When the European Union began channeling millions of euros to Libya to curb the tide of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, the money came with EU promises to improve detention centers known for abuse and the fight against human trafficking .
That has not happened. In contrast, the misery of immigrants in Libya has generated a thriving and highly lucrative business network funded in part by the EU and enabled by the United Nations, according to an Associated Press investigation.
The EU has sent more than 327.9 million euros to Libya, with an additional 41 million approved in early December, largely channeled through UN agencies. The PA discovered that in a country without a functioning government, huge sums of European money have been diverted to intertwined networks of militiamen, traffickers and members of the coast guard who exploit migrants.
In some cases, UN officials knew that militia networks were getting the money, according to internal emails.
Militias torture, extort and abuse migrants to obtain bailouts in detention centers under the noses of the UN, often in complexes that receive millions in European money, the investigation showed.
Many migrants also simply disappear from detention centers, sold to traffickers or other centers.
The same militias conspire with some members of the Libyan coast guard units. The coast guard receives training and equipment from Europe to keep migrants away from their coasts. But members of the coast guard return some immigrants to detention centers under agreements with the militias, the AP found, and receive bribes to allow others to move to Europe.
Militias involved in abuse and trafficking also steal European funds granted through the UN to feed and help hungry migrants. For example, millions of euros in United Nations food contracts were negotiated with a company controlled by a militia leader, even when other United Nations teams warned of hunger in their detention center, according to emails obtained by the AP and interviews with at least half-dozen Libyan officials.
In many cases, the money goes to neighboring Tunisia to be laundered, and then returns to the militias in Libya.
Highly complex problem
The story of Prudence Aimee and her family shows how migrants are exploited at every stage of their trip through Libya.
Aimee left Cameroon in 2015, and when her family knew nothing about her for a year, they thought she was dead. But she was detained and incommunicado. In nine months at the Abu Salim detention center, he told AP he saw "milk from the European Union,quot; and diapers delivered by stolen UN personnel before they could reach migrant children, including their young son. Aimee would spend two days in a row without food or drink, he said.
In 2017, an Arab man came to look for her with a picture of her on his phone.
"They called my family and told them they had found me," he said. "That was when my family sent money." Crying, Aimee said her family paid a ransom equivalent to $ 670 to get her out of the center. She could not say who received the money.
She was transferred to an informal warehouse and finally sold to another detention center, where another rescue, $ 750 this time, had to be raised from her family. Her captors finally released the young mother, who boarded a boat that passed the coast guard patrol, after her husband paid $ 850 for the ticket.
A European humanitarian ship rescued Aimee, but her husband remains in Libya.
Aimee was one of the more than 50 migrants interviewed by the PA at sea, in Europe, Tunisia and Rwanda, and in furtive messages from inside the detention centers in Libya. Journalists also spoke with Libyan government officials, humanitarian workers and businessmen in Tripoli, obtained internal emails from the UN and analyzed budget documents and contracts.
The issue of migration has convulsed Europe since the influx in 2015 and 2016 of more than one million people fleeing violence and poverty in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa. In 2015, the European Union created a fund to curb migration from Africa, from which money is sent to Libya. The EU donates the money mainly through the United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
But Libya is plagued with corruption and trapped in a civil war. The west of the country, including the capital, Tripoli, is ruled by a UN government, while the east is ruled by another government supported by the army commander Khalifa Haftar. Chaos is ideal for speculators who make money with migrants.
The EU documents themselves show that he was aware of the dangers of effectively outsourcing his migration crisis to Libya. Budget documents since 2017 for a disbursement of 90 million euros warned of a medium to high risk that Europe's support would lead to more human rights violations against migrants, and that the Libyan government would deny access to the centers of detention.
A recent EU assessment found that the world could have the "misperception,quot; that European money could be seen as a support for abuse.
If he treated dogs in Europe the way these people are treated, it would be considered a social problem.
Julien Raickman, former head of the Libyan mission with MSF
Despite the roles they play in the detention system in Libya, both the EU and the UN say they want the centers closed. In a statement to the PA, the EU said that under international law, it is not responsible for what happens inside the centers.
"Libyan authorities must provide refugees and migrant detainees with adequate and quality food while ensuring that conditions in detention centers comply with agreed international standards," the statement said.
The EU also says that more than half of the money in its fund for Africa is used to help and protect migrants, and that it is up to the UN to spend the money wisely.
The UN said that the situation in Libya was very complex and that it has to work with who runs the detention centers to preserve access to vulnerable migrants.
"UNHCR does not choose its counterparts," said Charlie Yaxley, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency. "Presumably, some also have loyalties to local militias."
After two weeks of being questioned by the AP, UNHCR said it would change its policy for awarding food and aid contracts for migrants through intermediaries.
"Due in part to the escalation of the conflict in Tripoli and the possible risk to the integrity of the UNHCR program, UNHCR decided to contract these services directly as of January 1, 2020," said Yaxley.
Julien Raickman, who until recently was the Libyan head of mission for the Medical Without Borders aid group, known by its French initials MSF, believes that the problem begins with Europe's unwillingness to deal with migration policies.
"If dogs were treated in Europe the way these people are treated, it would be considered a social problem," he said.
Extortion inside detention centers.
Around 5,000 migrants in Libya huddle in between 16 and 23 detention centers at any given time, depending on who counts and when. The majority is concentrated in the west, where militias are more powerful than the weak UN-backed government.
Aid for migrants helps support the Nasr Martyrs detention center, named for the militia that controls it, in the western coastal city of Zawiya. The UN migration agency, IOM, maintains a temporary office there for the medical checks of migrants, and its staff and the UNHCR staff visit the complex regularly.
However, migrants in the center are tortured so that the bailouts are released and trafficked for more money, only to be intercepted at sea by the coast guard and taken back to the center, according to more than a dozen migrants, workers from Libyan aid, Libyan officials and European human rights groups.
A UNHCR report at the end of 2018 also pointed out the accusations, and militia chief Mohammed Kachlaf is under UN sanctions for trafficking in persons. Kachlaf, other militia leaders appointed by the AP and the Libyan coast guard did not respond to requests for comment.
Many migrants recalled being cut, shot and flogged with electrified hoses and wooden boards. They also heard the screams of others coming out of the cell blocks out of reach of UN humanitarian workers.
Families who are at home should listen during torture to pay, or then send them videos.
Eric Boakye, a Ghanaian, was locked in the center of the Martyrs of Nasr twice, both times after being intercepted at sea, most recently about three years ago.
The first time, his jailers simply took the money and released him. He tried to cross again and was picked up again by the coast guard and returned to his jailers.
"They cut me with a knife in the back and beat me with sticks," he said, lifting his shirt to show the scars that covered his back. "Every day they hit us to call our family and send money." The new price for freedom: about $ 2,000.
That was more than his family could gather. Boakye finally managed to escape. He worked in small jobs for some time to save money, then tried to cross again. On his fourth attempt, he was picked up by the Ocean Viking humanitarian ship to be taken to Italy. In total, Boakye had paid $ 4,300 to leave Libya.
Fathi al-Far, head of the international aid and development agency of al-Nasr, which operates in the center and has links with the militia, denied that migrants are mistreated. He blamed the "wrong information,quot; on migrants who blew things out of proportion in an attempt to obtain asylum.
"I do not say that it is paradise: we have people who have never worked with migrants before, they are not trained," he said. But he called the al-Nasr Martyrs detention center "the most beautiful in the country."
At least five former detainees showed an AP journalist scars of their wounds in the center, which they said were inflicted by guards or rescue applicants demanding their families. One man had gunshot wounds on both feet, and another had cuts on his back by a sharp blade.
I don't want to remember what happened.
Former guard in a Libyan detention center
Everyone said they had to pay to leave. Five to seven people are released every day after paying between $ 1,800 and $ 8,500 each, the former migrants said. In al-Nasr, they said, the militia receives about $ 14,000 every day of bailouts; In Tarek al-Sikka, a detention center in Tripoli, they were closer to $ 17,000 per day, they said.
They based their estimates on what they and other detainees with them had paid, gathering money from family and friends.
Militias also make money selling migrant groups, which often simply disappear from a center. An analysis commissioned by the EU and published earlier this month by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime indicated that detention centers make a profit by selling migrants to each other and to traffickers, as well as prostitution and forced labor.
Hundreds of migrants this year who were intercepted at sea and taken to detention centers had disappeared by the time international aid groups visited, according to MSF. There is no way to know where they went, but MSF suspects they were sold to another detention center or to traffickers.
A former Khoms center guard acknowledged to the PA that migrants were often captured in large numbers by men armed with anti-aircraft weapons and role-playing games. He said he could not prevent his colleagues from abusing migrants or being trafficked from the center.
"I don't want to remember what happened," he said. IOM was present in Khoms, he said, but the center closed last year.
A man who is being held in the center of Martyrs of al-Nasr said that Libyans arrive frequently in the middle of the night to take people. Twice this fall, he said, they tried to load a group of women mostly in a small convoy of vehicles, but failed because the center detainees rebelled.
The fighting involved Zawiya last week, but migrants remained locked inside the Nasr Martyrs center, which is also being used to store weapons.
Traffic and interception at sea
Even when migrants pay to be released from detention centers, they are rarely free. Instead, the militias sell them to traffickers, who promise to take them across the Mediterranean to Europe for an additional fee.
The AP found that these traffickers work hand in hand with some members of the coast guard.
The Libyan coast guard has the support of both the UN and the EU. IOM, the United Nations agency for migration, highlights its cooperation with the coast guard on its homepage in Libya. Europe has spent more than 90 million euros since 2017 on training and faster boats for the Libyan coast guard to prevent migrants from ending up in Europe.
This fall, Italy renewed a memorandum of understanding with Libya to support the coast guard with training and boats, and delivered 10 new speedboats to Libya in November.
In internal documents obtained by the European Statewatch in September, the European Council described the coast guard as "operating effectively, thus confirming the process achieved in the last three years."
The Libyan coast guard says it intercepted almost 9,000 people in 2019 en route to Europe and returned them to Libya this year, after silently extending its coastal rescue zone 100 miles offshore with the European stimulus.
What is not clear is how often the militias paid the coast guard to intercept these people and take them back to the detention centers, the business that more than a dozen migrants described at al-Nasr Martyrs facilities in Zawiya.
The coast guard unit in Zawiya is headed by Abdel-Rahman Milad, who has sanctions against him for trafficking in persons by the UN Security Council. However, when their men intercept ships carrying migrants, they contact UN personnel at the landing points to carry out superficial medical checks.
Despite the sanctions and an arrest warrant against him, Milad remains free because he has the support of the al-Nasr militia. In 2017, before the sanctions, Milad was even transferred by plane to Rome, along with a militia leader, Mohammed al-Khoja, as part of a Libyan delegation for a UN-sponsored migration meeting.
In response to the sanctions, Milad denied any link to human trafficking and said that traffickers wear uniforms similar to those of their men.
Migrants named at least two other operations along the coast, in Zuwara and Tripoli, which they said operated on the same line as Milad's. None of the centers responded to requests for comments.
IOM, the UN migration agency, recognized the PA that it has to work with partners that could have contacts with local militias.
"Without those contacts, it would be impossible to operate in those areas and for IOM to provide support services to migrants and the local population," said Safa Msehli, a spokesman for the UN International Organization for Migration.
"Failure to provide that support would have aggravated the misery of hundreds of men, women and children."
The story of Abdullah, a Sudanese man who made two attempts to flee Libya, shows how lucrative the traffic and interception cycle really is.
In total, the group of 47 on their first crossing from Tripoli over a year ago had paid a uniformed Libyan and his buddies $ 127,000 in a combination of Libyan dollars, euros and dinars for the opportunity to leave their detention center and cross In two boats.
They were intercepted in a boat of the coast guard by the same uniformed Libyan, shaken by their cell phones and more money, and thrown back into detention.
"We talked to him and asked him, why did you let us out and then arrest us?" said Abdullah, who asked that only his first name be used because he feared reprisals. "He beat two of us who mentioned him."
Subsequently, Abdullah ended up at the Nasr Martyrs Detention Center, where he learned the new price list for the release and a nationality-based crossing attempt: Ethiopians, $ 5,000; Somalis $ 6,800; Moroccans and Egyptians, $ 8,100; and finally the Bangladeshis, a minimum of $ 18,500. In general, women pay more.
Abdullah collected another ransom payment and another crossing fee. Last July, he and 18 others paid a total of $ 48,000 for a boat with an engine that was malfunctioning and stopped within hours.
After a few days trapped in the sea off the coast of Libya under a suffocating sun, they threw a dead man overboard and waited for their own lives to end. Instead, they were rescued on their ninth day at sea by Tunisian fishermen, who took them back to Tunisia.
"There are only three ways out of prison: you escape, you pay a ransom or you die," Abdullah said, referring to the detention center.
In total, Abdullah spent a total of $ 3,300 to leave the Libyan detention centers and sail to the sea. It ended just 160 km (100 miles) away.
Sometimes, members of the coast guard make money doing exactly what the EU wants them to avoid: letting migrants cross, according to Tarik Lamloum, the head of the Libyan human rights organization, Beladi. Traffickers pay the coast guard a bribe of around $ 10,000 per boat that can pass, with around five to six ships launched at a time when conditions are favorable, he said.
The head of the Department for the Fight against Irregular Migration of Libya or DCIM, the agency responsible for the detention centers under the Ministry of Interior, recognized corruption and collusion between militias and the coast guard and traffickers, and even within the own government.
"They are in bed with them, as well as with people from my own agency," said Al Mabrouk Abdel-Hafez.
Beyond the direct abuse of migrants, the militia network also benefits from diverting money from EU funds sent for food and security, including those destined for a migrant center run by the UN, according to more than a dozen of officials and aid workers in Libya and Tunisia. , as well as internal UN emails and minutes of meetings seen by The Associated Press.
An audit in May of UNHCR, the UN refugee agency responsible for the center, found a lack of supervision and accountability at almost all levels of spending on the Libyan mission. The audit identified unexplained payments in US dollars to Libyan companies and deliveries of goods that were never verified.
In December 2018, during the period reviewed in the audit, the UN launched its migrant center in Tripoli, known as the Meeting and Exit Center or FGD, as an "alternative to detention." For the recipients of the service contracts, sent through the Libyan government agency Libaid, it was an unexpected gain.
Millions of euros in food and aid contracts for migrants went to at least one company linked to al-Khoja, the militia leader who traveled to Rome for the UN migration meeting, according to UN internal emails seen by the AP, two senior Libyan officials and an international aid worker.
Al-Khoja is also the deputy director of the DCIM, the government agency responsible for the detention centers.
One of the Libyan officials saw the billionaire restoration contract with a company called Ard al-Watan, or The Land of the Nation, which al-Khoja controls.
"We feel that this is al-Khoja's fief. He controls everything. Close the doors and open them," said the official, a former UN center employee who, like other Libyan officials, spoke anonymously for fear of his safety . . He said al-Khoja used sections of the UN center to train his militia fighters and built a luxury department inside.
Even while negotiating contracts for the UN center, Libyan officials said, three Libyan government agencies, including the prosecutor's office, were investigating al-Khoja in connection with the disappearance of $ 570 million of government spending allocated to feed Migrants in detention centers in the West.
At that time, al-Khoja was already running another center for migrants, Tarik al-Sikka, known for abuses that include beatings, forced labor and a massive rescue scheme.
Tekila, an Eritrean refugee, said that for two years in Tarik al-Sikka, he and other migrants lived with macaroni, even after being among the 25 people who contracted tuberculosis, a disease exacerbated by malnutrition. Tekila asked that only her first name be used for her safety.
"When there is little food, there is no choice but to go to sleep," he said.
Despite internal UN emails warning about severe malnutrition within Tarik al-Sikka, UN officials in February and March 2018 repeatedly visited the detention center to negotiate the future opening of the GDF.
AP received emails confirming that by July 2018, the UNHCR mission head was notified that companies controlled by al-Khoja militia would receive subcontracts for services.
Yaxley, the UNHCR spokesman, stressed that the officials with whom the UN refugee agency works are "all under the authority of the Ministry of Interior."
He said UNHCR monitors expenditures to ensure that its standard rules are followed and that, otherwise, it can withhold payments.
A senior LibAid official, the Libyan government agency that managed the center with the UN, said the contracts are worth at least $ 7 million for restoration, cleaning and security, and 30 of 65 LibAid employees were essentially employed ghosts that showed up on the payroll, invisible view.
The UN center was "a treasure,quot;, lamented the senior official of Libaid. "There was no way you could operate while you were surrounded by Tripoli militias. It was a great bet."
An internal UN communication from early 2019 shows that he was aware of the problem. The note found a high risk that food for the UN center would be diverted to the militias, given the amount budgeted compared to the amount immigrants were eating.
In general, about 50 dinars per day, or $ 35, per person detained for food and other essential items for all centers are budgeted, according to two Libyan officials, two owners of catering companies and an international aid worker.
Of that, only about 2 dinars are actually spent on meals, according to their approximate calculations and migrant descriptions.
Yaxley, the UNHCR spokesman, said the UN refugee agency monitors expenditures to ensure that its standard standards are met and that it can otherwise withhold payments. He also stressed that the officials with whom UNHCR works are "all under the authority of the Ministry of Interior."
Despite investigations into al-Khoja, Tarik al-Sikka and another detention center shared a grant of 996,000 euros from the EU and Italy in February.
In central Zawiya, emergency supplies delivered by UN agencies ended up redistributing "half to the prisoners, half to the workers," said Orobosa Bright, a Nigerian who endured three periods there for a total of 11 months.
Many of the products also end up in the black market of Libya, say Libyan officials and international humanitarian workers.
The IOM spokeswoman said "aid diversion is a reality,quot; in Libya and beyond, and that the UN agency is doing everything possible.
"If it became a regular occurrence, IOM would be forced to reassess the support it is providing to migrants in detention centers under DCIM even though we are aware that any reduction in this vital assistance will save the misery of migrants, "said Msehli.
All in all, Libya is led by militias … Whatever governments say, and whatever uniforms they wear, or stickers they wear … this is the end result.
Senior Libyan judicial officer
Despite corruption, the detention system in Libya is still expanding in some places, with money from Europe.
At a detention center in Sabaa, where migrants are already hungry, they were forced to build another wing financed by the Italian government, said Lamloum, the Libyan aid worker. The Italian government did not respond to a request for comment. Lamloum sent a photo of the new prison. It has no windows.
The money obtained from the suffering of migrants is laundered in money laundering operations in Tunisia, the neighbor of Libya.
In the city of Ben Gardane, dozens of money exchange stations transform Libyan dinars, dollars and euros into Tunisian currency before the money continues on its way to the capital, Tunisia. Even Libyans without residence can open a bank account.
Tunisia also offers another opportunity for militia networks to earn money with European funds for migrants. Due to the dysfunctional banking system in Libya, where cash is scarce and the militias control the accounts, international organizations grant contracts, usually in dollars, to Libyan organizations with bank accounts in Tunisia.
Sellers combine the money in the black market exchange of Libya, which ranges between four and nine times higher than the official rate.
The Libyan government handed over 100 files to Tunisia earlier this year that list the companies under investigation for fraud and money laundering.
According to Nadia Saadi, manager of the anti-corruption authority in Tunisia, companies greatly involve warlords and militia politicians. Laundering involves cash payments for real estate, forged customs documents and false invoices for fictitious companies.
"In general, Libya is led by militias," said a senior Libyan judicial official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of risking his life. "Whatever the governments and the uniform they wear, or the stickers they put on … this is the end result."
Husni Bey, a leading businessman in Libya, said the idea that Europe would send aid money to Libya, a once rich country that suffered from corruption, was misconceived from the beginning.
"Europe wants to buy from those who can stop smuggling with all these programs," said Bey. "It would be much better to blacklist the names of those involved in human trafficking, fuel and drug trafficking and accuse them of crimes, rather than giving them money."