UN report sheds light on ‘unimaginable horrors’ faced by migrants and refugees in Libya, and beyond

UNICEF/UN052822/Romenzi A migrant sits in a patch of light entering through one of only two windows as he tries to warm himself up at a detention centre, located in Libya, 1 February 2017. At the time of UNICEF’s visit, 160 men were being detained there.

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.

Migrants and refugees are being subjected to “unimaginable horrors” from the moment they enter Libya, throughout their stay in the country and – if they make it that far – during their attempts to cross the Mediterranean, according to a report released on Thursday, by the United Nations political mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and the UN human rights office (OHCHR).

“There is a local and international failure to handle this hidden human calamity that continues to take place in Libya,” said Ghassan Salamé, who heads UNSMIL.

From unlawful killings, arbitrary detention and torture, to gang rape, slavery, and human trafficking, the report covers a 20-month period up to August 2018, and details a terrible litany of violations and abuses committed by a range of State officials, armed groups, smugglers and traffickers against migrants and refugees.

The findings are based on 1,300 first-hand accounts gathered by UN human rights staff in Libya itself, as well from migrants who have returned to Nigeria, or managed to reach Italy, tracing the entire journey of migrants and refugees from Libya’s southern border, across the desert to the northern coast.

The climate of lawlessness in Libya provides fertile ground for illicit activities, leaving migrants and refugees “at the mercy of countless predators who view them as commodities to be exploited and extorted,” the report says, noting that “the overwhelming majority of women and older teenage girls” report having been “gang raped by smugglers or traffickers.”

Many people are sold from one criminal group to another and held in unofficial and illegal centres run directly by armed groups or criminal gangs. “Countless migrants and refugees lost their lives during captivity by smugglers, after being shot, tortured to death, or simply left to die from starvation or medical neglect,” the report says. “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.”

Those who manage to survive the abuse and exploitation, and attempt the perilous Mediterranean crossing, are increasingly being intercepted – or “rescued” as some claim – by the Libyan Coast Guard. Since early 2017, the approximately 29,000 migrants returned to Libya by the Coast Guard were placed in detention centres where thousands remain indefinitely and arbitrarily, without due process or access to lawyers or consular services.

UN staff visiting 11 detention centres, where thousands of migrants and refugees are being held, documented torture, ill-treatment, forced labour, and rape by the guards. Migrants held in the centres are systematically subjected to starvation and severe beatings, burned with hot metal objects, electrocuted and subjected to other forms of ill-treatment with the aim of extorting money from their families through a complex system of money transfers.

The detention centres are characterized by severe overcrowding, lack of ventilation and lighting, and insufficient washing facilities and latrines.  In addition to the abuses and violence committed against the people held there, many of them suffer from malnutrition, skin infections, acute diarrhoea, respiratory-tract infections and other ailments, as well as inadequate medical treatment. Children are held with adults in the same squalid conditions.

The report points to the apparent “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 UN independent human rights expert on torture, Nils Melzer, estimates that, given the risks of facing human rights abuses in the country, transfers and returns to Libya can be considered a violation of the international legal principle of “non-refoulement”, which protects asylum seekers and migrants against returns to countries where they have reason to fear violence or persecution.

“The situation is utterly dreadful,” said Michelle Bachelet on Thursday, 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 calls on European States to reconsider the human costs of their policies and ensure that their cooperation and assistance to the Libyan authorities respectful of human rights, and in line with international human rights and refugee law, so they do not, directly or indirectly, result in men, women and children being trapped in abusive situations with little hope of protection and remedy.

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