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Secret prisons in Libya keep migrants out of Europe


They keep coming - some on crowded boats, some on tiny rafts - migrants fleeing their homes in the Middle East and Africa, desperate to cross the Mediterranean, desperate to find work, to start a new life in Europe. Some make it. Many do not. In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Ian Urbina investigates one piece of this - the secret prisons in Libya that keep migrants out of Europe. And he tries to trace the journey of one man who ends up in one of those prisons. Ian Urbina, welcome.

IAN URBINA: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Who is Aliou Cande, this man whose story anchors your piece? I want you to tell us just a brief snapshot of the life that he led in West Africa and why he would want to leave it.

URBINA: So Aliou was a 28-year-old native of Guinea Bissau, which is in West Africa. You know, he farmed cassava, yams and mangoes in a pretty remote section of the country. And his farm was failing. Droughts were longer. Rains were harder. He had several kids, and several of his brothers had already made this journey through the Sahara and had arrived to Spain and Italy and were doing OK for themselves. So he decided to make a similar journey to try to provide for his family.

KELLY: Aliou is taken back. It's his worst fear. He's taken back to Libya. He is imprisoned at one of the secretive prisons for migrants that you went to Libya to document. It's called Al Mabani. Would you describe it?

URBINA: Sure. Al Mabani is the largest and most notorious of the migrant prisons. In Arabic, Al Mabani means the buildings. And it's, you know, a renovated storage depot with a wall of, you know, barbed wire surrounding it. It's militia-run and became the location, you know, as of the start of 2021, for thousands of migrants to be held. And that's where Aliou Cande ended up.

KELLY: What kind of conditions would one find there?

URBINA: The conditions are nothing short of awful. You know, extortion, rape, murder are commonplace in these facilities. Typically, the migrants are handled as business opportunities for their captors, and the migrants are squeezed to call home to try to get family or friends to send money. And that's their one ticket out. You know, the hygienic and health conditions, the dietary conditions in the facilities are horrendous. You know, even before COVID, violence and murder had been well-documented. Overcrowding is sort of endemic.

KELLY: You were able to interview some people who had been detained at Al Mabani who said they felt as though they had been disappeared. Is that accurate? Is that mostly accurate?

URBINA: It's wholly accurate, if only because, you know, under Libyan law, undocumented foreigners in the country are legally allowed to be detained. They're not required to have access to lawyers. In the case of undocumented sub-Saharan migrants, you know, like Aliou Cande, their rights are even less. So the minute you enter this grid, no one knows you're there. And even the humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders have very sporadic and limited access to the migrants to see how they're doing. The only phone calls allowed to be made out from the facilities tend to be the calls that are closely monitored by armed guards asking for money. So to be - to feel disappeared is quite an accurate sense.

KELLY: What is Europe's responsibility here?

URBINA: Yeah. I mean, the entire system is funded and guided by the EU writ large and, quite especially in this case with Libya, Italy in particular. The aerial assets or the Air Force in this war against migration is run by Frontex, which is the EU's border agency. So there are drones and airplanes 24-7 monitoring the Mediterranean, looking for these rafts and reporting them. That intel is then handed to the Libyan Coast Guard, an EU-created, EU-funded force that goes out and scoops them up in so-called rescue missions. But really, they're arrests.

They bring them back to shore, and then they put them in this sort of gulag of prisons, which, again, are largely EU-funded, mostly money routed through aid groups and the U.N. and other entities. But they nonetheless would not exist were all these migrants not being returned to shore and funds coming in to run the operation. So the EU really is the overseer and largely responsible for the system.

KELLY: What happened to Aliou Cande? How does this story end?

URBINA: It doesn't end well. Aliou Cande, when captured at sea by loading Coast Guard, was brought back to shore, put in Al Mabani. On the second month of his detention, a fight broke out within cell No. 4, where he was held. The fight was between one set of migrants who wanted to try to escape and the other who thought it was, you know, dangerous and doomed and a terrible idea and would likely invite severe violence from the guards. The melee lasted a couple of hours, and the guards watched and filmed and cheered. And then ultimately, for reasons I don't know, the guards opened fire on the migrants through a window in the bathroom, and several migrants were shot. Aliou Cande was shot in the neck and died shortly thereafter.

KELLY: I'm sure I'm not the only person listening who's also thinking of the migrant crisis we just saw play out on the eastern edge of Europe, on the Belarus-Poland border and the tragedy in the English Channel last week. It sounds like a complex and evolving set of attitudes in Europe in terms of what their responsibility is to people desperately trying to come to the EU to improve their lives.

URBINA: Yeah. I mean, I think this is one of those places where you have a problem that can only be solved with a huge amount of cooperation, which is not always easy between countries. And as you said, you know, the Mexican border with the U.S., Belarus-Poland border, Libya, Italy crossing the Mediterranean, it's the same issue of desperate people trying to come to places that they're not wanted or they're being rejected. And...

KELLY: Your reference to the Mexican border meaning this is not an unfamiliar set of dilemmas for Americans listening.

URBINA: That's quite right. Yeah. I mean, this is the point that I'm eager to put forward. I don't, as an American, you know, mean to be casting blame on the EU as if this is something distinct to them. It's the same basic problem and outsourcing operation that the U.S. government is doing in Mexico, trying to block Central American migrants before they cross the border and arrive into U.S. soil. So I do think, much as climate change is a global problem that's only going to be solved with a large amount of cooperation by governments, climate migration is the same challenge.

KELLY: That is Ian Urbina. His piece in The New Yorker is titled "The Invisible Wall: Inside The Secretive Libyan Prisons That Keep Migrants Out Of Europe." The reporting is produced by the Outlaw Ocean Project. Ian, thank you.

URBINA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOE'S "EVERYTHING MEANS NOTHING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.