On 4 February, roughly 70 miles north of Libya, a white reconnaissance plane with a camera on its underside circled a raft that was carrying a hundred desperate migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. The surveillance footage from the airplane’s camera was transmitted live to an office in Warsaw, Poland, at the headquarters of Frontex, the European Union’s (EU) border patrol agency.
Two hours later, a Libyan Coast Guard cutter caught up with the migrants and ordered them to stop, even though they were well outside of 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 detention centers.
Two months later, on 8 April one of the passengers, a 28-year-old Bissau Guinean and father of three, Aliou Candé was shot and killed in Libya’s most notorious detention center, Al-Mabani.
The Libyan Coast Guard’s discovery of the boat was no coincidence. A Frontex official confirmed what several investigations by European news organizations have already found: Officials in multiple EU states routinely transmit Frontex’s aerial surveillance footage to the Libyan Coast Guard. It then uses that information to pick up migrants, and return them to a network of abusive detention centers in Libya.
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. The true intent of this joint campaign, according to many human rights advocates, legal experts, and members of the European Parliament, is not to save migrants from drowning, but rather to stop them from reaching European shores.
Since the migrant crisis started in 2015 and hundreds of thousands of people began crossing, European officials have relied heavily on the Libyans to stem the flow. Not only did the EU equip and train the Libyan Coast Guard, it 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, has trained and equipped the Libyan Coast Guard to serve as a proxy maritime force, whose central purpose is to stop migrants from reaching European shores. Using flying drones and airplanes over the Mediterranean, Frontex locates migrant rafts, then alerts the Italians, who, in turn, inform the Libyan authorities. Once captured by the Libyan Coast Guard, tens of thousands of these migrants are then delivered into a dozen or so detention centers run by militias.
This collaboration has been the principal factor in a precipitous drop in the number of migrants reaching the continent. Around 20,000 migrants arrived in the first seven months of this year, down from over a million at the height of migration in 2015. Without the support of aerial reconnaissance from Frontex, the Libyan Coast Guard would in effect be searching with its eyes closed.
The Coast Guard routinely opens fire on migrant rafts, has been tied by the UN to human trafficking and murder, and is now run by militias, all the while continuing to draw strong EU support. In 2020, it shipped four new speedboats to the Coast Guard so that it could more effectively capture migrants and send them to the same detention centers that the UN has described as being involved in state-sponsored crimes against humanity.
Frontex has long denied direct cooperation with Libya, which has been a failed state largely run by militias since NATO-backed rebels deposed Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Most migrants from the Middle East or Africa seeking to get to Europe depart from Libya, as the trip is relatively short. Frontex has insisted its sole aim is to save lives, and a spokesperson for the agency said that it only directly alerts Libyan authorities of migrant boats in an emergency.