Migrants crossing through Libya face “unimaginable horrors” according to a new UN report released last week, which lays bare the extent of abuse faced by African immigrants heading to Europe.
Based on interviews with over 1,300 migrants who came to Libya within the past 18 months, the UN human rights office (OHCHR) report found that the “overwhelming majority” of women and older girls who passed through the country had been gang-raped by traffickers or witnessed others taken away to be abused.
“There is a local and international failure to handle this hidden human calamity that continues to take place in Libya,” head of the UN Special Mission in Libya Ghassan Salame said of the report’s release.
The accounts, which included the experiences migrants who had either returned to their country of origin or succeeded in reaching Italy, also told of the extent of human trafficking and slavery in the country. Countless refugees are sold from one criminal gang to another and held in in illegal detention centres, where they face torture, rape, forced labour and extrajudicial executions.
“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 report read.
According to the UN, the Libyan coast guard intercepted 29,000 migrants between the beginning of 2017 and the end of September 2018. From there, thousands are taken to detention centres, described by UN staff who visited as “inhumane”, where migrants remain indefinitely and arbitrarily, without due process or access to lawyers.
The UN also pointed to the 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.”
“The situation is utterly dreadful,” said Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “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.”
The report called on EU states to re-examine their cooperation with Libya on the issue of migration to avoid contributing to such rampant abuse.
“This should include working towards an end to the mandatory, automatic and arbitrary detention of migrants and refugees in irregular situations, stamping out of torture and ill-treatment, sexual violence and forced labour in detention, and ending all return practices that would violate the strict prohibitions on collective expulsion,” it concluded.
For many migrants, Libya is a necessary transit point to recover their strength and save enough money before attempting to continue their journey towards Europe.
Yet despite the threat of violence and abuse, European governments wishing to stem migration have made efforts to send migrants back to Libya, in violation of international laws prohibiting the deportation of refugees to a place where their lives are in danger.
Both the UN and EU have repeatedly acknowledged that Libya is not safe, but in July, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini asked EU ministers to reconsider that assessment. Salvini, who has led a popular crackdown against immigration since the government took office in June, has himself been under investigation by a Sicilian prosecutor for abuse of office, kidnapping and illegal arrest.
The Italian government has already been giving funds to Libyan authorities since February 2017 to round up refugees and prevent them from travelling to Europe, violating the international legal principle of “non-refoulement”, which protects migrants against returns to countries where they have reason to fear persecution.