EU is complicit in dumping migrants in North African desert, says investigative report

EU is complicit in dumping migrants in North African desert, says investigative report
Credit: Lighthouse Reports

The EU supports, finances and is involved in clandestine operations in North African countries to dump tens of thousands of Black people in the desert or remote areas each year to prevent them from coming to Europe, according to an investigative report published on Tuesday.

The year-long investigation was carried out by Lighthouse Reports, an investigative consortium, in collaboration with among others Washington Post, Der Spiegel, El Pais and Le Monde. The investigation focused on migrants in Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia trying to reach Europe.

In a previous investigation published in December 2023, Lighthouse reported that the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) had been sharing coordinates of migrant boats in distress in the Mediterranean Sea with a vessel run by a militia in eastern Libya.

In the new investigation, the Lighthouse team interviewed survivors and spoke with current and former EU staff members, as well as sources within national police forces and international organisations with a presence in the countries where the dumps are taking place. Using freedom of information laws, Lighthouses was also able to obtain internal documents.

According to Lighthouse, the team established that the EU is well aware of the dump operations and sometimes directly involved. Two senior EU sources said it was “impossible” to fully account for the way in which European funding was used. The International Organization of Migration (IOM) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are also aware of the operations.

The internal documents obtained by Lighthouse show that EU officials had held internal discussions on some of the abusive practices since at least 2019. Crucially, the team matched vehicles used during the round-up and expulsions to vehicles provided by European countries by identifying tenders and carrying out visual analyses.

“When they see a black guy, they come,” said 25-year-old Lamine from Guinea who was detained, beaten and dumped in the desert by Moroccan forces despite having refugee papers from UNHCR. In many cases the dump sites are rife with organised crime and trafficking rings, and victims are enslaved and tortured.

A majority of the migrants are from Sub-Saharan and North African countries. Lighthouse estimates that tens of thousands of refugees and migrants are being rounded up across North Africa and dumped in the desert and remote areas. The operations almost exclusively target black people, using racial profiling and excessive force, according to the report.

In 2019, a black American citizen, Timothy Hucks, was a victim when he was detained on the streets of Rabat a few blocks away from his home.  He was then transported with other men to a town about 200km south of Rabat, and abandoned. Eventually, he found a bus to take him back to Rabat.

“What they’re doing to us is still the system of slavery,” said Moussa, a Cameroonian migrant rounded up on the streets of Sfax, Tunisia, and dumped in the Libyan desert by a Nissan truck identical to those provided by Germany and Italy. “They have no respect for human beings, no respect for the African man.”

At the Algerian border, a group of around 30 people were abandoned by the Tunisian security forces and ordered to walk towards Algeria. Facing warning shots from the Algerian side, they decided to head back to Tunisia.

“There were two pregnant women in the group and a child with a heel infection […] We were thirsty. We began to suffer hallucinations,” one of them recalls. They walked for nine days, more than 40 kilometres, before finally finding transport to take them back to the Tunisian city of Sfax.

While most of the victims are men, there are also women and children. Two women told the team how they were photographed in a detention centre by white police officers. A source said Spanish police officers photograph people before they were dumped in the Malian desert, an active war zone where Al-Qaida-linked groups are fighting.

It is unclear what Spain does with the photos and lists but the Mauritanian government confirmed that migration data was shared with Spain, according to Lighthouse. Spain, through its development agency (FIIAPP), is financing with EU money two new detention centers that will have the same purpose: dumping people. Spain also provided Mauritania with cars and buses of the same models that are used in the operations.

In Tunisia, there was a wave of expulsions of Black people to the borders in July 2023 after the Tunisian President claimed migrants were “changing Tunisia’s demographic composition”. In July 2023, EU signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Tunisia on a Strategic and Comprehensive Partnership despite human rights concerns.

Migration is the most important and sensitive issue in the agreement because of the undocumented migration to the EU across the Mediterranean Sea. In April 2024, the European Ombudsman decided to continue her inquiry into the EU – Tunisia migration agreement and will likely ask for the same documents that Lighthouse already has disclosed.

“We found that these operations have continued since the signature of the MoU, with dozens dying and hundreds going missing as a result,” a spokesperson for Lighthouse told The Brussels Times. “By analysing 100s of videos and gathering testimony, we were able to verify 14 incidents in which Tunisian authorities expelled groups of sub-Saharan Africans, usually near the Libyan or Algerian borders.”

People are dumped in the desert at the borders with neighboring countries, often without water and any supplies to survive. Many have managed to walk back to where they were taken, only to be caught and dumped again in the desert. Some have been deported several times despite having applied for asylum with a right to stay in the country waiting for the decision.

Lighthouse tries to follow-up the fate of the deported people. “We are in touch with all our sources and follow their cases. Some are safe. Some are relatively safe, not in their home countries. Everyone we interviewed has survived but that is not the case for others as can be seen from multiple reports on social media and by NGOs such as Refugees International.”

Some have died in the desert. Others have managed to return to their home countries. This is what the authorities is forcing them to do. And others have gone into hiding. It does not seem that the EU and international humanitarian staff on the spot are trying to protect them if they manage to return and tell their story.

Did you try to alert the EU and UN agencies on what is going on? “Yes of course. But as we report, the EU and member states knew of and supported the practice for many years.”

The staff interviewed by Lighthouse assured that the EU funding given to the authorities in the countries concerned is not used to carry out the inhuman and illegal deportations into the desert. This does not absolve them of any responsibility for what is happening during their watch as the funding given to the authorities to manage migration is, or should be, linked to the respect of human rights.

Commission comment

Asked to comment on the report, a Commission spokesperson said at the daily press conference on Tuesday that the respect of human rights is a fundamental principle in its migration policy and cooperation with partner countries. “We expect them to fulfil their obligations according to international law,” the spokesperson stressed.

While not addressing directly the findings in the report, nor confirming whether the Commission had been aware of the practices in the partner countries, the spokesperson described the situation in them as challenging. “That’s why we remain engaged with them to improve the situation on the ground.” The Commission assured that it is monitoring the situation in the partner countries.

However, migration is a global phenomenon and the partner countries are the first who have to deal with it. They are sovereign countries and control their own forces, the spokesperson said. They have agreed to cooperate with the EU on the basis of respect of human rights but migration is only one of many areas in which the EU is cooperating with them in the framework of partnership agreements.

The EU is also working closely with the UN agencies so that they can deliver assistance and protection to migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in the partner countries, the spokesperson added. During Jan – April 2024, ca 2,350 persons received support for assisted voluntary return to their countries of origin. Close to 10,000 refugees received humanitarian assistance and legal aid in the partner countries during the same period.

Update: The article has been updated to include the Commission's response to Lighthouse's report.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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