Migrants want new lives in Europe, are caught and imprisoned in Libya

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Michell Eloy

In the city of Tripoli, along Libya’s coast, several warehouses are ringed with barbed wire and guarded by armed men. They’ve been turned into secret prisons to hold thousands of migrants, sometimes indefinitely, and under the most inhumane conditions. 

Most of the migrants there are from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. They were caught trying to cross the Mediterranean to start new lives in Europe. But Europe is ambivalent at best about the arrival of these migrants. It welcomed many in the past, but now helps fund the Libyan Coast Guard, which captures and imprisons the migrants to keep them out of Europe. That’s according to investigative reporter Ian Urbina. 

One of the detention centers is called Al Mabani, which opened in January this year and typically holds 1,000-2,000 migrants. In recent months, those numbers have jumped to 6,000. And the U.N. describes what happens there as “crimes against humanity,” Urbina tells Press Play. 

“Extortion, rape, torture, murder, malnutrition, spread of disease from overcrowding, routine violence, forced labor — all of these things have been very well documented in these facilities and Al Mabani in particular,” he says.

Migrants who’ve been imprisoned at Al Mabani have told him about the fear of “being disappeared,” not knowing how long they’ll be held, what will happen to them, and whether anyone knows they’re even alive.

To get out, Urbina says migrants or their families have to pay a ransom that’s typically $500. For those who can’t pay, they face either indefinite imprisonment, or the prospect of being sold to another detention center or into forced labor (men in agriculture or construction, and women in sex work). 

“In 2017, CNN actually had footage of a slave market … where migrants were being literally auctioned on the block for fees, for those that wanted to buy them for the sake of using them in labor. And the forced labor is well documented by the UN and others as a routine occurrence. It’s also not illegal in Libya to use migrants in this way.”

Meanwhile, the European Union — and Italy in particular — not only know about these prisons and the horrific conditions inside them, Urbina says the E.U. is also helping put migrants in those prisons both directly and indirectly, by tipping off the Libyan Coast Guard to the location of migrant boats crossing the Mediterranean, and by providing money and training for the Libyan Coast Guard. 

Why the change from welcoming migrants in the past? “Italy was on the cusp of a third recession. And the cost of dealing with these extra people coming in was not small. I think politics, the xenophobia, the fear-mongering, and the legitimate concerns that might exist around managing the flow of people into your country — crescendoed in the hands of the political right in Italy. And it paid dividends for them politically, as they seized on a general frustration and fear about all these folks, which only got worse with COVID.”

Urbina says the prisons are an open secret, though European leaders say any criticism or complaints about the conditions inside should be taken up with the Libyan government. 

“That's a little bit dishonest and disingenuous because there would be none of these detention facilities if the E.U. wasn't funding the incredibly effective apparatus at turning the people back. So that's point one. And point two, the E.U. is also preventing humanitarian groups that are actually trying to truly rescue the migrants, and instead backing the Libyan Coast Guard, which is not rescuing them. It's arresting them and returning them to some of the worst prisons on land.”

How many migrants successfully reach Europe after being apprehended and escaping the prisons? Urbina says that in the first half of this year, only about 20,000 migrants made it across the Mediterranean to Europe, a fraction of the roughly 500,000 that arrived in 2015.  



  • Ian Urbina - former New York Times reporter, founder of the journalism nonprofit The Outlaw Ocean Project