Migrants and refugees are being subjected to “unimaginable horrors” from the moment they enter Libya, throughout their stay in the country and – if they make it that far during their subsequent attempts to cross the Mediterranean sea, according to a UN report released on 20 December 2018.
The 61-page report, published jointly by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and the UN Human Rights Office, covers a 20-month period up to August 2018, and details a terrible litany of violations and abuses committed by a range of State officials, armed groups, smugglers and traffickers against migrants and refugees. These include unlawful killings, torture, arbitrary detention, gang rape, slavery, forced labour and extortion.
Based on 1,300 first-hand accounts gathered by UN human rights staff in Libya itself, as well from migrants who have returned to Nigeria or reached Italy, the report traces the entire journey of migrants and refugees from Libya’s southern border, across the desert to the northern coast – a journey “marred by considerable risk of serious human rights violations and abuses every step of the way.”
The climate of lawlessness in Libya provides fertile ground for thriving illicit activities, such as trafficking in human beings and criminal smuggling, and leaves migrants and refugees “at the mercy of countless predators who view them as commodities to be exploited and extorted”, the report says.
“The overwhelming majority of women and older teenage girls interviewed by UNSMIL reported being gang raped by smugglers or traffickers”, the report says. UN staff visiting 11 detention centres, where thousands of migrants and refugees are being held, documented torture, ill-treatment, forced labour, and rape by the guards, and reported that women are often held in facilities without female guards, exacerbating the risk of sexual abuse and exploitation. Female detainees are often subjected to strip searches carried out, or watched, by male guards.
Those who manage in the end to attempt the perilous Mediterranean sea crossing, are increasingly being intercepted or rescued by the Libyan Coast Guard which then transfers them back to Libya, where many are delivered straight back into the pattern of violations and abuse they have just escaped.
The approximately 29,000 migrants returned to Libya by the Coast Guard since early 2017 were transferred to immigration detention centres run by the Department of Combating Illegal Migration, where thousands remain detained indefinitely and arbitrarily, without due process or access to lawyers or consular services.
The report states Libya cannot be considered a place of safety following rescue or interception at sea, given the considerable risk of being subject to serious human rights abuses, and notes that these ‘pushbacks’ have been considered by the UN Special rapporteur on torture as violations of the principle of non refoulement, which is prohibited under international law.
The report calls on the European Union and its Member States to reconsider the human costs of their policies and efforts to stem migration to Europe and ensure that their cooperation and assistance to the Libyan authorities are human rights-based, in line with their own obligations under international human rights and refugee law, and do not, directly or indirectly, result in men, women and children being trapped in abusive situations with little hope of protection and remedy.
Migrants held in the centres are systematically subjected to starvation and severe beatings, burned with hot metal objects, electrocuted and subjected to other forms of of ill-treatment with the aim of extorting money from their families through a complex system of money transfers.
The detention centres are characterised by severe overcrowding, lack of ventilation and lighting, and insufficient washing facilities and latrines. In addition to the abuses and violence committed against the people held there, many of them suffer from malnutrition, skin infections, acute diarrhoea, respiratory tract infections and other ailments, as well as inadequate medical treatment. Children are held with adults in same squalid conditions.
The report points to the apparent “complicity of some State actors, including local officials, members of armed groups formally integrated into State institutions, and representatives of the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defence, in the smuggling or trafficking of migrants and refugees.”
“There is a local and international failure to handle this hidden human calamity that continues to take place in Libya”, said Special Representative of the Secretary-General and head of UNSMIL, Ghassan Salamé.
Many people are held in unofficial and illegal centres run directly by armed groups or criminal gangs. They are frequently sold from one criminal group to another and required to pay multiple ransoms. “Countless migrants and refugees lost their lives during captivity by smugglers after being shot, tortured to death, or simply left to die from starvation or medical neglect”, the report says. “Across Libya, unidentified bodies of migrants and refugees bearing gunshot wounds, torture marks and burns are frequently uncovered in rubbish bins, dry river beds, farms and the desert.”
“The situation is utterly dreadful,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. “Tackling the rampant impunity would not only end the suffering of tens of thousands of migrant and refugee women, men and children seeking a better life, but also undercut the parallel illicit economy built on the abuse of these people and help establish the rule of law and national institutions.”