Around 5 pm on 4 February, roughly a hundred and fifteen kilometres north of Libya, a white reconnaissance plane with a camera on its underside circled a raft 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 the European Union’s border-patrol agency, Frontex.
Two hours later, thanks to this surveillance footage, a Libyan coast-guard cutter caught up with the migrants and ordered them to stop, even though they were well outside of Libyan waters. Armed officers 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-like detention centres.
Efficient and brutal, the at-sea capture and on-land internment of these migrants is what EU officials hail as part of a successful partnership with Libya in their “humanitarian rescue” efforts across the Mediterranean. For many, though, the true intent of this joint campaign is less to save migrants from drowning than to stop them from reaching European shores.