Libya Closed Its Most Notorious Migrant Jail. Is That Good News?

By Ian Urbina, Joe Galvin

With no explanation from the government, fanfare by aid groups, nor coverage by domestic or foreign media, Libya’s most notorious migrant prison, Al Mabani, officially closed on January 13, 2022.

In its roughly 12-month lifespan, the prison became emblematic of the unaccountable nature of Libya’s broader detention system. Rape, extortion, and murder in the prison were common and well documented.

Al Mabani mattered to the world not simply because the U.N. said crimes against humanity were happening there, but also because its existence and growth was the result of E.U. policies meant to stop migrants from crossing the Mediterranean and reaching European shores. 

Journalistically, Al Mabani’s closure might seem like an accomplishment. A team of reporters exposed extensive abuses at the prison and the government immediately shut the place down. But the more important story is less encouraging. 

The quiet shuttering of Al Mabani shows the ever-shifting nature of incarceration in Libya and how such transience makes protection of detainees nearly impossible. Migrant detention centers open, close, and reopen from one week to the next. Detainees are moved with little tracking. Three thousand people are taken from one prison and, mysteriously, only 2,500 of them get off the bus at the next. It takes months for aid workers to get permission for regular visits to prisons like Al Mabani—only to have to start these negotiations over again when these detainees get to a newly created prison. The consequence: militias can, with confident impunity, disappear, torture and detain refugees indefinitely.

The closing of Al Mabani also illustrates how power and governance actually function in Libya. What determines the way migrants are treated, where they are held, how long, and whether they are released has less to do with law or humanitarian imperatives and more to do with patronage and payment. 

Al Mabani was likely closed not because reporters revealed that guards there had engaged in crimes such as the murder of Aliou Candé and the extortion and torture of many other migrants. Al Mabani was more likely decommissioned because of a political struggle between two men vying to run Libya’s Directorate of Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM), which manages the flow of captured migrants. Migrant detention in Libya is big business and for detainees everything has a price: protection, food, medicine, and most expensive of all, freedom. 

When one director, General Al-Mabrouk Abdel-Hafiz, lost his leadership seat at DCIM, the prison, Al Mabani, run by his favored militia, went bust. A day after Mabrouk lost his job, Al Mabani published its final post to Facebook. When the new director, Mohammed al-Khoja, took over DCIM, the lucrative flow of captive migrants were redirected to the prison, Al-Sikka, a facility that he previously ran. A U.N. spokeswoman confirmed that many of Al Mabani’s detainees were moved to Al-Sikka. To the victor goes the spoils. 

Mohammed al-Khoja, center, with Libya’s foreign minister Najla Mangoush in January

The shutdown of Al Mabani is also part of a larger push by the Libyan government to move official detention centers outside of Tripoli. Escapes by detainees are tougher when the prison is in the middle of nowhere. Pestering from aid groups and journalists is also less likely since the government more tightly limits movement outside the capital city.   

Opened in early 2021, Al Mabani, which in Arabic means “The Buildings,” was notoriously brutal. No journalist had ever entered the facility, but escaped migrants told of what happened there, occasionally backed by cell phone footage. Violence reached a peak at Al Mabani in October with a mass shooting of migrants during an escape, a few days after authorities had rounded up and arbitrarily detained up to 5,000 migrants from Gargaresh, a nearby migrant slum. “Some of our staff who witnessed this incident describe injured migrants in a pool of blood lying on the ground,” said Federico Soda, the head of the International Organization of Migration’s Libya office. Six were killed. Two dozen more were injured.

In December of last year, The Outlaw Ocean Project, in collaboration with the New Yorker magazine, published an investigation about Al Mabani and the larger shadow detention prison system that the E.U. has helped create. The reporting told the story of Aliou Candé, a climate refugee from Guinea-Bissau, who was arrested by the E.U.-funded Libyan Coast Guard in the Mediterranean Sea, sent back to Al Mabani, and eventually killed by its guards. 

This reporting surely played a role in the shuttering of Al Mabani. But the bigger takeaway in this event pertains to how patronage passes for governance in Libya, how crimes against humanity are the result and how the E.U. continues to financially prop up these abuses through its support of the Libyan Coast Guard. 

The pattern is clear. Militias run detention centers for as long as they can, then they get closed down when power brokers shift or the media casts too much light on them. Case in point, Al Mabani was only created to take detainees from another famously violent prison, Tajoura, after it began to draw too much attention. It was bombed in 2019, and investigators revealed that among the migrants killed were some who had been forced to do military work like prepping arms. “The closures of individual centers or centralization of migration detention does little to tackle systematic abuse of refugees and migrants, highlighting the need to eradicate the abusive detention system as a whole,” said Amnesty in a 2021 report.

The E.U. has been slow to take responsibility for its role. In January, The Outlaw Ocean Project presented details of its investigation to the European Parliament’s human rights committee, and outlined the E.U.’s extensive support to Libya’s migration control apparatus. European Commission representatives took issue with our characterisation of the crisis. “We are not funding the war against migrants,” said Rosamaria Gili, the Libya country director at the European External Action Service. “We are trying to instill a culture of human rights.”

And yet, just a week later, Henrike Trautmann, a representative of the European Commission, told lawmakers that the E.U. was going to provide five more vessels to the Libyan Coast Guard to bolster its ability to intercept migrants on the high seas.

More vessels means more arrests. Last year, over 32,000 migrants were arrested by the Libyan Coast Guard and returned to Libya’s migrant jails. With the additional E.U. support, it is likely that number will increase in 2022. “We know the Libyan context is far from optimal for this,” Trautmann conceded. “We think it’s still preferable to continue to support this than to leave them to their own devices.”