In the first week of February 2017, Libya’s coastguard intercepted more than 1,131 migrants near the western city of Sabratha. Libya has become the main point of departure for migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe, and the high number of interceptions is an indication that this year’s so-called ‘boat season’ has already begun. It also raises the question of what will happen to those detained in Libya, a country known for its massive human rights abuses, at a time when a deal with Europe may be just months away.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has identified and located nearly 277,000 migrants in Libya, out of the around 700,000 to 1 million migrants expected to be within the country. Based on 9,000 surveys taken by refugees travelling to Europe via sea, an IOM report published in October 2016 reveals that 70% of migrants crossing the Central Mediterranean are exploited and abused, and that migrants journeying via Libya are between seven and ten times more likely to be abused than those reaching Europe from Turkey. Although migration to Libya is not new – it has historically been both a destination and a transit country – the situation of migrants has declined dramatically in the chaos following the 2011 death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi and the subsequent civil war.
“Migrants in the country are subject to brutal violence at the hands of traffickers and migrant smugglers like militia groups, criminal gangs and others, who exploit their desperation and the lack of security in the country,” Christine Petré, Public Information Officer for IOM’s Libya Mission, told Fanack. “Sub-Saharan migrants have proven to be particularly vulnerable. It is difficult to tackle smuggling networks in a country like Libya, which is struggling with a lack of law enforcement.”
A humanitarian activist based in Libya, who asked to remain anonymous, added: “Currently, many migrants coming to Libya plan to leave for Europe; most don’t plan on staying in Libya due to the security concerns and the difficult economic situation.” Women are especially at risk in the war-torn country. “Many women are raped or sexually trafficked, forced into prostitution, mainly by smugglers to gain more profit, or when the women don’t have enough to pay,” the activist said. “In some cases, the abuse is by migrants as well, if the women travel with men.”
Petré said that the IOM regularly assists pregnant women in detention centres “who are left with no other option but to give birth under very challenging circumstances.” She stressed that “urgent attention must be given to developing alternatives to detention, or at the very least, to improving the conditions in the detention centres, including the provision of dedicated centres for women, children and other vulnerable migrants”. A report published by the United Nations in December 2016 said that migrants detained centres in Libya suffer widespread malnutrition, forced labour, illness, beatings, sexual abuse, torture, confiscation of documents and possessions, and a lack of basic health care.
Following the publication of this report, Sarah Leah Witson, Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Middle East and North Africa Director, said in a press release, “The UN has made clear that Libyan authorities should end the torture, forced labour and sexual violence that has been the lot of detained migrants for years. The partners in Libya’s policies toward migrants, including the EU, should insist on nothing less.”
“In a very fractured country with three governments, there is no one there to protect their rights or make the situation acceptable,” Hanan Salah, senior Libya researcher in HRW’s MENA division, told Fanack over the phone. “From what we have seen in the facilities of Western Tripoli, where the largest number of migrants is held, there are really serious abuses, from starving and regular beatings through to reports of sexual violence and extortion by forced labour.” She is concerned that the EU’s anti-smuggling operation in the Central Mediterranean, which was extended last June 2016 to include training Libyan coastguards, might lead to even more abuses. “We heard allegations that the coastguard received bribes in order to free people when in Libya, and also of beatings and maltreatment. I am concerned about how the EU will insure monitoring of the situation on the ground, as well as the screening of the new recruits to know if they didn’t commit violations or human rights abuses in Libya. It is very worrying.”
The Malta summit, held on 3 February 2017 and attended by European leaders, showed that measures to stem the flow of migrants crossing the Mediterranean will continue to focus on training and assisting Libyan coastguards. In an opinion piece published on IRIN News on 7 February 2017, Melissa Philips, migration researcher and honorary fellow at the University of Melbourne and New York University, explained that ‘the Malta summit’s emphasis on “reception centres” is a missed opportunity to pilot alternatives to detention in the Libyan context’. She added: ‘Fledgling efforts have already been made with Libyan civil society and government actors, supported by international organizations, to find alternatives to immigration detention. But in its eagerness to reduce irregular migration, the EU has shown itself to be out of step with global campaigns to make immigration detention a practice of last resort as well as local initiatives to foster a different approach.’
For humanitarian organizations, activists and researchers, the time has come for a drastic change of attitude towards migrants. “HRW is very concerned about how this deal will be used for politics,” Salah said. “The EU would be better advised to secure safe channels in order to avoid tragedies, but they seem to choose politics over humanity.”