Libya: Is EU money funding the migrant business?

By Sarah Vernhes
Posted on Wednesday, 16 February 2022 10:07

Migrants about to be deported to their home country at Misrata airport, 16 November 2021. © REUTERS/Ayman Al-Sahili

Instead of ensuring that migratory flows are regulated, as demanded and financed by the EU, the powerful leaders of Libyan militias are shamelessly enriching themselves on the backs of migrants.

Arbitrary detentions, forced labour, extortion, human trafficking… In Libya, migrants are at the heart of a well-oiled business orchestrated by militias, under the guise of government action. The ‘business model’ is simple: militia leaders receive money to run detention centres and prevent migrants from crossing the ocean to reach Europe, while increasing their income by selling detainees’ freedom away.

The state – which is plagued by insecurity and political instability, made worse by the indefinite postponement of elections – has thus delegated migration management to a series of militia leaders for several years.

As NGO reports of violence against migrants increase, the EU has now tasked some militias with ‘controlling migration flows’. The EU has allocated €57m ($64m) to its migration-related Libya programme, which includes providing equipment (two boats, SUVs and 10 buses) and training the Libyan Coast Guard.

‘Bija’, the head of the network

In Libya, this docket is managed by the Direction de la Lutte Contre la Migration Illégale (DCIM), which is in charge of the detention centres that can each hold between 100 and 1,000 people.

The organisation’s management illustrates the fragility of this institution, which is rife with armed groups. Since January, militiaman Mohamed al-Khoja has had the upper hand on the DCIM. The man has been accused of abusing migrants while he was in charge of the notorious Tarik al-Sika detention centre in Tripoli.

“The DCIM protects the traffickers and acts with impunity,” says a source active in this case, who confirms that al-Khoja is also violent towards migrants. In one of these centres – in Ain Zara (south of Tripoli), which is under the control of a local militia led by Tarik Bhiji – the migrants held captive there began a hunger strike on 6 February to protest against the inhumane conditions of their detention.

According to our information on the ground, al-Khoja works closely with Abdelrahman al-Milad (aka ‘Bija’). Originally from Zawiya, west of Tripoli, this 30-year-old has been on the list of persons subject to UN Security Council sanctions since 2018. Accused of human trafficking and crimes against humanity, he was arrested in October 2020 before being released in April 2021, “due to a lack of evidence”.

Despite the allegations, Bija is still the head of the coast guard section in Zawiya, one of the main crossing points for migrants. He was appointed to this position in 2014. He is also involved in migrant trafficking, according to our source.

His achievements include “directly participating in scuttling migrant boats with firearms”, according to the UN panel of experts.

Al-Milad has a vast network. He is linked to the Stabilisation Support Apparatus (SSA), which was set up by Fayez al-Sarraj’s government and headed by Abdelghani al-Kikli, leader of the powerful Ghneiwa militia.

His brigade has contacts within the police and intelligence services, and controls the Al-Maya and Abu Salim detention centres.

The Kachlaf, Zawiya’s barons

Al-Milad works closely with the Kachlaf family, which is based in Zawiya. He particularly works with the brothers Ibrahim and Mohamed Kachlaf, heads of the powerful al-Nasr brigade, to whom he brings migrants that have been intercepted at sea.

They are held in local detention centres controlled by Mohamed Kashlaf. Known for its torture practices, the Nasr centre is managed undercover by the brothers’ cousin, Osama al-Kuni Ibrahim, who is also under UN sanctions.

I was able to see that the millions intended for the food supply were not used for this purpose.

The Kachlaf brothers’ militia also controls Zawiya’s port and refinery. It is involved in extensive petrol trafficking with armed groups in Sabratha, Zintan and Surman. Mohamed Kachlaf also appears on the UN sanctions list.

In addition to the DCIM-run detention centres, there are many unofficial detention centres in Tripolitania, but no figures are available on this network’s financial windfall from extortion and migrant smuggling.

According to various accounts, migrants can pay up to €2,000 ($2,270) to obtain their release. In addition to these earnings, the militias receive a salary from the government and are also said to embezzle funds allocated to running these centres. “I was able to see that the millions intended for the food supply were not used for this purpose,” says our source.

In 2021, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reported 655 deaths, 897 missing persons and that the Libyan Coast Guard had intercepted and deported 32,425 people to Libya. Between 2,000 and 2,500 migrants were reportedly held in detention centres in Libya during that same year.

Silence from the EU

The EU continues to support the Libyan migration and coastguard training programme. In February 2020, Italy, which provides this training, renewed its agreement with Libya for another three years to allow the return of people who have been intercepted at sea.

However, in January, the EU’s external action service acknowledged the abuses taking place within the Eunavfor Med-led coastguard training programme in a report leaked to the Associated Press. The report mentions that the Libyan Coast Guard exercised “excessive use of force”.

Özlem Demirel, Germany’s representative in the European Parliament, raised the issue on 26 January. However, the EU has so far turned a deaf ear.

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