Refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean continue to face brutal violence by Libyan authorities if “pushed back” from Europe. Amidst continued outcries from activists and NGOs, there is no sign of the violence against vulnerable people, including women and children, abating.
A new report published by Amnesty International, which collected evidence from people with firsthand experience of Libyan detention centres, shows that in the first six months of 2021 Libyan authorities have continued to mistreat, attack, and subject the people under their care to violence, sexual harassment and exploitation.
Amnesty is calling on European states to cease their support for the Libyan coastguards with whom they’ve entered into an agreement after a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment from politicians and right-wing groups across Europe.
Delphine Rodrik, who works for Amnesty International in Tunisia and is the author of the report, told Al Bawaba that “in the first six months of 2021 alone, around 15,000 refugees and migrants were attempting to flee across the Central Mediterranean and were returned back to Libya. The report highlights this process from interruptions or captures to their disembarkations, to their routine transfer to detention centres. “
The report highlights two detention centres with established reports of ongoing human rights abuses. The Tobacco Factory, named after its proximity to a disused factory in Tripoli, is controlled by the Public Security Agency, a militia allied to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). Hundreds of people are thought to have been disappeared to this site in 2020.
In January 2021, authorities opened the Tripoli Gathering and Return Centre in the area around the Tobacco Factory. It is not known whether people have been returned here during 2021 because no independent organizations have been granted access.
One interviewee, identified as Nabil, told Amnesty what happened when he arrived at the facility in 2020. “They [armed men in control of the site] were isolating people, they weren’t letting the organizations access us. [Inside], they beat you, they torture you, they don’t treat you like you’re human.”
Delphine Rodrik told Al Bawaba that “last year and in previous years many refugees and migrants had essentially gone missing and were disappeared to unofficial or informal facilities that were not under the state detention and immigration infrastructure and that had been run by militias.”
“But we have since seen the formalization of those two former unofficial sites into official detention centres, nominally under the control of the Department for Combating Illegal Migration which is under the Ministry of the Interior.”
Meanwhile, Italy has expressed concern this week at another rise in migrant numbers as the political crisis in Tunisia deepens. In a statement that contradicts the continued policy supporting the Libyan authorities, an Italian official said their main concern “is saving lives at sea.” It is estimated that an additional 15,000 people could make the journey across the Mediterranean as a result of events in Tunisia.
Amnesty is not alone in calling for European states to stop working with Libyan authorities. Earlier in July, Oxfam called on Italy to end the financing of the Libyan coast guards. To date, Italy has spent at least $38m in support of the forces mistreating migrants and refugees.
Paolo Pezzati, Oxfam Italia's policy advisor for humanitarian emergencies said that the “industry of smuggling and trafficking” has been replaced by the “industry of detention.”
“With this report,” Delphine Roderik told Al Bawaba, “we are calling on the EU to suspend its cooperation on migration and border control with Libya. Amnesty has for many years called for the EU to instead make continued support conditional on particular human rights guarantees and due diligence, which unfortunately has not happened.”
“Rather than continuing to cooperate and enabling the Libyan coast guards to forcibly return refugees and migrants back to these conditions, despite full awareness and knowledge of what’s happening, the report calls on the EU to suspend this cooperation and instead open urgently needed pathways for thousands of refugees and migrants who are trapped in Libya, largely as a result of these containment policies.”