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The EU’s plans to cooperate more closely with Libya on migration risk fuelling the rampant ill-treatment and indefinite detention in horrifying conditions of thousandsof refugees and migrants, said Amnesty International.

Last month the EU announced plans to extend its anti-smuggling naval mission in the Mediterranean, Operation Sophia, for another year and to train, build up the capacity of and share information with the Libyan coastguard following a request by the new Libyan government. However, testimonies gathered during visits to Sicily and Puglia in May 2016 reveal shocking abuses by the Libyan coastguard and at immigration detention centers in Libya.

Amnesty International spoke to 90 people who survived the treacherous sea crossing from Libya to Italy, including at least 20 refugees and migrants who described shootings and beatings while being picked up by the coastguard or harrowing torture and other ill-treatment at detention centers. In one case, the Libyan coastguard abandoned a boat leaving some 120 people on board instead of rescuing them.

“Europe shouldn’t even think about migration cooperation arrangements with Libya if it results, directly or indirectly, in such shocking human rights violations. The EU has repeatedly shown it is willing to stop refugees and migrants from coming to the continent at almost any cost now, with human rights taking a back seat,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, interim Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International.

“Of course the Libyan coastguard’s search and rescue capabilities have to improve to save lives at sea, but the grim reality at the moment is that the Libyan coastguard is intercepting and returning thousands of people to detention centers where they suffer torture and other abuses. It is critical that any support from the EU does not fuel and perpetuate the abhorrent human rights violations that foreign nationals in Libya are so desperate to escape from.”

On June 7 the European Commission announced further plans to enhance cooperation and partnerships with key third countries in the region to manage migration; Libya was identified as one of the priority countries.

Despite the violence and lawlessness pervading Libya, where armed conflicts flared up once again in 2014, hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants, mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa, continue to travel there, fleeing war, persecution or extreme poverty in countries such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Nigeria and Somalia, usually in the hope of reaching Europe. Others have lived in Libya for years but want to flee the country because, unprotected by any government, they live in constant fear of being stopped, beaten and robbed by local gangs or police.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) more than 2,100 people lost their lives trying to make the dangerous sea crossing to Italy in the first five months of this year alone. More than 49,000 survived the journey to Italy – virtually all were rescued by European naval forces, NGOs and merchant vessels.  

Abuses by the Libyan coastguard

At least 3,500 people were intercepted at sea by the Libyan coastguard between May 22 and 28, 2016 and transferred to detention centers.

Abdurrahman, 23, from Eritrea, described the abuse he endured when the overloaded boat he was travelling on – with capacity for 50 people but carrying 120 – was intercepted by members of the Libyan coastguard in January 2016.

“They made everyone get off and beat them with rubber hoses and wooden sticks….They then shot one man in the foot – he was the last one coming off the boat so they asked him where the driver was, when he said he didn’t know they said ‘that means you are the driver’ and they shot him,” he said.

Another Eritrean man, Mohamed, 26, said members of the Libyan coastguard who stopped them later abandoned their boat, leaving the 120 people on board stranded at sea.

“One of the men from the Libyan coastguard boat came onto our boat to drive it back to Libya. He drove it nearly half way back, but then the motor stopped working. [He] was very frustrated and went back to his own boat. I heard him say ‘if you die, you die’, before getting back on his boat and driving away, leaving us stuck in the sea,” he said.

Eventually they were able to fix the motor themselves, but it was still letting in air so they were forced to return to Libya.

In October 2013, Amnesty International documented the sinking of a trawler that was damaged while leaving Libyan waters when an unidentified Libyan vessel opened fire on it. The damaged boat began to take in water and subsequently sank taking about 200 men, women and children down with it. Some of the survivors alleged that the shooting came from the Libyan coastguard. The results of an investigation into the incident have never been made public.

Appalling abuse at Libyan detention centers

According to officials in the Libyan coastguard, refugees and migrants intercepted while attempting the journey are routinely returned to immigration detention centers in Libya.

Since 2011, Amnesty International has collected scores of testimonies from former detainees, including men, women and unaccompanied children, detailing terrible conditions, violence and sexual abuse at such centers across Libya. The latest evidence gathered shows that abuses continue unabated.

The centers are run by the Department to Combat Irregular Migration (DCIM) which nominally falls under the control of Libya’s Ministry of Interior, but in practice many are run by members of armed groups. Libya’s internationally backed Government of National Accord is yet to gain effective control of these centers. According to UNHCR, there are currently 24 such centers currently across Libya.

Libyan law criminalizes entering, exiting and staying in Libya irregularly and allows for the indefinite detention of foreign nationals for the purpose of deportation. Those detained often stay in centers for months without access to their families, lawyers or judges and are unable to challenge their detention or access protection given the lack of any national asylum law or system in Libya. Deportations are carried out without any safeguards or assessment of individual claims.

“The fact that it is possible to detain someone indefinitely in Libya purely based on their immigration status is outrageous. Instead of being granted protection, refugees and migrants end up being tortured and ill-treated in custody. As a first step Libya must urgently end the unlawful detention and torture and ill-treatment of foreign nationals and adopt asylum legislation to ensure those in need of international protection are given refuge,” said Mughrabi.

Former detainees – who include people intercepted at sea as well as foreign nationals arrested on the streets in Libya – said guards beat them on a daily basis using wooden sticks, hoses, electric cables and rifles as well as subjecting them to electric shocks.

A 20-year-old Eritrean whose boat was intercepted at sea by the Libyan coastguard in January 2016 said he was sent directly to a detention center in al-Zawiya, in western Libya where he was beaten repeatedly.

“They [the guards] would hit us three times a day using electric wire that was folded three times to make it hurt more,” said one man who was held at Abu Slim detention center in Tripoli where the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) says at least 450 people are being held. He said detainees there slept in the open air without shelter from the extreme hot or cold weather. Guards would often spray the area with water forcing them to sleep on the damp cold floor.

Charles, a 35-year-old man from Nigeria, was held at five different detention centers after he was stopped in the street in Tripoli in August 2015. He told Amnesty International:

“They beat us all the time, every day…Once my arm got broken because of the beating and they took me to the hospital but I didn’t get any medication. They used sticks, their guns and sometimes electric shocks.”

When the guards threatened to deport him he responded “anything is better than the hell here.”

A 28-year-old Ethiopian man, who was arrested with his wife at a checkpoint as they tried to get to western Libya spent four months in Kufra detention center in the southeast of the country. He described being beaten regularly, being placed in a box, and being flogged and burned with hot water. His wife said the head of the center would regularly beat her and the other women there. They were eventually able to pay for their release.

None of the detention centers run by DCIM have female guards, heightening the risk of sexual abuse.

Several people said they had witnessed refugees or migrants dying in detention, either shot dead or beaten to death by the guards.

“The guards would beat us if we said we’re hungry…. They would make us lie down on our stomach and two would hit us with hose… I saw a Chadian man, they shot him for no reason in front of me. They took him to the hospital but he died in prison after they brought him back. In the records, they said he died in a car accident. I know because they made me work [for free] all day in the filing room,” said a 19-year-old Eritrean man who was detained in the Abu Slim detention center.

Another Eritrean man who spent five months from October 2015 in an immigration detention center in al-Zawiya also said he witnessed a detainee being beaten to death by the guards. Afterwards they wrapped the dead body up in a blanket and removed it. In another incident, the man described how the guards came in and opened fire on seven men in his cell when they didn’t understand the guards’ orders to get up in Arabic. In April 2016, UNSMIL called for investigations when four people were shot dead as they attempted to escape horrible conditions at a detention center in al-Zawiya.

Former detainees also complained of a lack of food, drinking water, poor medical care and squalid conditions due to a shortage of sanitary facilities which many said led to skin diseases. They explained that even when doctors from humanitarian organizations came to see them, they were only shown a small number of detainees who would usually be too afraid to report injuries caused by the guards. The medication they were given was also confiscated by the guards.

“The EU cannot ignore these true horror stories about the shocking abuses committed on a daily basis against foreign nationals in Libya. Before any migration policies and programs are designed, there have to be rock-solid guarantees that refugees and migrants rights are fully respected in Libya – something that is highly unlikely to be the case in the near future,” said Mughrabi.

Religious discrimination

Christians are at an increased risk of ill-treatment in Libya’s detention centers. Omar, a 26-year-old from Eritrea who was held in a detention center in al-Zawiya, said: “They hate Christians. If you’re a Christian, all I can say is God help you if they find out…If they see a cross or a [religious] tattoo they beat you a lot more”.

Another former detainee from Nigeria said the guards in the detention center in Misratah would separate the men according to religion and flog those who were Christians.

“At the beginning I said I’m not going to change my religion even if I’m in a Muslim country. They took me out and flogged me. Next time I lied and said I was Muslim,” he said.

Semre, a 22-year-old man from Eritrea who was beaten in detention after his boat was intercepted at sea in January, also said Christians received far worse treatment:

“They beat me, took my money and threw away my Bible and the cross I had on my neck…First they check whether one has money in the pockets, then they take an electrical cable and they whip you,” he said.

Exploited, extorted or sold to smugglers

The testimonies collected by Amnesty International suggest that detainees’ only hope of release is escaping, buying their way out, or being sold on to people smugglers. Many are exploited and forced into work without pay or face financial extortion. They are made to work in the detention centers or are given to Libyan men who pay the guards for their labour.

Daniel, a 19-year-old from Ghana detained in March 2014, described how his only option to get away from the repeated beatings and ill-treatment he suffered in detention was to attempt to escape,as he did not have the money the guards were asking in exchange for his release.

“I stayed there for three months, because I had no money to pay the police. They took me as a slave, I had to do any type of work, farming, carrying sand or stones…I was never paid. When I was hungry and I told them, they shouted. They gave me water with petrol inside. Or they would put salt in it, just to punish you,” he said.

“They gave me a phone to call my family to get them to send money to release me. I have no family, my mum and dad died. I couldn’t call anyone, so they beat me and didn’t give me any food.”

In some cases, detainees escaped from or were released by the men they were made to work for, who would help them get on boats in exchange for their work.

In other cases, smugglers negotiated the release of a detainee – often by bribing the detention center guards – just so they could get them to pay for another sea crossing, at a cost of around US$1,000 each. Mohamed, who was held at a detention center in al-Zawiya after his boat was intercepted in January 2016 said the smugglers gave the guards “cars full of goods” in exchange for their release.

“Europe can’t continue to duck its responsibility in this unprecedented global refugee crisis.To avoidbeingcomplicit in keeping refugees and migrants stuck in a cycle of abominable abuses in Libya, the EU must focus its efforts on ensuring that the Libyan coastguard carries out its operations in line with human rights, that no refugee or migrant is detained unlawfully and ultimately, that there are alternatives to this dangerous journey in the first place. This means radically increasing resettlement to Europe and granting humanitarian admissions and visas,” said Mughrabi.