Frontex, Europe’s border agency, under fire for aiding Libya’s brutal migrant detentions 

This article was produced in partnership with The Outlaw Ocean Project, a nonprofit journalism organization based in Washington that focuses on reporting about environmental and human rights crimes at sea.

Around 5 p.m. on Feb. 4, 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 Sea to reach 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 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 gulag of detention centers.  

Aliou Candé.Courtesy Jacaria Candé

Two months later, on April 8, one of the passengers, a 28-year-old Bissau Guinean and father of three named 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 E.U. countries routinely transmit Frontex’s aerial surveillance footage to the Libyan Coast Guard, which 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. But the true intent of this joint campaign, according to many human rights advocates, legal experts and members of the European Parliament, is less to save migrants from drowning than to stop them from reaching European shores.

Since the migrant crisis started in 2015 and hundreds of thousands of people began crossing the Mediterranean Sea, European officials have relied heavily on the Libyans to stem the flow. Not only did the E.U. 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 E.U., 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. 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 Europe: 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.  

Though the Libyan Coast Guard routinely opens fire on migrant rafts, has been tied by the U.N. to human trafficking and murder and is now run by militias, it continues to draw strong E.U. support. In 2020, the E.U. shipped four new speedboats to the Libyan Coast Guard so that it could more effectively capture migrants and send them to the same detention centers that the U.N. has described as being involved in state-sponsored crimes against humanity.

Growing evidence of collaboration with Libya

Frontex has long denied direct cooperation with Libya, which has been a failed state largely run by militias since NATO allies deposed President Moammar Gadhafi in 2001. Most migrants from the Middle East or Africa seeking to get to Europe launch from Libya because the passage is cheaper than from Morocco or Tunisia, and the trip across the Mediterranean from Libya 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 a true emergency.

“International law obliges all vessels to provide assistance to any persons found in distress,” the Frontex press office said in a statement, in response to requests for comment on this article. “[Frontex] has never engaged in any direct cooperation with Libyan authorities.”

But a mounting body of evidence collected by European journalists and nongovernmental organizations suggests otherwise. 

Bangladeshi migrants making their way from Libya to Europe are rescued by the crew of the Geo Barents, a rescue vessel operated by Doctors Without Borders in the central Mediterranean, on June 12, 2021.Ed Ou / The Outlaw Ocean Project

Last year, for instance, Lighthouse Reports, a Dutch nonprofit journalism organization, documented 20 instances in which Frontex aircraft were in the vicinity of migrant boats later captured by the Libyan Coast Guard. In a dozen of those cases, Lighthouse determined, Frontex was the first to identify the boats, meaning that under international law, it was obliged to notify not just the Libyan Coast Guard, but the nearest vessel — government or commercial — so that a rescue might be promptly undertaken.

“There is a clear pattern discernible,” Lighthouse researchers asserted. “Boats in distress are spotted, communications take place between European actors and the Libyan Coast Guard. No notice is given to nearby commercial shipping or NGO vessels despite its proximity to urgent situations where boats are in distress on the open sea.

“While the real numbers could be far higher, this representative sample showed that Frontex was present and watching while at least 91 people went missing and are presumed to have drowned.”

Frontex says that in emergency situations, it contacts any potential seaborne rescuer, including the Libyan Coast Guard, but says this does not imply it coordinates with Libya to pick up the migrants.

The Al-Mabani detention center in Libya on May 18, 2021.Pierre Kattar / The Outlaw Ocean Project

Documents released in October following an open-records request by the European transparency group FragDenStaat show that Frontex even sends the locations of migrant rafts directly to the Coast Guard. 

In a WhatsApp exchange from June, Frontex wrote to a “Captain of the Libyan Coast Guard,” saying, “Good morning sir — we have a boat adrift [at these coordinates]… please acknowledge this message.” 

Frontex officials recently sent The Outlaw Ocean the results of an open-records request, which indicate that, from Feb. 1 to Feb. 5, around the time that Candé was at sea, the agency exchanged 37 emails with the Libyan Coast Guard.

Hussein Baoumi, Amnesty International’s Libya researcher, said he was not surprised by Frontex’s continuing denial of a formal relationship with the Libyan Coast Guard. 

“They want to separate themselves from the dirtiest aspects of migrant containment,” Baoumi said. “It doesn’t matter. They are cooperating. They are directly complicit.”

Behind the migrant prisons, E.U. money

The E.U. has also denied directly funding the gulag of migrant prisons in Libya, while consistently both conceding their barbarity and calling for improvements. But lawmakers and human rights advocates have called for the E.U. to end its work with Libya and take steps to rescue those caught up in the country’s migrant jails.

But if the E.U. does not pay to build the detention centers or staff their guards, European money does pay for virtually everything else in the inhumane system where migrants are routinely tortured, raped, unlawfully held and sometimes murdered, The Outlaw Ocean Project and The New Yorker found in a 11-month investigation based on financial reports, interviews with European parliamentarians and U.N. officials and aid workers, E.U. purchasing documents, an open-records request to Frontex and the European Commission, flight-tracking data, and open-source platforms including Facebook and Instagram.

Through Frontex drones and planes, the E.U. is first responsible for spotting the rafts and, via Italian and Maltese authorities, handing this intelligence over to Libya. Then E.U.-purchased boats operated by the Libyan Coast Guard capture the migrants and bring them back to shore.

Migrants wait to be returned by Libyan Coast Guard off the coast of Garabulli, Libya, on Oct. 19, 2021.Anadolu Agency via Getty Images file

Funds from the E.U. and member states, sometimes routed through aid organizations, pay for most of what happens next, the investigation found by scouring public databases such as the E.U. Tenders Portal.  This money bought the shipping containers that double as port offices for the Libyan Coast Guard staff, and the touch-screen tablets used by aid workers who count the migrants as they disembark in Tripoli. 

The team examined public disclosures, interviewed European parliamentarians and combed through annual reports and audits of the E.U.’s Emergency 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. Some of these efforts make the prisons more humane, but they also help sustain a brutal system, which exists largely because of E.U. policies that send migrants back to Libya.

The project also studied the social media pages of Libyan authorities, sourcing images and video of the boats, SUVs, ambulances and buses provided by the European Union that are being used to intercept and transport migrants to the detention centers.

The investigation found that the E.U. pays for every aspect of the migrant interception infrastructure in some way — from aerial surveillance to Libya’s boats, from the SUVs that intercept migrants in the desert to the buses that bring them from port to the gates of the detention centers. It even pays for the offices of the Libyan Coast Guard.

A Libyan coastguard vessel carries migrants recovered off the coast of al-Khums, about 120 kilometres east of the capital, as it approaches the pier in Tripoli’s naval base on Feb. 10, 2021.AFP via Getty Images

Some of it may appear to be humanitarian assistance: the blankets, winter clothes, and slippers that migrants often receive upon arrival. The bathrooms at some of the detention centers as well as the showers, toilets, soap, hygiene kits, and toilet paper were bought with E.U. money. The same goes for the mattresses where the detained migrants sleep. When migrants in detention get sick, often the ambulances that take them to the hospital have been purchased by the E.U.

But E.U. money also paid for the SUVs used by Libyan migration authorities to look for migrants if they escape detention or as they enter Libya in the south through the Saharan desert. Ultimately, experts and advocates said the abuses suffered by migrants would not be happening if E.U. money did not make it possible.

“If the E.U. did not finance the Libyan Coast Guard and its assets, there would be no interception, and there would be no referral to these horrific detention centers,” said Tineke Strik, the Dutch member of the European Parliament who wrote the parliamentary report on Frontex.

Asked about the involvement of the E.U. in Libyan abuses of migrants, Josep Borrell, the E.U.’s ​​High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said the treatment of migrants is the sole responsibility of the Libyan government.

Josep Borrell, the E.U.’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, left, and Libyan Foreign Minister Najla al-Mangoush attend a press conference in Tripoli, Libya, on Sept. 8, 2021.Hamza Turkia / Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images file

“The [European] Commission does not support Libya’s detention system,” he said in a statement. “Accordingly, the E.U. Emergency Trust Fund for Africa does not fund the country’s detention centers. However, through its partners, the Commission does provide lifesaving support to detained migrants, including Voluntary Humanitarian Return to the country of departure, non-food items, medical assistance, cleaning, as well as fumigation and disinfection to prevent diseases from spreading inside the centers.”

Migrants face a brutal detention system

In May, I went to Libya’s capital, Tripoli, to report on the country’s gulag of migrant jails. I interviewed dozens of migrants who had been imprisoned at Al Mabani, one of the most notorious detention centers, in the heart of the city. They told me of cells so crowded the detainees had to sleep in shifts. They spoke of a special room where migrants were sometimes beaten while hung upside from ceiling beams.

And they shared with me the audio message that Aliou Candé, the young migrant from Guinea Bissau who was captured in February, had recorded on a cellphone sneaked into the jail in which he made a final plea to his family to send the ransom he needed to be set free.

Messages are scrawled on a wall in the Gharyan Detention Center in Libya.The Outlaw Ocean Project

Candé was killed, the other migrants said, one of hundreds who died at the hands of guards and were buried in an overcrowded migrant cemetery in Tripoli.

No one was punished for Candé’s death. E.U. officials called for an investigation, but then went silent.

And then I got my own taste of Libya’s brutality. A week into my reporting on Candé’s killing, I was abducted from my hotel room and held for almost a week by Libya’s intelligence service, run by a militia called Al-Nawasi. I was blindfolded, two of my ribs were broken, and I was held incommunicado for five days before my eventual release. My crime? Reporting on migrants. 

My colleagues and I were later forced at gunpoint by our captors to sign a confession letter at the behest of the head of the Libyan intelligence service, a man named Maj. Gen. Hussein Muhammad Al-A’ib.

Frontex “didn’t want to understand”

Since Frontex is the tip of the spear, more attention is being paid to the role it plays and the legality of its involvement.

A recent investigation by the European Parliament produced a litany of allegations against the agency — that it turned a blind eye to human rights violations committed by coast guard personnel from European countries and partner countries in Africa; that its own internal system for receiving and acting on complaints of misconduct was itself a failure; and that the agency’s head, Fabrice Leggeri, had failed to act on four years of warnings from his agency’s own top human rights official.

Frontex issued a statement at the time saying that while it was not in violation of any human rights, it was willing to look into the criticism and the recommendations and try to “strengthen the respect of fundamental rights in all our activities,” in Leggeri’s words.

Frontex director Fabrice Leggeri speaks in Rezovo, Bulgaria, on Sept. 15, 2021.Hristo Rusev / Getty Images file

But in an interview with The Outlaw Ocean Project in late October, a senior Frontex official said Leggeri had engaged in a calculated and disingenuous game for years — insisting that “evidence” of misconduct by E.U. border agencies be produced before he would act, all while failing to ensure that complaints of such potential abuse were aggressively investigated. 

The senior official, who is not allowed to talk to reporters publicly and asked for anonymity, said it is no longer clear that Frontex is meeting its most essential obligation: making sure the rights of some of the world’s most vulnerable people are respected. The official said the angry and volatile emotions in Europe concerning the question of migration enforcement had eroded Frontex’s complete independence. 

“The influence of politics is a problem when you are handling the question of fundamental human rights,” the official said. “Even if its participation in returning migrants to Libya is indirect, Frontex may be violating E.U. law.”

“No interest” in investigating the allegations, the official said of Leggeri and his other most senior aides. “It didn’t matter what you told them. They didn’t want to understand.” 

Presented with the findings of this investigation, Leggeri’s office denied repeated requests for an interview. 

Border agency faces European justice

This year, two landmark cases are being brought by migrants against Frontex before the Court of Justice of the European Union, the E.U.’s chief judicial authority. The first case, filed in May, claims that Frontex has long been operating in violation of its obligations to report and halt criminal abuse of migrants seeking asylum in Europe. 

The case alleges that two migrants — a 17-year-old Congolese boy named Jeancy Kimbenga and a woman from Burundi who asked to remain anonymous — were part of a group of 13 that was rounded up by Greek authorities after arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos. They say they were forcibly transferred to a Coast Guard vessel and brought back out to sea before being abandoned on a lifeboat, eventually ending up back in Turkey.

The allegations in the second case, filed in October, are even stronger. The case alleges that a Syrian family, with four children between the ages of 1 and 7, were deported from Greece in 2016 without being given access to an asylum procedure, and were returned to Turkey on a flight arranged by Frontex, with the four young children separated from their parents while Frontex staff looked on. The family was detained on landing in Turkey and now lives in northern Iraq.

Portuguese Frontex crew members check coordinates as they monitor the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece for boats carrying refugees on March 30, 2016, near Mithymna, Greece.Dan Kitwood / Getty Images file

The cases are the first time Frontex has been brought before the Court of Justice of the European Union. The agency dismissed the cases as “an activist agenda pretending to be a legal case.”

The nonprofit group Human Rights Watch, in a report published last summer, issued a sweeping indictment of Frontex’s performance, its organizational culture and its leadership. 

“Frontex has repeatedly failed to take effective action when allegations of human rights violations are brought to its attention,” said Eva Cossé, Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Its rapid growth into an executive agency of the E.U., with increased powers, funding, and legal responsibilities makes it all the more urgent for Frontex to put in place effective tools to safeguard fundamental rights.”

Created in 2004, Frontex now has a budget of 541 million euros (about $619 million) and it employs more than 1,400 staff members, including a uniformed force of roughly 600 officers. The agency is governed by a management board consisting of representatives of the 25 E.U. member states and two members of the European Commission. 

In theory, there are a range of mechanisms by which Frontex could be held accountable, but it has rarely, if ever, faced any genuine sanction. Obtaining basic information from the agency, even for a member of the European Parliament, is difficult. 

Employees work in the situation room at the headquarters of the European Union border agency Frontex in Warsaw, Poland, on Sept. 29, 2015.Wojtek Radwanski / AFP via Getty Images file

“We really have problems with the lack of transparency,” said Tineke Strik, a Dutch member of the European Parliament.

In its analysis of the history of Frontex’s work, Human Rights Watch noted that under its own bylaws, the agency has the power to suspend or end the operations of E.U. border agencies found to have committed abuses against migrants. In its entire history, Human Rights Watch said, the agency has never done so.

Leggeri, Frontex’s executive director, has repeatedly faced calls to resign in recent months. Protesters gathered outside Frontex’s offices in Brussels in June calling for the abolishment of the agency altogether. In a letter to his staff, Leggeri, who worked on migration enforcement as a member of the French interior ministry, called the protests a “hate campaign” and vowed legal action.

In June, Human Rights Watch sent the agency’s top officials what it said was evidence of serious misconduct either committed or overlooked by Frontex in three European countries. It has yet to get a response. The organization accused Frontex of a cynical semantic game in avoiding responsibility for abuses taking place in both the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas.

“Over the years, Frontex has relied on its coordinating role and lack of executive authority to evade human rights responsibility,” Human Rights Watch wrote. “In December 2020 Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri told the European Parliament there was no evidence of Frontex’s involvement in abuses in the Aegean and that only member states had the authority to make operational decisions, implying that Frontex could not be held responsible.”

Frontex, under pressure, ordered an internal review of its operations. Its own investigators offered a withering critique of the agency’s systems for reporting problems in its ranks. The investigators said the agency needed to acknowledge its failures, and recommended what amounted to an overhaul of the agency’s culture concerning its responsibilities for identifying and acting on concerns about human rights violations. It suggested that Frontex record on video the enforcement work being done by E.U. member states and preserve the recordings for investigation.

The European border agency Frontex is headquartered in the Warsaw Spire skyscraper, seen here on April 6, 2018, in Warsaw, Poland.Jaap Arriens / NurPhoto via Getty Images file

In June, a migrants rights organization that had for years been part of an independent board of advisers to Frontex withdrew from the group. Saying it felt ignored and marginalized, the organization, the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants, said it had grown uncertain of Frontex’s role in “a civil society.”

On yet another front, in January, the European Anti-Fraud Office opened an investigation into Frontex, looking at allegations of fraud, cases of illegally turning back migrants, and issues of workplace harassment, but the specific allegations have not been made public. 

Both Frontex and the European Anti-Fraud Office confirmed an investigation was taking place, but did not offer further details. 

“[They] are operating very carefully,” Strik said of investigators. “But I spoke to them in August and they hope to finish within a few months.”

Outsourcing enforcement to a failed state

Frontex’s work with Libya is part of a much larger and more expensive European push to outsource immigration enforcement to third-party countries. The E.U. has sent billions to countries such as Libya, Niger, Tunisia and others, ostensibly to help them improve conditions in their countries and thus limit the need for people to flee. But tens of millions of those dollars have gone to toughen immigration legislation and empower enforcement agencies in those countries, according to a variety of studies by nongovernmental organizations.

In July, Amnesty International issued its latest report on the state of migrants in Libya. It noted that the Libyan Coast Guard, often after being alerted by Frontex to migrants trying to make it to Europe, races to intercept the migrant boats and capture those aboard, sometimes firing guns at the rafts or dinghies, occasionally capsizing them. In February, for example, the Coast Guard fired on a raft, puncturing it and causing it to sink. Five people drowned as members of the Coast Guard filmed with their cellphones, the report said. 

A message is scratched out on a wall inside the Gharyan Detention Center in Libya.The Outlaw Ocean Project

The Libyan Coast Guard, really a hodgepodge of local port authorities, has for years been understood by the U.N. and other institutional observers to be working in concert with the country’s militias, many of whom are involved in human trafficking. Indeed, the head of the Libyan government agency overseeing the crackdown on migrants has admitted in a series of recent interviews that corruption exists within the ranks of the Coast Guard.

The senior Frontex official who talked to The Outlaw Ocean Project said the agency should not do any sort of business with the Libyan Coast Guard, in part because Europe “didn’t have a clue” as to the integrity of those purporting to belong to the Coast Guard. Things were simply too broken and opaque in Libya, a divided and violent country still struggling to emerge from years of civil war, the official said.

“It’s impossible,” the official said, “to have any vetting of who is who.”

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