Amnesty International detailed in a new report horrifying accounts of sexual violence, killings, torture and religious persecution 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 Programme at Amnesty International.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants – mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa – have traveled to Libya fleeing war, persecution or extreme poverty, 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.
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 spoke to also described abuses suffered at the hands of the Libyan coastguard and in immigration detention centers inside Libya.
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.
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.
ISIS Imposes Brutal Islamic Law on Christian Migrants
The rise of powerful armed groups in recent years, including those which have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) 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 spoke to people who said they were abducted by ISIS 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 ISIS near Benghazi while they were on their way to Tripoli in July 2015.
“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.
Adam, 28, a man from Ethiopia living in Benghazi with his wife, was abducted by ISIS 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.
Sexual violence along the smuggling route
Women reported that rape was so commonplace that they took contraceptive pills before travelling to avoid becoming pregnant as a result of it.
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 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.
Held for Ransom
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.