Horrifying accounts of sexual violence, killings, torture and religious persecution collected by Amnesty International reveal the shocking range of abuses along the smuggling routes to and through Libya.
The organization spoke to at least 90 refugees and migrants at reception centers in Puglia and Sicily, who had made the journey across the Mediterranean from Libya to southern Italy in the past few months, and who were abused by people smugglers, traffickers, organized criminal gangs and armed groups.
“From being abducted, incarcerated underground for months and sexually abused by members of armed groups, to being beaten, exploited or shot at by people smugglers, traffickers or criminal gangs – refugees and migrants have described in harrowing detail the horrors they were forced to endure in Libya,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, Interim Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Amnesty International.
“Their experiences paint a terrifying picture of the conditions many of those who come to Europe are so desperate to escape.”
Hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants – mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa – travel to Libya fleeing war, persecution or extreme poverty, often in the hope of settling in Europe. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates there are over 264,000 migrants and refugees currently in Libya. According to UNHCR, there are around 37,500 registered refugees and asylum-seekers, half of them Syrians.
“No one should have to face abduction, torture and rape in Libya to seek protection. The international community should be doing their utmost to ensure refugees do not need to flee to Libya in the first place. The EU, and indeed governments around the world, should dramatically increase the number of resettlement places and humanitarian visas to vulnerable refugees facing severe hardships and few prospects in the neighboring countries they first fled to,” said Mughrabi.
Despite the formation of a UN-backed Government of National Accord fighting continues in parts of Libya including in Benghazi, Derna and Sirte.
“The Libyan authorities must take urgent steps to restore the rule of law and protect the rights of refugees and migrants. The internationally-backed Government of National Accord has made commitments to respect and uphold human rights – they have a duty to hold those responsible for these abhorrent crimes accountable.”
Amidst the lawlessness and violence that continue to plague the country, a lucrative people-smuggling business has been established along routes running from southern Libya to the Mediterranean coast in the north where boats bound for Europe depart. At least 20 of the people Amnesty International spoke to also described abuses suffered at the hands of the Libyan coastguard and in immigration detention centers inside Libya.
Amnesty International spoke to refugees and migrants who described facing abuse at every stage of the journey, from their arrival in Libya until they reached the northern sea coast. Others had lived in Libya for years but wanted to escape because of harassment or abuse by local gangs, police or armed groups.
Amnesty International documented abuses by smugglers, traffickers and armed groups in Libya in its 2015 report Libya is full of Cruelty. The latest testimonies show that one year on, refugees and migrants continue to be subjected to horrifying abuse.
Horrors along the journey
The majority of people Amnesty International spoke to reported being victims of human trafficking. They were held by smugglers as soon as they entered Libya or sold on to criminal gangs. Several described being beaten, raped, tortured, or exploited by those who held them captive. Some witnessed people being shot dead by smugglers, others saw people left to die as a result of illness or ill-treatment.
“When you [arrive in] Libya, that’s when the struggle starts. That’s when they start to beat you,” said Ahmed, an 18-year-old from Somalia describing his arduous journey through the desert from Sudan to Libya in November 2015. He said the smugglers refused to give them water as punishment and even shot at them when they begged for water for a group of Syrian men travelling with them who were gasping with thirst.
“The first Syrian died, he was young, maybe 21 years old. After this they gave us water, but the other Syrian man also died…he was only 19,” he said, adding that the smugglers seized the belongings of the dead men and did not allow them time to bury them.
Paolos, a 24-year-old Eritrean man who travelled through Sudan and Chad and arrived in Libya in April 2016, told how the smugglers abandoned a disabled man in the desert along the way, as they crossed the Libyan border heading to the southern town of Sabha.
“We saw them throw one man [out of the pick-up truck] into the desert. He was still alive. He was a disabled man,” he said.
Sexual violence along the smuggling route
Amnesty International spoke to 15 women most of whom said they lived in perpetual fear of sexual violence along the journey to the Libyan coast. Many said rape was so commonplace that they took contraceptive pills before travelling to avoid becoming pregnant as a result of it. Medical staff as well as psychologists and social workers in three reception centres visited by Amnesty International in Sicily and Puglia confirmed that women reported a high level of sexual violence during the journey. At the reception centre in Bari, staff also confirmed that many migrant and refugee women were taking contraceptive pills ahead of the journey out of fear of rape. In total, Amnesty International collected 16 accounts of sexual violence from survivors and eyewitnesses.
According to testimonies, women were sexually assaulted either by the smugglers themselves, traffickers or members of armed groups. Attacks took place along the smuggling route and while women were being held in private homes or abandoned warehouses near the coast waiting to board boats to Europe.
A 22-year-old Eritrean woman told Amnesty International that she witnessed other women being sexually abused, including one who was gang-raped because the smuggler wrongly accused her of failing to pay his fee.
“Her family couldn’t pay the money again. They took her away and she was raped by five Libyan men. They took her out late at night, no one opposed it, everyone was too afraid,” she said.
Ramya, 22, from Eritrea said she was raped more than once by the traffickers who held her captive in a camp near Ajdabya, in northeastern Libya after she entered the country in March 2015.
“The guards would drink and smoke hashish [cannabis] and then come in and choose which women they wanted and take them outside. The women tried to refuse but when you have a gun pointed at your head, you don’t really have a choice if you want to survive. I was raped twice by three men…I didn’t want to lose my life,” she said.
Antoinette, a 28-year-old woman from Cameroon said of the traffickers who held her captive in April 2016: “They don’t care if you’re a woman or a child…They used sticks [to beat us] and would shoot in the air. Maybe because I had a child they didn’t rape me but they raped pregnant women and single women. I saw this happen.”
Abducted, exploited and extorted
Many said the smugglers held them captive to extort a ransom from their families. They kept them in deplorable and often squalid conditions, deprived them of food and water and would beat, harass and insult them constantly.
Semre, 22, from Eritrea, said he saw four people including a 14-year-old boy and a 22-year-old woman die from illness and starvation while he was held captive for ransom.
“No one took them to the hospital so we had to bury them ourselves,” he said. His father eventually paid the traffickers in exchange for Semre’s freedom but instead of releasing him they sold him on to another criminal group.
Others recounted how they were repeatedly beaten by those who held them captive and those who could not pay were forced to work for free to pay off the debt.
Abdulla, a 23-year-old Eritrean man, said the traffickers would torture and beat people to force them to pay, particularly while forcing them to speak to their families to pressure them into paying.
Saleh, 20, from Eritrea, entered Libya in October 2015 and was immediately taken to a storage hangar in Bani Walid run by traffickers. During the 10 days he was held there, he witnessed how one man who couldn’t pay dying after being electrocuted in water. “They said that if anyone else couldn’t pay, their fate would be the same,” he said.
Saleh escaped but eventually ended up at another camp run by traffickers in Sabratah, close to the sea.
He said: “We didn’t know what was happening…They said they would keep us there until our family was able to pay…The people in control forced us to work for free, in houses, to clean, any jobs. They didn’t give us proper food. Even the water they gave us was salty. There were no proper bathrooms. Many of us got skin problems. The men would smoke hashish and would beat you with their guns and anything they could find. They used metal, rocks. They had no heart.”
Sexual abuse and religious persecution by armed groups
The rise of powerful armed groups in recent years, including some which have pledged allegiance to the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS) and aim at imposing their own interpretation of Islamic Law, has put foreign nationals – particularly Christians – at an increased risk of abuse and potential war crimes. Amnesty International spoke to people who said they were abducted by IS for several months.
Amal, a 21-year-old Eritrean woman, described how the group of 71 people she was travelling with was abducted by an armed group they believed to be IS near Benghazi while they were on their way to Tripoli in July 2015.
“They asked the smuggler why he was helping Christians. He pretended that he didn’t know we were Christians so they let him go. They separated us into Christians and Muslims and then they separated the men and women. They took [the Christians] to Tripoli and kept us underground – we didn’t see the sun for nine months. We were 11 women from Eritrea,” she said.
“Sometimes we didn’t eat for three days. Other times they would give us one meal a day, half a piece of bread.”
She also described how they were pressured into converting to Islam and beaten with hoses or sticks when they refused.
“Sometimes they would frighten us with their guns, or threaten to slaughter us with their knives,” she said.
When the women finally succumbed and agreed to convert, she said they suffered sexual violence. The men considered them their “wives” and treated them as sexual slaves. She said she was raped by different men before being assigned to one man who also raped her.
In another case, in 2015 Adam, 28, a man from Ethiopia living in Benghazi with his wife, was abducted by IS simply because he was a Christian.
“They kept me in a prison for one and half months. Then one of them felt sorry for me after I told him I have a family and he helped me memorize the Quran so they would let me go…They killed many people,” he said. He was eventually able to escape after seven months in captivity.
The IS claimed responsibility for the summary killings of 49 Copts in three separate incidents in February and March 2015.
“The lawlessness and proliferation of rival armed groups and militias increases the risks faced by refugees and migrants in Libya. The Government of National Accord must put a halt to abuses by its own forces and allied militias. And it must ensure that no one, including members of armed groups, can continue to commit serious abuses, including possible war crimes, with impunity,” said Mughrabi.
“The international community must also support the International Criminal Court, which continues to have jurisdiction over Libya, to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity. And all parties to the conflict should cooperate with the ICC investigation.”
As well as the persistent threat from armed groups, foreign nationals in Libya also face widespread racism and xenophobia as public sentiment remains hostile. Many refugees and migrants interviewed reported being physically assaulted, threatened with knives and guns or robbed of their possessions at gunpoint or beaten on the streets by criminal gangs.
Saving lives at sea
On June 28 the European Council endorsed a decision to extend Operation Sophia, the naval operation in the central Mediterranean, for a further year, maintaining its primary function of tackling smugglers and adding to its tasks training of and information sharing with the Libyan coastguard as well as monitoring the implementation of the arms embargo on Libya.
“The EU should focus less on keeping migrants and refugees out and more on finding safe and legal ways for those trapped in Libya to access a place of safety. The priority should be saving lives, this means deploying enough resources in the right places to prevent further tragedy,” said Mughrabi.
"The EU should be tackling abuses by smugglers but should not be seeking to trap people in a country where their lives and rights are so obviously at risk.”
According to IOM, most foreign nationals residing in Libya originate from Niger, Egypt, Chad, Ghana and Sudan. The majority of those transiting through the country and then crossing to Italy by boat are from Eritrea, Nigeria, Gambia, Somalia and Côte d’Ivoire. The main transit point for people from West Africa entering Libya is the south-western city of Sabha. Those entering via Sudan from Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia come through Kufra, and then travel onto Ajdabiya in the north eastern part of the country. Most boats heading to Europe depart from north-western Libya. Before departure, foreign nationals are held in houses and farms until more people are gathered for the journey.
Some of the abuses documented by Amnesty International against refugees and migrants in Libya amount to human trafficking. Trafficking people constitutes a human rights abuse as well as being a crime in most national criminal law systems. It includes the transfer of persons through threat, the use of force or coercion such as abduction, fraud or deception. Its disruption and prosecution with the end of bringing perpetrators to justice is an obligation under international human rights law. By contrast, smuggling does not involve coercion; it is consensual. While smuggling can involve the commission of criminal offenses, it is not in itself a human rights abuse.