Despite Calls For Reform, Libya Appoints Notorious Militia Leader To Handle Migrants

By Ian Urbina

The Libyan government has named as the new director of immigration enforcement a militia commander who previously ran one of the country’s most infamous migrant prisons, where rape, beatings and extortion were commonplace.

Mohamed al-Khoja was confirmed on December 23 as the next head of the Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM), where he will be responsible for overseeing Libya’s roughly 15 migrant detention centers.

Libyan authorities, with help from European Union funding, use these facilities to detain tens of thousands of migrants each year, most of whom are captured as they try to cross the Mediterranean in overcrowded rafts. The prisons are the result of the E.U.’s efforts to stem the flow of migrants from Africa and the Middle East making their way to European shores. The E.U. has for years sent millions of Euros to Libya to train and equip the Libyan Coast Guard, which in effect serves as a proxy force for Europe.

At a time when European, African and Middle Eastern human rights advocates, lawmakers and researchers are increasingly calling for the E.U. to reconsider its involvement with human rights abuses in Libya, the recent appointment of Al-Khoja is especially noteworthy since he has an unusually checkered past. For years, al-Khoja ran the Tariq al-Sikka prison in Tripoli, a place where one report after another has documented a ghastly array of crimes against thousands of migrants held there.

“His appointment exemplifies the pattern of impunity in Libya which sees individuals reasonably suspected of involvement in crimes under international law be appointed to positions of power where they can repeat violations, rather than face investigations,” said Hussein Baoumi a researcher with Amnesty International whose organization repeatedly documented human rights violations in Tarik al-Sikka including arbitrary detention, torture and forced labor during al-Khoja’s leadership.

Other organizations came to similar conclusions. In 2019, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime concluded that al-Khoja had used the migrant detention facility as a base to train his militia’s fighters. Migrant detainees at al-Sikka were used – in clear violation of international law – to clean and store weapons and munitions, according to a 2019 report from Human Rights Watch. A team from the Associated Press in 2019 reported that al-Khoja was behind a multi-million dollar scheme to divert to his militia money meant to feed migrants at a United Nations facility in Tripoli.

This year, Amnesty International interviewed migrants held at al-Sikka who said they had been conscripted into forced labor such as construction and farm work. Another Amnesty International report from 2020 on conditions in the Tariq al-Sikka facility he ran included the account of a migrant who watched two friends die of tuberculosis in the facility for want of adequate care. Migrants at the prison were used to build a shelter for horses belonging to al-Khoja, according to reporting in the Guardian produced last year by Sally Hayden.

“His appointment suggests that the abusive detention center system, which relies on violence and extortion, will continue without hope for reforms,” said Wolfram Lacher, a researcher on Libya at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

The United Nations have said that “crimes against humanity” are occuring in the detention centers, whose population continue to swell. In 2021, 32,425 people were captured at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard, often with help from the EU border agency, which flies drones and surveillance airplanes over the Mediterranean to spot the fleeing refugees. Once back in Libya, many of these migrants end up in arbitrary detention. This week, Libyan authorities violently raided two migrant protest camps, one of which was outside the headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, detaining more than 600 migrants and transferring most of them to a detention center called Ain Zara, which is among those that Al Khoja will now oversee. The International Rescue Committee said it was treating several injured migrants following the raid, including one person who suffered a gunshot wound.

An investigation by The Outlaw Ocean Project published in November in partnership with the New Yorker magazine detailed how even European money meant to make these prisons more humane had instead sustained what has become a gulag of grim and lawless facilities. The investigation showed how E.U. money pays for everything from the buses that transport captured migrants at sea from port to the prisons to the body bags used for the migrants who perish at sea or while detained.

The E.U. has long acknowledged the horrors happening in the migrant prisons that its policies helped produce, but it has done little to alter those policies or hold abusers in Libya to account. The appointment of al-Khoja casts further doubt on the E.U.’s ability or willingness to exert control over the detention system it helped create. These facilities are full of migrants in large measure due to the increasingly efficient work of the E.U.-funded Libyan Coast Guard, which gets considerable help from surveillance drones and airplanes operated by Frontex, the E.U. border agency that patrols the Mediterranean for the sake of reporting the coordinates of migrant rafts to Libyan authorities.

The DCIM is also a direct benefactor of E.U.’s funds. In 2019, for example, the agency received 30 specially modified Toyota Land Cruisers to intercept migrants in Libya’s southern desert. E.U. money also purchased DCIM 10 buses to ship captive migrants to prisons after they are caught.

Mark Micallef, a Libya expert with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, said that it would not be wise or ethical to pull E.U. money from the many aid organizations doing life-saving work with migrants in Libyan detention centers. He added that E.U. officials might not have much control over what happens in the migrant prisons in Libya. But they could apply more pressure on the Libyan government by tying further financial support for the Libyan Coast Guard to demonstrable improvements in these prisons.

However, the E.U. seems to be moving in the opposite direction. At the beginning of December, the E.U. sent Libya computer terminals and state-of-the-art radio to equip a command center responsible for intercepting migrants on the Mediterranean. The E.U. also in December committed 1.2 million euros more aid for spare parts for two high-speed cutters used by the Libyan Coast Guard.

By mid December, French President Emmanuel Macron called for Frontex, which provides aerial surveillance over the Mediterranean to capture migrants at sea, to be granted emergency powers as he argued that Europe’s future depended on its ability to control its borders. His comments came two days after more than two dozen migrants drowned during an attempted crossing of the English Channel.

One of the most difficult problems in Libya is that the central government exerts only nominal control over militias, according to a 2020 report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. “Government officials are forced to formalize ad hoc power arrangements based on whichever armed group happens to hold martial advantage in a given area… where militia-run holding sites [for migrants] are given a veneer of legitimacy through the presence of DCIM officials, suggests as much,” the report said. “This effectively creates a path for individuals involved in armed organized crime, such as al-Khoja and others, to become part of the official state apparatus, whether military, intelligence or government.”

Federico Soda, the top official in Libya for the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration, which used millions in E.U. funds for medical and other aid for migrants detained in Libya, said he would wait and see if al-Khoja’s appointment would last before commenting. Asked for comment, Peter Stano, an E.U. spokesman, said he was not sure of al-Khoja’s appointment, and citing the holidays, said he would withhold comment until “normal working life returns.”

The focus of the recent investigation by The Outlaw Ocean Project was the killing of a young West African migrant in one of the most notorious migrant prisons under DCIM oversight, known as Al Mabani, Arabic for “The Buildings.” In the days after publication, Pope Francis said Europe’s migration policies had amounted to the “shipwreck of civilization.” European lawmakers from Dublin to Istanbul called for ending the E.U.’s partnership with Libya.

Previously under the direction of Mabrouk Abd al-Hafiz, DCIM had in recent years closed the most troubled migrant prisons, only to see them reopened, or others pop up in their place. Humanitarian organizations, as well as some Libyan officials themselves, have conceded that the agency does not have full control of the prisons, which are almost all run by one or another of the country’s militias.

In interviews, Al-Hafiz has said that corruption exists both among the militias running the prisons and the Libyan Coast Guard. Al-Khoja served as al-Hafiz’s deputy for a number of years, although there were reports al-Hafiz had unsuccessfully tried to oust al-Khoja from his position with DCIM.

Despite Al-Khoja’s appointment and the negative reaction to it among researchers and human rights advocates, the Libyan foreign minister, Najla Mangoush, redirected attention to Europe. Libya had grown weary of doing Europe’s bidding in controlling migration, she said, while rejecting the idea that her country had somehow been guilty of mistreating the migrants in its custody.

“Please do not point your fingers at Libya,” she said, “and portray us as a country which abuses and disrespects refugees.”