As European Union members negotiate a new migrant pact for thousands of people seeking protection in Europe, false claims about migrant journeys to the continent continue to spread on social media. Migration has inflamed Polish political debate ahead of an autumn general election, as the nationalist government approaches the issue as an electoral trump card.

The governing Law and Justice (PiS) party recently proposed holding a referendum on the question of welcoming refugees. Amid this tense political climate, videos showing thousands of men walking through a desert landscape under army escort began circulating, with captions claiming they were heading to Europe via Italy.

“Direction: Libya to Italy, around 125,000 people. Armed soldiers guard the convoy and keep them going in the right direction. This practice was implemented top-down,” reads a tweet posted on July 13, 2023 in Polish with a short video showing hundreds of men marching along a road under military escort. The tweet was retweeted nearly 260 times.

Screenshot from Twitter taken July 18, 2023

“All this is coordinated by the Libyan army,” said a Facebook post with the same video, while a publication on Telegram read: “2,500 illegal immigrants land on their way to Italy from Libya.” The video was also shared in English, SpanishFrench, and Georgian.

We found another similar video circulating on Facebook with the claim: “Up to 500,000 refugees from Libya arrive in Italy”. It was also shared in Greek.

Screenshot from Facebook taken July 18, 2023

Some Facebook users posted both videos, which show a crowd escorted by the same security forces wearing sand-coloured uniforms and feature the same vehicles.

In fact, AFP’s research found that the videos show authorities in Libya rounding up thousands of mostly Egyptian nationals in late May and early June and taking them to the country’s eastern border, as part of a wider crackdown on smugglers and migrants. Western and Arab-language media including the Associated Press (archive link), Reuters (archive link) and  Al-Jazeera (archive link) published stories in early June about this wave of migrant expulsions carried out by Libyan security forces. The AP described 6,000 migrants being taken to the customs hangar of the Musaid crossing point with Egypt.

The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) expressed its concern about the mass arbitrary arrest of migrants and asylum-seekers in Libya on its Twitter account on June 12. “We are concerned about the mass arbitrary arrest of migrants and asylum-seekers across the country. Libyan authorities have arrested thousands of men, women and children from the streets and their homes or following raids on alleged traffickers’ camps and warehouses,” it said.

Libya is a key crossing point for sub-Saharan migrants trying to reach Europe. The International Organization for Migration’s Libya’s Displacement Tracking Matrix programme identified 706,062 migrants in Libya from over 44 nationalities in February 2023. In January and February 2023, a total of 14,948 migrants arrived in Italy and Malta from Libya and Tunisia via the Central Mediterranean Sea.

Libya is a divided nation with rival factions vying for power. Military commander Khalifa Haftar controls eastern Libya, including the border region with Egypt. The country has been in the grip of a major political crisis since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011, undermined by divisions between the country’s east and west and foreign interference.

Same Libyan security forces appear in both videos

With the reported Libyan expulsions in mind, we used reverse image search methods to find previous examples of the two videos with the same false claims that the migrants were headed for Italy. The oldest publications that we could find with videos that matched the Polish false claims were from a Twitter account with the handle @RadioGenova, which posted the first video on June 23, 2023 and the second on June 25, 2023. The English-language account purportedly based in Italy mainly posts anti-migrant videos.

Screenshot from Twitter taken July 24, 2023

The @RadioGenova posts have similar descriptions to the Polish tweet: “Look, an army of 500,000 men ready to invade Italy from Libya. A real apocalypse. Stop the invasion, save Europe!”

We then looked for similar videos on trustworthy Arabic-language social media accounts by typing in keywords and doing reverse image searches. We thus discovered a video with striking similarities to those in the false claims. It was posted on June 7 to Facebook by the press office of the Tarek Ben Ziyad (TBZ) brigade (archive link). This brigade is a militant organisation led by Saddam Haftar, Khalifa Haftar’s son. AFP journalists in Libya verified the account and confirmed that it belongs to the TBZ.

“Large numbers of illegal immigrants in Musaid. Our army is the protector of the homeland,” the caption reads, along with a fire emoji. 

The video was shot from a different angle and from the other side of the road compared to the one in the false claims.  However key details match.

In the video used in the Polish claims, we can see two members of the security forces on the left who appear in the June 7 video posted by the TBZ brigade. We have circled them in blue and red in the screenshot comparisons below.

The two men in beige uniforms are also visible in another video of the same march that was posted to TikTok on June 1, as shown in the final screenshot below, alongside other members of the security forces circled in green and yellow.

Screenshots from Twitter (left) and Facebook (right) taken July 25, 2023
Screenshot from TikTok taken July 25, 2023

The TBZ also published a Facebook post on June 1  entitled “Libyan border” showing security forces and a group of men.

The visual similarities and overlap in dates enable us to debunk the theory that these men were heading to Italy under Libyan military escort.

From the video details, it is not possible to identify the exact moment when the group of migrants was expelled from Libya. But we can posit that it was likely between May 31 and June 1, 2023, when videos of the expulsion of Egyptian nationals at Libya’s eastern border began appearing on social media.

Now we will look at where the men were really headed.

Geolocation shows Libyan security forces by Egyptian border

We used reverse search methods to find previous publications of the second video from the false Polish claims. We found that it was posted on the Twitter account of Egyptian media platform RassdNews (archive link). on June 2 with the caption “Libyan authorities return thousands of illegal immigrants to Egypt via the Musaid land crossing”. The date on the footage is May 31, 2023.

The screenshot comparison below shows that the same security forces and buildings appear in both videos.

Screenshots from Facebook (left) and Twitter (right) taken July 25, 2023

We deciphered the Arabic inscriptions that appear on the vehicles in both videos. The phrases include: “Derna Security Forces Directorate”, “Police”, “Interior Ministry”. The terms suggest that the vehicles belong to the police from this area in eastern Libya. The logo on the vehicles resembles the one on the Facebook page of the police directorate in the city of Derna as well as the national logo of the Libyan police

The logo and Arabic wording on the police vehicles are highlighted in purple below.

Screenshot from Facebook taken July 25, 2023

We also geolocated the videos.

Google Street View is not available in Libya, so we had to find another way to locate the road from the videos. On Google satellite images of Musaid, we located some of the buildings that appear in the videos, including the one with the green, semi-circular roof (highlighted in purple below).

Screenshots from Facebook (left) and Google Maps (right). Side-by-side comparison made July 25, 2023

Thanks to another video published by Al Jazeera Live (here) we identified several of the same buildings, including the building with the green roof, as well as a multi-storey grey building and smaller house nearby, both highlighted in green below. The building on the opposite side of the road, indicated with an orange arrow below, matches images of the Camel Hotel on Google Maps.

Screenshots from Facebook (left) and the site (right). Side-by-side comparison made July 25, 2023

From this we can conclude that the videos were shot in the town of Musaid, 4.7 km from the border checkpoint with Egypt (archive link).

Where were the men going?

Thanks to this geolocation process we can conclude that the second video shows the men are walking to the south as the Camel Hotel is behind them and the building with the green roof is on their right.

On Google Maps, we see that the road heading south passes by a customs office (which also has a green roof, but this one is pitched), which has a big parking lot in front of it. The location is about 1 km — or around 14 minutes on foot — outside the city on the way to the border. These features match those in the videos on Polish social media.

The screenshots below — from the two videos — clearly show that the men are some distance from the Camel Hotel in the background, circled in red.

Screenshots from Twitter (left) and the TBZ Facebook account (right). Side-by-side comparison made July 21, 2023

In the video from TBZ’s June 7 post, the customs building with a green pitched roof appears at the 19-second mark. In the screenshot below we also see the same two big buildings that we were able to identify thanks to Google Maps, one of which is the Camel Hotel.

Screenshot from the TBZ Facebook account taken July 21, 2023

On the Google satellite images below, we circled the green roof of the customs buildings located to the right of the road leading to the border crossing from Musaid. The building is clearly visible on the Google satellite images.

Screenshots from Google Maps (left) and the TBZ Facebook account (right). Side-by-side comparison made July 21, 2023

Video of migrants entering Egypt

A Libyan NGO based in Tobruk (archive link) published a video on June 1, which a TikTok user had posted the previous day and which showed hundreds of men entering the border crossing with Egypt.

Screenshot from TikTok taken July 25, 2023

We can therefore trace the whole route taken from downtown Musaid to the border crossing. The men were escorted by Libyan security forces to Egypt, and not Italy as claimed in the posts on Polish social media.

Screenshot from Google Maps taken July 21, 2023

Maja Czarnecka

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