The EU has sent more than 327.9 million euros to Libya, with an additional 41 million approved in early December, largely funnelled through UN agencies.
The AP found that in a country without a functioning government, huge sums of European money have been diverted to intertwined networks of militiamen, traffickers and coast guard members who exploit migrants.
In some cases, UN officials knew militia networks were getting the money, according to internal emails.
The militias torture, extort and otherwise abuse migrants for ransoms in detention centres under the nose of the UN, often in compounds that receive millions in European money, the investigation showed.
Many migrants also simply disappear from detention centers, sold to traffickers or to other centres.
The same militias conspire with some members of Libyan coast guard units. The coast guard gets training and equipment from Europe to keep migrants away from its shores.
But coast guard members return some migrants to the detention centres under deals with militias, the AP found, and receive bribes to let others pass en route to Europe.
The militias involved in abuse and trafficking also skim off European funds given through the UN to feed and otherwise help migrants, who go hungry. For example, millions of euros in UN food contracts were under negotiation with a company controlled by a militia leader, even as other UN teams raised alarms about starvation in his detention centre, according to emails obtained by the AP and interviews with at least a half-dozen Libyan officials.
In many cases, the money goes to neighbouring Tunisia to be laundered, and then flows back to the militias in Libya.
Highly complex issue
The story of Prudence Aimee and her family shows how migrants are exploited at every stage of their journey through Libya.
Aimee left Cameroon in 2015, and when her family heard nothing from her for a year, they thought she was dead.
But she was in detention and incommunicado.
In nine months at the Abu Salim detention centre, she told the AP she saw “European Union milk” and nappies delivered by UN staff pilfered before they could reach migrant children, including her toddler son.
Aimee herself would spend two days at a time without food or drink, she said.
In 2017, an Arab man came looking for her with a photo 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.
” Weeping, Aimee said her family paid a ransom equivalent of $670 to get her out of the centre.
She could not say who got the money.
She was moved to an informal warehouse and eventually sold to yet another detention centre, where yet another ransom – $750 this time – had to be raised from her family.
Her captors finally released the young mother, who got on a boat that made it past the coast guard patrol, after her husband paid $850 for the passage.
A European humanitarian ship rescued Aimee, but her husband remains in Libya.
Aimee was one of more than 50 migrants interviewed by the AP at sea, in Europe, Tunisia and Rwanda, and in furtive messages from inside detention centres in Libya.
Journalists also spoke with Libyan government officials, aid workers and businessmen in Tripoli, obtained internal UN emails and analysed budget documents and contracts.
The issue of migration has convulsed Europe since the influx in 2015 and 2016 of more than a million people fleeing violence and poverty in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa.
In 2015, the European Union set up a fund intended to curb migration from Africa, from which money is sent to Libya.
The EU gives the money mainly through the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).