Tired of migrants arriving from Africa, the EU has created a shadow immigration system that captures them before they reach its shores, and sends them to brutal Libyan detention centres run by militias.
A collection of makeshift warehouses sits along the highway in Ghout al-Shaal, a worn neighbourhood of auto-repair shops and scrapyards in Tripoli, the capital of Libya. Formerly a storage depot for cement, the site was reopened in January 2021, its outer walls heightened and topped with barbed wire. Men in black-and-blue camouflage uniforms, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, stand guard around a blue shipping container that passes for an office. On the gate, a sign reads ‘Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration’. The facility is a secretive prison for migrants. Its name in Arabic is Al Mabani (‘The Buildings’).
At 3am on 5 February 2021, Aliou Candé, a sturdy, shy, 28-year-old migrant from Guinea-Bissau, arrived at the prison. He had left home a year and a half earlier, because his family’s farm was failing, and had set out to join two brothers in Europe. But, as he attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea on a rubber dinghy, with more than a hundred other migrants, the Libyan Coast Guard intercepted them and took them to Al Mabani.
They were pushed inside Cell no 4, where some two hundred others were being held. There was hardly anywhere to sit in the crush of bodies, and those on the floor slid over to avoid being trampled. Overhead were fluorescent lights that stayed on all night. A small grille in the door, about a foot wide, was the only source of natural light. Birds nested in the rafters, their feathers and droppings falling from above. On the walls, migrants had scrawled notes of determination: ‘A soldier never retreats’ and ‘With our eyes closed, we advance’. Candé crowded into a far corner and began to panic. ‘What should we do?’ he asked a cellmate.
No one in the world beyond Al Mabani’s walls knew that Candé had been captured. He hadn’t been charged with a crime or allowed to speak to a lawyer, and he was given no indication of how long he’d be detained. In his first days there, he kept mostly to himself, submitting to the grim (…)