EU cooperation with Libya on migrants marred by ‘inhumane’ treatment

Ayman Al-Sahili/Reuters
Migrants on a rubber dinghy are being rescued by the Libyan coast guard in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Libya, Oct. 18, 2021. They were returned to Libya, where militia groups run prisons where migrants are subject to inhumane treatment. The detention centers are funded partly by indirect support from the European Union.
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For several years, Europe has been convulsed by the issue of migration, which has become a fiercely contentious subject of debate. And rather than reform its outdated and unworkable rules, which would be very politically sensitive, the European Union has outsourced migration control to countries beyond its frontiers.

It is also relying more and more on the EU border agency, Frontex.

Why We Wrote This

Europe’s border force works hand in glove with the Libyan coast guard to stop migrants crossing the Mediterranean. Two new court cases will test whether Frontex officers also broke the law.

Those two trends mean that Frontex now often works hand in glove with the Libyan coast guard to prevent migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea. And EU money helps pay for the prisons those migrants are sent to, where they face “acts of murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts,” in the words of a recent United Nations-sponsored fact-finding mission.

Closer to home, Frontex officers are accused of violating international law by pushing asylum-seekers back across EU borders, allegations that are now being tested in two European court cases. Says the lawyer bringing one of those cases, Lisa-Marie Komp, “It is especially important that Frontex not only help member states to control their borders, but that it also complies with fundamental rights.”

Around 5 p.m. on Feb. 4, roughly 70 miles north of Libya, a white reconnaissance plane with a camera on its underside circled a dinghy carrying a hundred desperate migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe. The surveillance footage from the airplane’s camera was transmitted live to an office in Warsaw, Poland, at the headquarters of Frontex, which is the European Union’s border patrol agency.

Two hours later, thanks to this surveillance footage, a Libyan coast guard cutter caught up with the migrants and ordered them to stop, even though they were well outside Libyan waters. According to several migrants who survived the experience, the armed officers then took the migrants on board, beat them savagely, and carried them back to the one place they did not want to go: Libya’s lawless gulag of detention centers.

It is efficient and brutal. The at-sea capture and on-land internment of these migrants is what European Union officials hail as part of a successful partnership with Libya in their “humanitarian rescue” efforts across the Mediterranean. However, the true intent of this joint campaign seems to be less to save migrants from drowning than to stop them from reaching European shores.

Why We Wrote This

Europe’s border force works hand in glove with the Libyan coast guard to stop migrants crossing the Mediterranean. Two new court cases will test whether Frontex officers also broke the law.

Since more than a million migrants and refugees poured into Europe in 2015, sparking a fierce debate about whether they should be welcomed or turned back, the continent has been convulsed by the issue of migration, which has become a contentious and acutely sensitive political pressure point. European Union rules governing migrants are outdated and unworkable, but the EU has been reluctant to reform them for fear of stirring up divisions amongst member states and xenophobic extremism in their electorates.

Ed Ou/The Outlaw Ocean Project
A view of the Geo Barents, a rescue vessel operated by Doctors Without Borders off the coast of Libya on June 6, 2021. ​According to evidence gathered by journalists and NGOs, the E​uropean Union​ border agency ​relies on collaboration with the Libyan coast guard to keep ​many​ migrants from European shores. ​Meanwhile, a​mid the​ ongoing pandemic​, humanitarian ships have slowly begun resuming their operations.

Instead, the bloc has attempted to outsource migration control measures to countries beyond its borders. It has sent billions of dollars to African governments to help them improve economic conditions and thus dampen the impetus to migrate that their citizens feel. But tens of millions of those dollars have gone to law enforcement and efforts in countries such as Niger to block migrants’ path well before they reach Libya.

Closer to home, Frontex officers themselves have been accused of illegally pushing asylum-seekers out of Greece and back into Turkey – allegations now being tested in two landmark cases before the European Court of Justice.

Since the migrant crisis started six years ago, European officials have relied heavily on the Libyans to stem the flow from their coastline across the Mediterranean Sea. The EU has not only equipped and trained the Libyan coast guard, but also lobbied the United Nations  maritime organization to recognize an enlarged search-and-rescue zone so that the Libyans could have wider reach off their coast.

The EU, led by Italy, uses the Libyan coast guard as a proxy maritime force. Flying drones and airplanes over the Mediterranean, Frontex locates migrant boats, then alerts the Italians, who, in turn, inform the Libyan authorities. Once captured by the Libyan coast guard, tens of thousands of these migrants have been delivered into a dozen or so detention centers run by militias.

The result of this collaboration has been a precipitous drop in the number of people reaching Europe from Libya. Around 20,000 migrants arrived in the first six months of this year via the Central Mediterranean route, down from 70,000 during the same period in 2016.

Ed Ou/The Outlaw Ocean Project
Migrants from Bangladesh and Ethiopia, rescued in the Mediterranean. Around 20,000 migrants reached Europe from the Libyan coast in the first six months of this year, down from 70,000 five years ago, partly as a result of cooperation between the European border force and the Libyan coast guard.

Though the Libyan coast guard routinely opens fire on migrant boats and senior members of the force work hand in hand with the militias that run the detention camps – one coast guard commander is subject to United Nations sanctions for human trafficking – it continues to enjoy strong EU support. This fall, the EU shipped four new speedboats to the Libyan coast guard so that it could more effectively capture migrants and send them to detention centers where they are routinely beaten, starved, and enslaved.

Growing evidence of collaboration with Libya

Frontex has long denied direct cooperation with Libya, which since NATO allies deposed President Muammar Qaddafi in 2001 has been a failed state largely run by militias. The agency insists that its sole aim is to save lives, and a spokesperson said that it only directly alerts Libyan authorities to migrant boats in true emergencies.

“International law obliges all vessels to provide assistance to any persons found in distress,” the spokesperson said in an interview. Frontex “has never engaged in any direct cooperation with Libyan authorities.”

But a mounting body of evidence collected by European journalists and nongovernmental organizations suggests otherwise.

Last year, for instance, Lighthouse Reports, a Dutch nonprofit journalism organization, documented 20 instances in which Frontex aircraft were in the vicinity of migrant boats later captured by the Libyan coast guard. In a dozen of those cases, Lighthouse determined, Frontex was the first to identify the boats, meaning that under international law, it was obliged to notify not just the Libyan coast guard, but the nearest vessel – official or commercial – so that a rescue might be promptly undertaken.

“There is a clear pattern discernible,” Lighthouse researchers asserted. “Boats in distress are spotted; communications take place between European actors and the Libyan coast guard. No notice is given to nearby commercial shipping or NGO vessels despite their proximity to urgent situations where boats are in distress on the open sea.

Ed Ou/The Outlaw Ocean Project
Migrants rescued off the coast of Libya who tested positive for COVID-19 are isolated aboard the Geo Barents, a rescue vessel operated by Doctors Without Borders, before being offloaded to a hospital in Augusta, Italy, on June 19, 2021.

“While the real numbers could be far higher, this representative sample showed that Frontex was present and watching while at least 91 people went missing and are presumed to have drowned.”

That same year, The Guardian, in collaboration with Lighthouse, published the actual recorded exchanges between a European surveillance plane and the Libyan coast guard as the Libyans sought to intercept two migrant boats.

“OK sir, my radar is not good, is not good, if you stay [over the boat] I will follow you,” a Libyan coast guard captain radioed the plane.

“We have approximately five minutes left on station,” said the plane’s pilot, as he tried to guide the coast guard to the migrant vessels. “We will go overhead the vessel, the rubber boat, and we will light our landing lights.”

Hussein Baoumi, Amnesty International’s Libya researcher, said he was not surprised by Frontex’s continuing denial of a formal relationship with the Libyan coast guard. “They want to separate themselves from the dirtiest aspects of migrant containment,” Mr. Baoumi said. “It doesn’t matter. They are cooperating. They are directly complicit.”

Behind the migrant prisons, EU money

The EU has also denied directly funding the militia-run gulag of migrant prisons in Libya, and has consistently both acknowledged their barbarity and called for improvements. But it has resisted calls to end its work with Libya and take steps to rescue those caught up in the country’s web of migrant jails.

Moreover, if the EU does not pay to build the detention centers or staff their guard posts, European money does pay for much else in the system, The Outlaw Ocean Project and The New Yorker found in an 11-month investigation based on financial reports; interviews with European parliamentarians, UN officials, and aid workers; EU purchasing documents; an open-records request to Frontex and the European Commission; flight-tracking data; and open-source platforms including Facebook and Instagram.

That makes the EU intimately involved in a system where a UN-sponsored independent fact-finding mission discovered that “acts of murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts committed against migrants … may amount to crimes against humanity,” according to its report, released in October.

Pierre Kattar/The Outlaw Ocean Project
A drone photograph of the Al Mabani detention center in Tripoli, Libya, where militia members hold would-be migrants prisoner. A UN-sponsored report recently found that “acts of murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts committed against migrants [in such prisons] ... may amount to crimes against humanity.”

The EU’s Frontex drones and planes are often the first to spot the migrant boats. Then EU-purchased Libyan coast guard cutters capture the migrants and bring them back to shore.

European funds pay for much of what happens next, the investigation found by scouring public databases. They have bought shipping containers that double as coast guard port offices, touch-screen tablets used by aid workers who count migrants as they disembark, and ambulances and buses to transport migrants.

They have paid for blankets, mattresses, winter clothes, showers, toilets, and even toilet paper in the migrant prisons. And when migrants die, at sea or in detention, EU money has paid for body bags.

“Violations documented against refugees and migrants are not an accident, but rather the clear and anticipated outcomes of an EU-supported system of interception, disembarkation and return to detention centers notorious for abuse, built with the aim of keeping refugees and migrants out of Europe at all costs,” charged a report by Amnesty International in July.

As the tip of the spear, Frontex is coming under closer scrutiny. 

A recent investigation carried out by the European Parliament produced a litany of allegations against the agency: that it turned a blind eye to human rights violations committed by coast guard personnel from both European countries and partner countries in Africa; that its own internal system for receiving and acting on complaints of misconduct had failed; and that the agency’s head, Fabrice Leggeri, had done nothing to act on four years of warnings from his agency’s own top human rights official.

Presented with the findings in this investigation, Mr. Leggeri’s office refused repeated requests for an interview.

Border agency faces European justice

This year, two landmark cases against Frontex are being brought by migrants before the Court of Justice of the European Union, the EU’s chief judicial authority.  

One of them, filed in October, alleges that a Syrian family, with four young children between the ages of 1 and 7, was tricked by European and Greek officials into boarding a plane that deported them from Greece to Turkey, after the family had lodged asylum applications. Frontex officials accompanied the family, it is claimed, and stood by while the children were separated from their parents for the flight. 

It took Frontex officials more than three and a half years to handle the complaint lodged by the family, according to Lisa-Marie Komp, their lawyer. In the end, the agency claimed that the Greek coast guard, not Frontex, was responsible for the “pushback,” which would be a violation of EU asylum law.

Ed Ou/The Outlaw Ocean Project
Doctors give instructions to migrants aboard the Geo Barents, a rescue vessel operated by Doctors Without Borders, on June 17, 2021. The humanitarian organization competes in the search for migrants at sea with the Libyan coast guard, which sends them back to militia-run detention centers in Libya.

“Frontex has repeatedly failed to take effective action when allegations of human rights violations are brought to its attention,” said Eva Cossé, Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Its rapid growth into an executive agency of the EU with increased powers, funding, and legal responsibilities makes it all the more urgent for Frontex to put in place effective tools to safeguard fundamental rights.”

Existing tools appear inadequate. Since Frontex set up an independent complaints mechanism in 2016, it has not dealt with a single complaint against Frontex staff members, an EU ombudsperson report found in June.

Created in 2004, Frontex now has an annual budget of 543 million euros (about $619 million) and it employs more than 1,400 staff members, including a uniformed force of roughly 600 officers. The agency is governed by a management board consisting of representatives of the 27 EU member states and two members of the European Commission.

In an analysis of the history of Frontex’s work, Human Rights Watch noted that under its own bylaws, the agency has the power to suspend or end the operations of EU border agencies found to have committed abuses against migrants. It has never done so.

In June, Human Rights Watch sent the agency’s top officials what it said was evidence of serious misconduct either committed or overlooked by Frontex in three European countries. It has yet to receive a response.  

But Frontex is under pressure. Last January the European Anti-Fraud office opened an investigation into the agency, though the specific charges have not been made public. At the same time, a migrants’ rights organization that had for years been part of an independent board of civil society advisers to Frontex withdrew from the group, saying it felt ignored.

Under fire from published allegations it had acted illegally, particularly by assisting “pushbacks” in the Aegean Sea, Frontex ordered an internal review of its operations. Reporters who have seen the investigators’ report say it found deficiencies in the agency’s systems for reporting problems in its ranks, and suggested an overhaul of its culture. 

Dr. Komp, the lawyer who has taken Frontex to the European Union’s Court of Justice, hopes that the case will clarify the agency’s task. “It is especially important,” she says, “that Frontex not only help member states to control their borders, but that it also complies with fundamental rights.”

Ian Urbina is the director of, and Joe Galvin is a writer for, The Outlaw Ocean Project, a nonprofit journalism organization based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on environmental and human rights concerns at sea globally.

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