What Got Said At an E.U. Parliamentary Hearing on Libya

By Joe Galvin

On January 27, the E.U. Parliament’s subcommittee on human rights held a hearing about the human rights situation in Libya. A half dozen U.N. aid workers, diplomats and others, including Ian Urbina from The Outlaw Ocean Project, were asked to give testimony. Several remarks made by presenters and questions asked by lawmakers merit response and added context.

During his remarks, Jose Sabadell, the E.U.’s ambassador to Libya, told parliamentarians: “On whether E.U. instruments and aid are used for violations of human rights—we have a very demanding due diligence process that prevents this from happening.” This statement is untrue.

First of all, the E.U., through its border agency Frontex, runs surveillance flights over the Central Mediterranean, giving the data to the Libyan Coast Guard to help them catch migrants. It spends vast sums to maintain this surveillance; in 2021, it signed a €100m deal with Airbus and Israel Aerospace Industries to operate surveillance drones over the Central Mediterranean, and, since 2017, it has signed deals worth over €50m with the British firm DEA Aviation to operate manned surveillance flights.

The E.U. and Italy have provided multiple patrol vessels to the Libyan Coast Guard to allow it to intercept migrant boats and return them to prison in Libya. In October 2020, Sabadell was present as two gleaming white cutters, repaired and upgraded with E.U. money, were presented to the Libyan Coast Guard at a ceremony in Tripoli. Tens of millions have been spent repairing and maintaining Libyan Coast Guard vessels since 2016.

The E.U. has also provided a command center to the Libyan authorities to allow it to monitor and coordinate the interception of migrants more effectively. The command center was delivered last December at a cost of €858,221.

The E.U. has created the infrastructure that allows migrants and refugees, in their thousands, to be delivered to arbitrary detention, where the U.N. says “crimes against humanity” take place. However demanding the due diligence process may be, it clearly isn’t demanding enough.

Borrell’s colleague Rosamaria Gili, the Libya country director at the European External Action Service, said: “We are not funding the war against migrants. We are trying to instill a culture of human rights.” Again, the E.U.’s own documents say otherwise.

Since 2017, the E.U. has set aside €57.2m for migration management in Libya, providing training, boats, SUVs, and more to Libyan authorities, who put migrants in prisons. This funding has been maintained despite revelations of  trafficking and murder by Libyan authorities.

In 2018, Italy and the E.U. helped Libya get approval from the U.N.’s International Maritime Organization to create a search-and-rescue zone stretching a hundred miles off Libya’s coast, so Libya can arrest migrants before humanitarian ships can reach them.

Sometimes abuses are even witnessed and filmed by Frontex surveillance flights that the E.U. funds to assist Libya, according to a recently leaked internal E.U. report

To be clear: the E.U.’s proxy war on migration has an air force called Frontex, a navy called the Libyan Coast Guard, and an army in the form of the Libyan militiamen who oversee Libya’s migrant prisons.

In posing questions to Ian Urbina, director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, Tineke Strik, a Dutch lawmaker, asked: “Can you make a distinction between de facto authorities and militias and who is benefiting from E.U. funding?” The reality is that there is no true distinction between them. 

Consider Mohammed al-Khoja. He’s a militia leader linked to people trafficking who ran one of the most brutal migrant detention centers. Last month he was appointed as director of the federal department that oversees all official migrant prison camps. 

The agency, called Department to Combat Illegal Migration (DCIM), oversees the camps where thousands of migrants are held in horrific conditions. In 2019, DCIM received 30 modified SUVs to catch migrants in the desert, and 10 buses to bring them to prison. 

Consider Abdel-Rahman Al-Milad. He’s a militia leader who was added to the U.N. Security Council sanctions list in 2018, accused of “sinking of migrant boats using firearms” and of protecting and collaborating with smugglers. 

Al-Milad also commands a federal unit of the Libyan Coast Guard that the E.U. helped to create and equip, and that it continues to fund.

Finally, consider the Libyan Intelligence Service. This secret police force kidnapped and brutalized reporters doing an investigation for the New Yorker magazine and disappeared them into a secret prison. It is run by the Al Nawasi militia and is part of the E.U.-funded government.

During the hearing Ben Lewis from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which has done stellar work in monitoring and documenting human rights abuses against migrants and refugees in Libya, detailed the findings of their recent report on the forced expulsion of migrants and refugees from Libya. 

The report documents what Lewis describes as an “alarming rise” in the number of collective expulsions and violations of the principle of “non-refoulement”—a fundamental principle of international law which forbids the return of refugees or asylum seekers to countries where they may suffer human rights abuses. Lewis called for “safe and legal pathways” to Europe to be established for migrants and refugees.

When giving his final remarks, Lewis said the number of irregular sea arrivals to Europe did not constitute a crisis. “We need to take a more reasonable approach,” said Lewis. “There are more visitors to a certain theme park in Romania in a day than there are arrivals to the E.U. from Libya in an entire year.” Lewis was aiming to make the larger point that the E.U. can and should afford to reflect on these deeper concerns, since the Mediterranean migration crisis is no longer at its height like it was in 2015, when more than one million desperate migrants reached European shores.

However, it bears mention that fewer arrivals of migrants to the shores of Europe is not necessarily something the E.U. should hail as a success, as it is a result of more migrants being captured by the E.U.-funded Libyan Coast Guard and held in Libyan prisons. The E.U.’s support has ensured that more and more migrants are captured at sea, returned to the unsafe port of Libya, and subject to all manner of abuses—torture, rape, and murder—in Libya’s brutal gulag of migrant prisons. 

The number of arrivals to Europe may no longer constitute a crisis—but the appalling treatment of migrants and refugees in a system backed and funded by the E.U. most certainly still does.

View the full hearing here.

See Ian Urbina’s testimony here

Read a transcript of the hearing here.