asked. They repeatedly told me, “You people killed George Floyd.” Hoping to break out, I took apart some of the toilet’s plumbing and searched for a piece of metal to unscrew the bars on the window. I tapped on the wall of my cell and heard Kattar, the photographer, tap back, which I somehow found reassuring.

Satellite imagery on July 12, 2021 of Al-Nawasi militia site where Ian, the author, and team were held.

Photo credit: The Outlaw Ocean Project

My wife had overheard the beginning of my kidnapping and had alerted the State Department. Along with the Dutch foreign service, the agency began lobbying the National Unity government for our release. At one point, we were taken from our cells to record a “proof of life” video. Our jailers told me to wash the blood and dirt off my face, and we all sat around a table covered with sodas and pastries. “Smile,” they said, and instructed us to say to the camera that we were being treated humanely. “Talk. Look normal.”

Expelled from Libya

We were required to sign “confession” documents written in Arabic on the letterhead of the “Department for Combatting Hostile Activity,” and bearing the name of Major General Hussein Muhammad al-A’ib. When I asked what the documents said, our captors laughed. They kept our computers, phones, and cash, plus $30,000 worth of filming equipment and my wedding ring.

The experience — deeply frightening but mercifully short — offered a glimpse into the world of indefinite detention in Libya. I often thought of Candé’s months-long incarceration, and its terrible outcome. Soon afterward, my team and I were released from our cells and escorted toward the door. As we approached, an interrogator put his hand on my chest. “Guys, you can go,” he told the others on my team. “Ian will be staying here.” Everyone stared. Then he burst out laughing, and said he was just kidding. After a total of six days in captivity, we were taken to a plane and flown to Tunisia — expelled from Libya, we were told, for “reporting on migrants”.

After the detainees in Cell No. 4 were released, word of Candé’s death spread quickly through Tripoli, eventually reaching a community leader among migrants. The community leader (who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation in Libya) went with Balde, Candé’s great-uncle, to the police station, where they were given a copy of the autopsy report. It said that Candé’s name was unknown, and wrongly stated that he was from Guinea Conakry. The authorities suggested that he had died in a fight, which angered the community leader. “It wasn’t a fight,” he told me. “It was a bullet.”

Later, the pair went to the local hospital to identify Candé’s body; he was wheeled out on a metal gurney, wrapped in a gauzy white cloth partially undone to reveal his face. In the next several days, they travelled around Tripoli paying off Candé’s debts, all incurred after his death: $189 for the hospital stay, $19 for the white shroud and burial clothes, $222 for the coming burial.

Candé’s family learned of his death two days after it occurred. Samba, his father, told me that he could barely sleep or eat: “Sadness weighs heavily on me.” Hava had given birth to a daughter named Cadjato, who is now two, and told me that she would not remarry until she finished mourning. “My heart is broken,” she said. Jacaria had little hope that the police would arrest his brother’s killers. “So, he is gone,” he said. “Gone in every way.”

Aliou Candé's birth certificate from Guinea-Bissau.

Photo credit: Ricci Shryock/The Outlaw Ocean Project

Conditions on the farm have worsened, with heavy rainfall flooding the fields. Bobo, Candé’s youngest brother, will likely soon try to make the journey to Europe himself. “What else can I do?” he said.

Opened fire on prisoners

Ghreetly was suspended from Al Mabani after Candé’s death, but was later reinstated. For almost three months, Doctors Without Borders, which assists migrants in detention centres, refused to enter the prison; Beatrice Lau, its head of mission in Libya at the time, said, “The persistent pattern of violent incidents and serious harm to refugees and migrants, as well as the risk to the safety of our staff, has reached a level that we are no longer able to accept.”

Who is Aliou Candé?

It resumed its activities after receiving assurances that, among other things, officials would prevent further violence in the prison. But in October, Libyan authorities, including members of the militia that controls Al Mabani, rounded up more than 5,000 migrants in and around Gargaresh and sent many to the prison. Days later, guards opened fire on prisoners attempting to escape, killing at least six.

Drone stills shot over Al Mabani on May 18, 2021.

Photo credit: Pierre Kattar/The Outlaw Ocean Project

After Candé’s death, Sabadell, the EU ambassador, called for a formal investigation, but it appears never to have taken place. An EU spokesperson said, “The assurances from the Libyan authorities that these events will be investigated and that the appropriate judicial action will be carried out need to be translated into practice. Perpetrators must be held accountable. There can be no impunity for such crimes.”

Europe’s commitment to anti-migrant programmes in Libya remains unshaken. Last year, Italy renewed its memorandum of understanding with Libya. Since this past May, with support from the EU, Libya has spent at least $3.9 million on the Coast Guard. The European Commission recently committed to building the Coast Guard a new and improved “maritime rescue coordination centre” and to buying it three more ships.

On April 30, shortly after 5pm prayers, Balde and some 20 other men gathered at the Bir al-Osta Milad cemetery for Candé’s funeral. The cemetery occupies an eight-acre plot between an electrical substation and two large warehouses. Many of Libya’s dead migrants are buried there, and it has an estimated 10,000 graves, many of them unmarked.

The men prayed aloud as Candé’s body was lowered into a hole dug in sand, no more than a foot and a half deep. They topped it with rectangular stones and poured a layer of concrete. The men said, in unison, “God is great.” Then one of them, using a stick, scrawled Candé’s name into the wet concrete.

The Invisible Wall

Ian Urbina is the director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington DC that focuses on environmental and human rights concerns at sea globally