2022 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Medium Newsroom winner

The Secretive Prisons That Keep Migrants Out of Europe

About the Project

Ian Urbina’s article “The Secretive Prisons That Keep Migrants Out of Europe,” published in collaboration with The Outlaw Ocean Project, is a shocking investigation into the shadow immigration system that the European Union has created to stop the flow of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. In the past six years, the E.U. has equipped and trained the Libyan Coast Guard, a quasi-military organization with links to local militias, to capture migrants as they cross the Mediterranean. The migrants are then detained indefinitely in a network of secretive militia-run prisons. The enterprise has come with grave humanitarian costs. Aid agencies have documented an array of abuses: detainees tortured with electric shocks, children raped by guards, families extorted for ransom, men and women sold into forced labor.

Urbina tells the heartbreaking story of Aliou Candé, a young climate migrant from Guinea-Bissau, who was held at Libya’s largest migrant prison and given no indication of whether he would ever be released. No one knew that Candé had been captured until he was able to get a message to his family. But, this spring, before they could find a way to rescue him, he was shot, fatally, by guards. Urbina travelled to Libya to investigate the killing and interviewed dozens of former detainees and officials. The endeavor came with great risks: Urbina and his research team were kidnapped by Libyan intelligence agents and held for six days at a black site, where they were blindfolded, beaten, and interrogated, before being released. This is a galvanizing piece of reporting, a record of the blood that Europe has on its hands. The week it was published, a formal request was made to the International Criminal Court for an investigation into crimes against migrants in Libya; it has also sparked debates in the Irish and Dutch parliaments.

Judges Comments

A captivating effort from beginning to end. Excellent use of innovative techniques combined with important local and international context. Stories like this need to be covered again and again until things change.