Aid for African Migrants in Libya Getting in the Wrong Hands

04 January 2020

The European Union (EU) started sending millions of dollars in aid to Libya in 2015 to slow the numbers of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The money came with promises to improve migrant detention centers. The centers are paid for in part by the EU and enabled by the United Nations.

But, an Associated Press investigation found that the migrant detention centers in Libya have become places of torture and abuse.


Rescued migrants are seated next to a coast guard boat in the city of Khoms, around 120 kilometers (75 miles) east of Tripoli, Libya, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Hazem Ahmed)

Since 2014, migration has been an issue of increasing importance for European citizens, notes the European Council on Foreign Relations, a research group. This is the result of more people fleeing poverty and violence in Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan, and then arriving in Europe.

The issue became especially important in 2015 when more than 1 million migrants arrived there.

In reaction to the crisis, the EU set up a fund meant to reduce migration from Africa. Some of the fund's money goes to Libya.

Since 2015, the EU says it has spent more than 400 million euros on projects in Libya. Most of the money has been spent through U.N. agencies such as the International Organization for Migration, IOM, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR.

Libya, however, has a problem with corruption and is involved in a civil war between the UN-supported government in Tripoli and militia groups based in the east. The chaos helps people who are trying to make money from migrants' problems.

The AP found large amounts of EU money have been sent to militiamen, traffickers and coast guard members who exploit migrants. In some cases, the AP said emails suggest that U.N. officials knew militia groups were getting the money.

The militias involved in abuse take money given to feed and help migrants, who then go hungry. For example, millions of euros in U.N. food contracts were under negotiation with a company controlled by a militia leader. At the same time, other U.N. teams raised concerns about starvation at the same detention center.

That information comes from emails received by the AP and discussions with at least a six Libyan officials.

In many cases, money goes to neighboring Tunisia to be laundered, where it then goes back to militias in Libya.

The EU's records show that its officials knew of the dangers of the migration crisis in Libya. Budget documents from 2017 warned of a medium-to-high risk that Europe's support would lead to more human rights violations against migrants.

Prudence Aimée's story

The story of Prudence Aimée and her family shows how migrants are exploited in their journey through Libya.

Aimée left Cameroon in 2015. When her family heard nothing from her for a year, they thought she was dead. She was, however, held in a detention center in Libya.

In nine months at the Abu Salim detention center, she told the AP that she saw "European Union milk" and diapers delivered by U.N. workers. But those goods were taken before they could reach migrant children, including her young son. Aimée said she would spend two days at a time without food or something to drink.

In 2017, a man came looking for her with a photograph of her on his phone.

"They called my family and told them they had found me," she said. "That's when my family sent money." Crying, Aimée said her family paid $670 to get her out of the center.

She was moved to another place and eventually sold to another detention center. Her captors asked for more money — $750 this time — from her family. Her captors finally released the young mother. After her husband paid $850, she got on a boat that got past the coast guard.

A European humanitarian ship rescued Aimée, but her husband remains in Libya.

Aimée was one of more than 50 migrants spoken to by the AP. Reporters also spoke with government officials, aid workers and businessmen in Tripoli.

EU and UN response

Both the EU and the U.N. say they want the detention centers closed.

In a statement to the AP, the EU said that under international law, it is not responsible for what goes on inside the centers. The EU also said more than half of the money in its fund for Africa is used to help and protect migrants, and that it depends on the U.N. to spend the money wisely.

The U.N. said the situation in Libya is highly complex. It has to work with whoever runs the detention centers to keep them open for migrants.

"UNHCR does not choose its counterparts," said Charlie Yaxley, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency. "Some presumably also have allegiances with local militias."

After two weeks of being questioned by the AP, UNHCR said it would change its policy of giving food and aid contracts for migrants through other groups.

Yaxley said UNHCR would offer contracts directly for services needed for the centers.

Julien Raickman was, until recently, the Libya chief for the aid group known as Doctors Without Borders. He said he believes the problem started with Europe's unwillingness to deal with the politics of migration.

I'm Dorothy Gundy.

And I'm Susan Shand.

Maggie Michael, Lori Hinnant, and Renata Brito reported on this story for the Associated Press. John Russell adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.


Words in This Story

enable – v. to make (something) possible, practical, or easy

fund – n. an amount of money that is used for a special purpose

chaos – n. complete confusion and disorder : a state in which behavior and events are not controlled by anything

trafficker – n. a person who buys and sells something that is illegal

exploit – v. to use (someone or something) in a way that helps you unfairly

launder – v. to put (money that you got by doing something illegal) into a business or bank account in order to hide where it really came from

diaper – n. a piece of cloth or other material that is placed between a baby's legs and fastened around the waist to hold body waste

presumably – adv. very likely — used to say what you think is likely to happen or be true even though you are not sure

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