Can the aftermath of NATO’s 2011 invasion of Libya get any worse? And how safe is Europe amid the heartbreak of the lottery of life that’s the Mediterranean crossing for people seeking safety and shelter? A damning new report from Amnesty International spells out what’s happening.
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 new Amnesty International briefing published today.
‘Libya is full of cruelty’: Stories of abduction, sexual violence and abuse from migrants and refugees exposes 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 and must be prepared to face the consequences, which include greater levels of refugees and migrants fleeing conflict and rampant abuse in Libya. Asylum-seekers and migrants are among the most vulnerable people in Libya and their plight must not be ignored.”
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. 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.
At a special summit held in Brussels in April 2015, the European Council announced plans to increase resources for search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.
“The commitment made by EU leaders to deploy more resources for search and rescue is a welcome step, but more people will continue to drown in the Mediterranean Sea unless rescue vessels are delivered promptly, deployed in areas where they are needed most – where most calls for help come from – and remain available for as long as high numbers of refugees and migrants continue to depart from Libya,” said Philip Luther.
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 today’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.
“The world cannot continue to ignore its obligation to grant sanctuary to anyone fleeing such dreadful abuse. Neighbouring countries, including Tunisia and Egypt, must keep their borders open to ensure anyone fleeing violence and persecution in Libya is granted safe refuge,” said Philip Luther.
Amnesty International is also 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.
Christian migrants and refugees in Libya are at particular risk of abuse from armed groups aiming to impose their own interpretation of Islamic law. People from Nigeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Egypt have been abducted, tortured, unlawfully killed and harassed because of their religion. Most recently a total of at least 49 Christians, mostly from Egypt and Ethiopia were beheaded and shot in three mass summary killings claimed by the group calling itself the Islamic State (IS).
Migrants and refugees also face widespread abductions, torture, theft and physical assaults by criminal gangs and human smugglers, often at Libya’s southern borders and along the smuggling routes to the Libyan coast.
Charles, a 30-year-old man from Nigeria, told Amnesty International he decided to flee to Europe by boat last month after he was abducted and physically assaulted a number of times by members of a criminal gang in the coastal city of Zuwara. He had gone there to escape indiscriminate shelling and fighting in Tripoli.
“They would come steal our money and flog us. I can’t complain to the police about the Christian issue because they don’t like us… In October 2014 four men kidnapped me… because they saw I was carrying a bible,” he said.
They took away his money and phone, and held him for two days while they tortured and beat him until he finally managed to escape one night through the window.
“Such horror stories about the dangers driving migrants and refugees to flee Libya highlight the continuing desperate need to save lives in the Mediterranean. European leaders must ensure that refugees and migrants fleeing conflict and human rights abuses are never pushed back to Libya,” said Philip Luther.
Abuses along the smuggling routes: abduction, extortion and sexual violence
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.
Abuses by smugglers before boat departures
Some migrants and refugees said they were ill-treated by smugglers while held in partly constructed houses in Libya for periods of up to three months waiting for more passengers to be gathered. They said smugglers withheld food and water and beat them with sticks or stole their possessions.
Other Syrian refugees said they were transported in poorly ventilated refrigerator trucks.
“Two children were starting to suffocate and stopped breathing. Their parents would slap them on their faces so they would wake up. We were banging on the walls but the driver would not stop,” they said. The children were later resuscitated.
Abuses at immigration detention centres in Libya
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.
“They used to beat us with pipes on the back of our thighs; they even beat the pregnant women. At night they would come to our rooms and tried to sleep with us. Some of the women were raped. One woman got pregnant… This is why I decided to go to Europe. I suffered too much in prison,” one witness said.
“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.