'Horrific abuse' in Libya driving migrants to risk lives

'Horrific abuse' in Libya driving migrants to risk lives
5 min read
11 May, 2015
Abuse faced by migrants in Libya including rape, torture and abductions is driving them to risk lives in Mediterranean crossings, Amnesty International said Monday.
Abuses are widespread in Libyan immigration detention centres [Hazem Turkia/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images]

Refugees and migrants across Libya face rape, torture and abductions for ransom by traffickers and smugglers, as well as systematic exploitation by their employers, religious persecution and other abuses by armed groups and criminal gangs, according to a briefing published Monday by rights group Amnesty International. 

The report exposes what the human rights group described as 'the full horror' and plight of refugees and migrants in Libya, many of whom are driven to risk their lives in treacherous sea crossings in a desperate attempt to reach sanctuary in Europe.  

“The ghastly conditions for migrants, coupled with spiralling lawlessness and armed conflicts raging within the country, make clear just how dangerous life in Libya is today.  With no legal avenues to escape and seek safety, they are forced to place their lives in the hands of smugglers who callously extort, abuse and attack them,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director.

“The international community has stood and watched as Libya has descended into chaos since the 2011 NATO military campaign ended, effectively allowing militias and armed groups to run amok. World leaders have a responsibility."

For years Libya has been both a destination and a transit country for refugees and migrants fleeing poverty, conflict or persecution in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Many come to Libya hoping to reach Europe. 

Abuses in Libyan centres

But the rise of lawlessness and threat posed by armed groups has exacerbated the risks they face, leading even established communities of migrants who have been living and working in Libya for years to flee to Europe by boat.

Abuses in immigration detention centres where thousands of migrants and refugees, including children, face indefinite detention in deplorable conditions are another reason why so many are trying to leave.  

With fewer viable routes overland to reach sanctuary in Europe, Syrian refugees are also among those travelling to Libya to attempt dangerous sea crossings towards European shores.  

Amnesty International said it welcomed the commitment made by EU leaders to deploy more resources for search and rescue is a welcome step, but it warned that people will continue to drown in the Mediterranean Sea unless rescue vessels are delivered promptly, deployed in areas where they are needed most and remain available for as long as high numbers of refugees and migrants continue to depart from Libya. 

The European Council also announced plans to intensify efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by smugglers. These measures are likely to be discussed at Monday's meeting between the EU Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini and the UN Security Council. If implemented, the measures could lead to thousands of migrants and refugees being trapped in a conflict zone. 

“Introducing measures to tackle smugglers without providing safe alternative routes out for the people desperate to flee conflict in Libya, will not resolve the plight of migrants and refugees,” said Philip Luther.  

Egypt and Tunisia have also tightened border restrictions fearing a spillover of the conflict in Libya, leaving migrants and refugees whose passports have often been stolen or confiscated by smugglers, criminal gangs or their Libyan employers with no other feasible route out of the country except to embark on a perilous sea journey to Europe. 

Amnesty International is calling for wealthy countries to increase the number of resettlement places for vulnerable refugees and for the international community to take effective steps to urgently address human rights abuses and serious violations of international humanitarian law being committed by all sides in Libya. 

Migrants and refugees face abuses at all stages of the smuggling routes from west and east Africa towards the Libyan coast.

Sub-Saharan migrants and refugees, including unaccompanied children, have been abducted for ransom along the smuggling routes running towards the Libyan coast. 

During their captivity, they are subjected to torture and other ill-treatment to coerce them and their family members to pay a ransom.

Those who are unable to pay are exploited and often held effectively as slaves - forced to work without pay, physically assaulted and robbed. 

Smugglers also sometimes pass the migrants and refugees on to criminal groups once they cross the border in desert areas or in major transit cities along the migration route such as Sabha in the south-west or the coastal city of Ajdabya in eastern Libya.

Migrants and refugees interviewed by Amnesty International said smugglers saw them “as slaves” and treated them “like animals”. One said the smugglers kept them in a dirty overcrowded room with no toilet, blankets or mattresses and fed them only dried morsels of bread. 

“It is effectively a business that they are running. They detain you so that you have to pay… If you don’t answer their questions, they beat you…with rubber pipes,” one man said. 

Women, particularly those travelling alone or without men, are at serious risk of rape or sexual abuse by smugglers and criminal gangs. Women abducted along the smuggling route who are unable to pay the ransom are at times coerced into sex in exchange for being released or being allowed to continue their journey. 

“I know that [the smuggler] used three Eritrean women. He raped them and they were crying. It happened at least twice,” one eyewitness told Amnesty International.

Another woman from Nigeria described how she was gang-raped by 11 men from an armed gang as soon as she arrived in Sabha. 

“They took us to a place outside the city in the desert, tied my husband’s hands and legs to a pole and gang-raped me in front of his eyes. There were 11 men in total,” she said.

Migrants and refugees in Libya also face indefinite detention at immigration detention centres in dire conditions where they face rampant torture and other ill-treatment. Most are detained for irregular entry and similar offences.

Those captured on boats that are intercepted by the Libyan coastguard while making the journey to Europe are also detained at such centres.  

Women held in these centres have also reported sexual harassment and sexual violence. One woman told Amnesty International how officials at an immigration centre beat to death a pregnant woman detained in one such centre. 

“The Libyan authorities must immediately end their policy of systematic detention of refugees and migrants based solely on their immigration status, and ensure that individuals are only detained when strictly necessary for the shortest possible period,” said Philip Luther.