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Refugees and migrants held captive by smugglers in Libya

Refugees are seen after being rescued from the Mediterranean Sea on 15 June 2017 [Marcus Drinkwater/Anadolu Agency]
Refugees are seen receiving medical care after being rescued from the Mediterranean Sea on 15 June 2017 [Marcus Drinkwater/Anadolu Agency]

Refugees and migrants held captive by smugglers in the Libyan city of Sabratha are being held in deplorable conditions, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Tuesday.

According to UNHCR, nearly 20,500 refugees and migrants have been detained in the city, which is 80 km west of the capital, Tripoli. It is considered to be one of the main gathering points from which migrants head for Europe.

“Over the past week, UNHCR teams have been working tirelessly to meet the urgent needs of more than 14,500 migrants and refugees held captive by smugglers,” a spokesman for the agency, Andrej Mahecic, said at a press conference in Geneva. They were reportedly held in several places in and around Sabratha, mostly on farms and warehouses, after they were trapped when caught in the recent clashes in the city.

In the aftermath of the clashes, more than 14,000 migrants held previously in numerous informal detention centres and camps were transferred either to Zwara or an assembly point in Sabratha, from where the Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM) transferred them to different detention centres across the capital Tripoli.

“Among those who have suffered abuse at the hands of traffickers are pregnant women and new-borns,” Mahecic said. He added that hundreds of people have been found without clothing or shoes.

Many of them require emergency medical care, some suffering from gunshot wounds and other visible signs of abuse. Refugees and migrants who have been rescued from smugglers are visibly traumatised.

Read more: ‘Disastrous’ conditions for migrants displaced by Libya clashes, official says

Most refugees and migrants freed from smugglers claim to have been victims of numerous human rights violations, including sexual violence, forced labour and sexual exploitation. Detained in “horrific” conditions, often without toilets or ventilation, many said that they had been beaten and forced to work for long hours without food or water. UNHCR also noted a “disturbing number of unaccompanied and separated children, many under the age of six.”

According to figures from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), nearly 145,355 migrants have arrived in southern Europe from Africa by sea since the beginning of the year. Around 2,776 people have died or disappeared during the often tumultuous crossing of the Mediterranean.

This week, the Government of National Accord’s Ministry of Local Government, in partnership with the Libyan Expert Forum for Development Cooperation (LEF), a local NGO, conducted a workshop on illegal migration in which the various angles and repercussions of the issue were discussed.

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