When the European Union started funneling millions of euros into Libya to slow the tide of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, the money came with EU promises to improve detention centers notorious for abuse and fight human trafficking.
Instead, the misery of migrants in Libya has spawned a thriving and highly lucrative web of businesses funded in part by the EU and enabled by the United Nations, an Associated Press investigation has found. The investigation was based on interviews with more than 50 migrants, Libyan government officials and aid workers; internal UN emails, and budget documents and contracts.
In other findings:
- Huge sums of European money have been diverted to intertwined networks of militiamen, traffickers and coast guard members who exploit migrants. In some cases, UN officials knew militia networks were getting the money, according to internal emails.
- The militias torture, extort and otherwise abuse migrants for ransoms in detention centers under the nose of the UN, often in compounds that receive millions in European money. Many migrants also simply disappear from detention centers, sold to traffickers or to other centers.
- The militias conspire with some members of Libyan coast guard units. The coast guard gets training and equipment from Europe to keep migrants away. But coast guard members return some migrants to the detention centers under deals with militias and receive bribes to let others pass en route to Europe.
- The militias skim off European funds given through the UN to feed and otherwise help migrants, who go hungry. For example, millions of euros in UN food contracts were under negotiation with a company controlled by a militia leader, even as other UN teams raised alarms about starvation in his detention center, according to internal UN emails and interviews with at least a half-dozen Libyan officials.
- In many cases, the money goes to neighboring Tunisia to be laundered, and then flows back to the militias in Libya.
- The EU’s own documents show it was aware of the dangers of effectively outsourcing its migration crisis to Libya. Budget documents from as early as 2017 for a 90 million euro outlay warned of a medium-to-high risk that Europe’s support would only lead to more human rights violations.
Despite the roles they play in the detention system, both the EU and the UN say they want the centers closed. The EU said that under international law, it is not responsible for what goes on inside the centers, and that it relies on the UN to spend European money for Libya wisely.
The UN said it has to work with whoever runs the detention centers to preserve access to vulnerable migrants. After two weeks of being questioned by the AP, UNHCR said it would contract directly for food and aid for migrants as of Jan. 1 2020 instead of going through intermediaries.