• Sheet of paper Report

Libya: European governments complicit in horrific abuse of refugees and migrants


Report, showing network of exploitation involving EU-backed Libyan Coast Guard, comes after international outrage at people being sold in auctions in the country

UK among countries helping to fund coast guard despite ‘glaring record’ of abuses

‘Refugees and migrants trapped in Libya are at the mercy of the Libyan authorities, militias, armed groups and smugglers’ – John Dalhuisen

European governments are knowingly “complicit” in the torture and exploitation of tens of thousands of refugees and migrants detained by the Libyan immigration authorities in appalling conditions, said Amnesty International today, in the wake of global outrage over the sale of migrants in human auctions in Libya. 

In a 60-page report – ‘Libya’s dark web of collusion’ – Amnesty shows how European governments are actively supporting a system of abuse of refugees and migrants by the Libyan Coast Guard, the detention authorities in Libyan and smugglers operating in the country.

Amnesty accused the EU of being unconcerned with the fate of thousands of vulnerable people while prioritizing the blocking of those risking their lives to reach European countries.

Amnesty’s report shows the Libyan Coast Guard – with the support of EU countries and even an Italian-donated boat – have intercepted refugees and migrants at sea, returning them to grim detention centers run by the country’s Department for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM). Up to 20,000 people are currently held in these overcrowded, unsanitary detention centers, and numerous migrants and refugees interviewed by Amnesty described the abuse they’d been subjected to or have witnessed. One man from Gambia who was detained for three months, told Amnesty how he was starved and beaten in a detention centre: 

“They beat me with a rubber hose, because they want money to release me. They call the family while beating [you] so the family send money.”

After his family paid the ransom he was taken to Tripoli by an assigned driver who demanded further payment. “I had to stay with him until I pay the money back, otherwise he will sell me.”

A wide network of exploitation

Amnesty’s report shows how abuse at detention centers is part of a wider network of exploitation. Dozens of migrants and refugees told Amnesty about collusion between guards, smugglers and the Libyan Coast Guard. Detention centre guards regularly torture detainees to extort money, releasing those that can pay, and sometimes passing them on to smugglers who secure their departure from Libya in cooperation with the coast guard. Agreements between the coast guard and smugglers are signaled by markings on boats that allow specific vessels to pass through Libyan waters without interception, and the coast guard has also been known to escort boats out to international waters.

While it’s unknown how many members of the coast guard collaborate with smugglers, it’s clear that during 2016 and 2017 the force’s increased capacity – due to support from EU countries – has led to an increasing number of operations where migrants are taken back to Libya. So far in 2017, 19,452 people have been intercepted by the coast guard, taken back to Libya and immediately transferred to detention centers. The criminalization of irregular entry under Libyan law, coupled with the absence of any legislation or practical infrastructure for the protection of asylum-seekers and victims of trafficking, has resulted in mass, arbitrary and indefinite detention becoming the primary migration management system in the country.

John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe Director, said:

“Hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants trapped in Libya are at the mercy of the Libyan authorities, militias, armed groups and smugglers often working seamlessly together for financial gain.  

“Tens of thousands are kept indefinitely in overcrowded detention centres where they are subjected to systematic abuse.

“European governments have not just been fully aware of these abuses; by actively supporting the Libyan authorities in stopping sea crossings and containing people in Libya, they are complicit in these crimes.

“By supporting the Libyan authorities in trapping people in Libya, without requiring the Libyan authorities to tackle the endemic abuse of refugees and migrants or to even recognize that refugees exist, European governments have shown where their true priorities lie: namely the closure of the central Mediterranean route, with scant regard to the suffering caused.

“European governments must rethink their cooperation with Libya on migration and enable people to get to Europe through legal pathways, including by resettling tens of thousands of refugees. They must insist that the Libyan authorities end the policy and practice of arbitrary arrests and detention of refugees and migrants, immediately release all foreign nationals held in the detention centers, and allow the UNHCR to operate unhindered.

“One immediate way to improve the fate of refugees and asylum-seekers in DCIM centers would be for the Libyan authorities to formally recognize UNHCR’s mandate, sign the Refugee Convention and adopt an asylum law. The automatic detention of migrants must also stop as that is when the worst abuses occur.”

UK has ignored warnings over funding Libyan Coast Guard

In March 2017, a review by the UK Independent Commission for Aid Impact expressed concern that the UK’s capacity-building program with the Libyan Coast Guard was “deliver[ing] migrants back to a system that leads to indiscriminate and indefinite detention and denies refugees their right to asylum.” The body also concluded that the risk of UK aid causing unintended harm to vulnerable migrants, or preventing refugees from reaching a place of safety, had been inadequately assessed.

Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK’s Director, said:

“Ministers have been warned time and time again that the UK’s funding of the Libyan Coast Guard means the UK is supporting the depraved abuse and exploitation of thousands of refugees and migrants in Libya.

“Why are we still giving money to a coast guard with such a glaring record of abuses?

“The UK must ensure that any continued support for the coast guard comes with guarantees for the safety of people intercepted by that body, and for so long as those guarantees cannot be made then funding must be suspended.”

Boat donated by Italy involved in horrific mass drowning incident

Libyan Coast Guard officials are known to operate in collusion with smuggling networks and have used threats and violence against refugees and migrants on board boats in distress.

Footage, photographs and documents reviewed by Amnesty indicate that a boat donated by Italy in April 2017, the “Ras Jadir”, was used by the Libyan Coast Guard during a horrific incident on 6 November, when their reckless actions contributed to the drowning of up to 50 people. Ignoring basic security protocols, the Ras Jadir approached a sinking inflatable vessel about 30 nautical miles off the coast of Libya. When it failed to deploy its rigid-hulled inflatable boat to help facilitate the rescue, migrants were forced to climb the high sides of the ship and many fell into the water.

A nearby NGO vessel, “Sea-Watch 3”, deployed its own inflatable boats to try to save people, but footage shows those aboard the Ras Jadir throwing objects at the rescue boats to force them away. It also shows migrants aboard the Ras Jadir being whipped with a rope and others trying to jump into the water to try to reach rescue boats. Whilst reckless and dangerous actions by the Libyan Coast Guard have been documented before, this appears to be the first time a boat provided by a European government has been proven to have been used in such an incident.

The Ras Jadir was donated by Italy to the Libyan authorities in two ceremonies: the first in the Italian port of Gaeta on 21 April, and the second in the Libyan port of Abu Sittah on 15 May. The boat is shown in videos of the ceremonies, in the presence of the Italian Minister of Interior, Marco Minniti.

EU’s three-fold support for Libya

Since late 2016, EU countries – particularly Italy – have sought to close off a migratory route through Libya and across the Mediterranean, with little care for the consequences for those trapped within Libya’s lawless borders. Their cooperation with Libya has taken a three-pronged approach. Firstly, they’ve committed to providing technical support and assistance to the Libyan Department for Combatting Illegal Migration running the detention centers. Secondly, they’ve enabled the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept people at sea, by providing them with training, equipment – including boats – and technical and other assistance. Thirdly, they’ve struck deals with local Libyan authorities and the leaders of tribes and armed groups – to encourage them to stop the smuggling of people and to increase border controls in the south of the country.

At least 400,000 migrants in Libya

At the end of September, the International Organization for Migration had identified 416,556 migrants in Libya, of whom more than 60% are from sub-Saharan Africa, 32% from North African countries, and around 7% from Asia and the Middle East. UNHCR figures show that 44,306 people in Libya were registered as refugees or asylum-seekers as of 1 December. The actual number is undoubtedly much higher.