By Sally Hayden

The European Union is funding the Libyan coast guard to keep migrants out of Europe and detain them in a failed state—and that leaves them at the mercy of militias and human traffickers.


Over three days last October, Fatima Ausman Darboe watched her 7-year-old son dying from appendicitis. His stomach swelled, and he writhed in pain. She held him as his condition deteriorated. Most other mothers could have brought their child to a hospital, but Darboe was locked up inside a detention center in the Libyan desert. Instead, she called for guards to help. She begged, she pleaded, and her appeals were ignored.

Her little boy died in a car. The Zintan detention center’s manager had finally taken pity on them and drove the child toward a hospital himself.

The International Medical Corps, the organization supposed to be providing life-saving care in the detention center, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM)—the United Nations agencies meant to be providing some additional assistance—were nowhere to be found. 

UNHCR declined to comment on this case, while the International Medical Corps did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In a written statement to Foreign Policy, IOM said the death was a “stark reminder of the terrible conditions migrants are forced to endure in detention centers” and that it had suspended health assistance in Z20intan between October 2018 and this January “due to access issues with the management.”

The local Libyan community in Zintan, where Darboe was being held, refused to allow the burial of non-Muslim detainees, but her family was Muslim. Despite this, her son wasn’t laid to rest for a month.

Darboe and her husband originally came from the West African nation of Gambia, a small sliver of a country surrounded by Senegal, but they had lived in Libya for years.

It was only when her husband’s health deteriorated that they tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe, in the hope of finding better medical care.

Instead, like tens of thousands of others, they were caught and locked up in indefinite detention, in a system decried by former U.N. Human Rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein as “an outrage to the conscience of humanity.”

Weeks after Darboe’s son was buried, her husband died, too, seemingly from a stroke triggered by the shock of losing their child.

Darboe, who was locked in a separate women’s hall, never got to say goodbye, though she begged to see her husband in the hours before his death. When she found out he was gone, Darboe said, she went into extreme shock.

I could not talk, I could not do anything. … All my body was just shaking,” she told Foreign Policy. 

Their deaths were not the only ones. Refugees and migrants in Libyan detention centers began contacting me in August 2018, after they were told about my reporting by people I had interviewed in Sudan the previous year.

Since then, I’ve spoken to dozens of detainees in many different centers, who use hidden phones to send information about what’s happening to them. I have repeatedly confirmed their allegations with many other sources.

I began to email both UNHCR and IOM about the mounting number of deaths in Zintan in October 2018, shortly after the U.N. was involved in moving hundreds of migrants and refugees there from Tripoli, Libya’s capital.

It was only seven months later, when 22 detainees had died from a lack of medical care and abysmal conditions, that the U.N. finally spoke out about what was happening in Zintan and called for the detainees to be moved again. (When approached for comment, IOM said publicly sharing unconfirmed reports of events the organization did not witness could threaten the safety of migrants in detention. U.N. staff have previously confirmed to Foreign Policy that no organization is keeping track of the number of detainees dying across Libya’s network of detention centers.) As of this writing, hundreds remain locked up in Zintan.

This is just one of a seemingly endless series of scandals across a network of detention centers ostensibly run by the Libyan Department for Combating Illegal Migration, which is associated with the U.N.-backed, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). In reality, many of the detention centers are controlled by militias. 

Tens of thousands of refugees and migrants have been locked up indefinitely in Libyan detention centers over the past two and a half years, after they were intercepted by the Libyan coast guard trying to reach Italy across the Mediterranean Sea. Since 2017, the Libyan coast guard has been supported with equipment and training worth tens of millions of dollars by the European Union.

This money comes from the Trust Fund for Africa—a multibillion-dollar fund created at the height of the so-called migration crisis, with the aim of preventing migration to Europe by increasing border controls and funding projects in 26 African countries. 

The EU’s deal with Libya—a country without a stable government where conflict is raging—has been repeatedly condemned by human rights organizations. 

They say the EU is supporting the coast guard with the aim of circumventing the international law principle of non-refoulement, which would prohibit European ships from returning asylum-seekers and refugees to a country where they could face persecution.

Inside Libya’s detention centers, thousands of refugees and migrants are deprived of food, sunlight, and water, and many become victims of sexual exploitation and assault, forced labor, and even torture or slaying. 

In January, dozens of migrants and refugees were sold directly to human traffickers from the Souq al-Khamis detention center in Khoms, soon after they were delivered there by the Libyan coast guard.

In January, dozens of migrants and refugees were sold directly to human traffickers from the Souq al-Khamis detention center in Khoms, soon after they were delivered there by the Libyan coast guard.

The following month, 22 detainees were taken to an underground room and tortured following a protest in the Triq al-Sikka detention center, the unofficial Department for Combating Illegal Migration headquarters, located directly across the road from UNHCR’s new gathering and departure facility.

Though they were aware of what was happening, IOM and UNHCR officials failed to properly advocate for the victims, according to aid officials and people who have worked with the U.N. who were familiar with the situation.

An IOM spokesperson said IOM repeatedly called for the group to be released and for its staff to be granted access to them.

Fresh in the mind of detainees who organized the Triq al-Sikka protest were the weeks hundreds of detainees had spent locked up inside a hall without proper ventilation or any tuberculosis medication, meaning those with the disease passed it on to others.

And there was the October 2018 death of a Somali detainee, who set himself on fire in that detention center after telling friends he felt hopeless about his chances of being evacuated to a safe country.

Since the latest conflict began in Tripoli in April, after eastern Gen. Khalifa Haftar ordered his self-styled Libyan National Army to advance on the capital, refugees and migrants say their lives have become even worse.

Detainees in five detention centers told Foreign Policy they have been forced to assist GNA-associated militias by loading or moving weapons, cleaning military bases on the front lines, and even—in a few cases—fighting with guns.

In July, at least 53 detainees were killed in the Tajoura detention center, in eastern Tripoli, when a bomb dropped by Haftar’s forces directly hit the hall they were locked in, close to a weapons store.

Survivors accused the GNA government of using them as “human shields.”

In extensive interviews with Foreign Policy, seven aid officials who currently work in Libya or have worked there in the last two years accuse U.N. agencies of ignoring or downplaying systemic abuse and exploitation in migrant detention centers in order to safeguard tens of millions of dollars of funding from the EU.

(Since 2016, an EU spokesperson said nearly 88 million euros—$96 million—from the Trust Fund for Africa has gone to IOM in Libya, and 47 million euros—$52 million—to UNHCR.)

They say the EU, in turn, is using U.N. agencies to sanitize a brutal system of abuse that its policies are funneling tens of thousands of vulnerable people directly into. 

All of these officials wished to stay anonymous for fear of professional repercussions. They all said while UNHCR and IOM do some important work, they are actively involved in whitewashing the devastating and horrific impacts of hardening European Union policy aimed at keeping refugees and migrants out of Europe.

They are constantly watering down the problems that are happening in the detention centers,” said one aid official. “They are encouraging the situation to continue. … They are paid by the EU to do [the EU’s] fucking job.”

When asked about the European Union’s role in facilitating the exploitation, torture, and abuse of thousands of refugees and migrants in Libya, EU spokespeople regularly point to the presence of the U.N. in detention centers, saying the EU is trying to improve conditions through these means and would like the centers closed.

The EU is working with UN Agencies to provide protection and assistance to vulnerable migrants and refugees in most of the official detention centers in Libya, but also at disembarkation points and in host communities,” an EU spokesperson told Foreign Policy in an email.

We, together with the IOM and UNHCR, are providing life-saving assistance to vulnerable people held in detention centers while urging the Libyan authorities to close detention centers and replace them with reception centers that meet international humanitarian standards.”

Detainees in five detention centers told Foreign Policy they have been forced to assist GNA-associated militias by loading or moving weapons, cleaning military bases on the front lines, and even—in a few cases—fighting with guns.


Sally Hayden is a freelance journalist focused on migration, human rights, and humanitarian crises. She has written for Al Jazeera, the Irish TimesTime, the Washington PostNewsweek, and others.



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