How We Reported on Migrant Detention in Libya

In May 2021, a team of four journalists from The Outlaw Ocean Project headed to Libya to investigate the death of Aliou Candé, an African migrant who was fatally shot by a prison guard inside Al Mabani, one of that country’s most notorious migrant detention centers.

In Tripoli, we interviewed more than two dozen former detainees from the facility, including one teenage migrant who had been shot in the same incident that killed Candé. No Western journalist has ever been allowed to enter Al Mabani, most likely because the center has been the site of hundreds of deaths and other violence.

But the migrants and other sources we interviewed provided us with a wealth of materials that helped us understand conditions inside the facility. These included cell phone footage from inside the prison, police records filed after Candé’s death, a 30-page diary detailing daily life there, pictures of notes surreptitiously passed to aid workers pleading for help and images of graffiti on the prison walls. Among the videos that migrants and N.G.O.s gave us were footage of Candé’s body in the Tripoli morgue; imagery of his burial; and numerous videos of Libyan Coast Guard violence and aggression towards migrants, humanitarian rescue ships and workers in the Mediterranean from 2017 to present day.

To better understand Candé’s life and death, we visited the slum where he had stayed briefly before launching his failed attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea, the hospital morgue where Candé was taken and the cemetery where he was buried. For a direct glimpse inside Al Mabani, we surreptitiously launched a drone over the facility and filmed detainees who had been hit and corralled shortly before being sent back inside to their cells. Two reporters from our team in Tripoli, Pierre Kattar and Mea Dols de Jong, collected several hours of audio, including voice notes sent by Candé to his family during his journey through the Sahara and his last ever message to his brothers, sent secretly while he was in prison. Twice we dispatched a reporter to Guinea-Bissau to visit Candé’s remote village family, to talk to his wife, parents, brothers and children.

Using a variety of satellite imagery and other open source information, particularly images and video sourced on social media, we were able to create a detailed understanding of the Al Mabani facility, to establish its size and identify each of its buildings, including Candé’s cell and the building where migrants said people were taken to be beaten. We also geolocated the Bir al-Osta Milad Cemetery, where Candé is buried, and used historical satellite imagery to show how it has grown significantly over time since the onset of the European migrant crisis in 2014. In terms of Candé’s boat journey, we used the flight tracking site ADS-B Exchange to identify the Frontex aircraft used to surveil Candé’s vessel. We subsequently acquired still images of the aircraft, Eagle1.

To understand Libya’s broader context, we also spoke to embassy officials, U.N. staff and doctors and aid workers in Tripoli who routinely worked inside Al Mabani and other detention centers. We reviewed numerous formal reports, including work done by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime and the Lighthouse Reports group. We interviewed some of the lead researchers for that work, as well as Libya’s former minister of justice and a member of the European Parliament who has called for investigations into the E.U.’s role in Libya.

Part of our challenge was to get behind the E.U.’s misleading claim that it does not directly fund the abuse of migrants in Libya. Joe Galvin, the Project’s Open Source Investigations editor, scoured public databases such as the E.U. Tenders Portal to establish the extent of European funding that underwrites Libya’s migrant detention system.

We built a database itemizing how over the past five years, this money has partly paid for planes, boats, buses, ambulances, S.U.V.s, offices and uniforms used by the Libyan border authorities in their efforts to stop migrants from reaching European shores. We also documented what E.U. funding is paid to the N.G.O.s that deliver aid including blankets, mattresses, toilet paper and hygiene kits to the detention centers.

Since militias run the detention centers, the neighborhoods and most branches of the federal government in Libya, it is safe to say that they control much of this money. The team examined the public disclosures, interviewed European parliamentarians and combed through annual reports and audits of Europe’s Trust Fund for Africa, which indicated that money from the E.U. and its member states pays for much of what happens to migrants in Libya. We also scoured the social media pages of Libyan authorities, sourcing images and video of the boats, S.U.V.s, ambulances and buses provided by the European Union that are being used to intercept and transport migrants to the detention centers.

To document what migrants face in trying to cross the Mediterranean, we dispatched a videographer, Ed Ou, for a five-week stint on a Doctors Without Border Ship doing at-sea search-and-rescue work. He documented the aggressive behavior of the Libyan Coast Guard, which is funded by the E.U. to prevent migrants from reaching Europe. He chronicled the abuses faced by migrants on shore, and he filmed the E.U. drones and airplanes used to locate migrant rafts — information that is routinely passed through Malta and Italy to the Libyan Coast Guard. After returning to shore, he spent time with a civilian pilot who provides aerial locational intelligence to humanitarian groups that are working to rescue migrants before the Libyan Coast Guard captures them.