Libya: Horrific violations in detention highlight Europe’s shameful role in forced returns

Fresh evidence of harrowing violations, including sexual violence, against men, women and children intercepted while crossing the Mediterranean Sea and forcibly returned to detention centres in Libya, highlights the horrifying consequences of Europe’s ongoing cooperation with Libya on migration and border control, said Amnesty International in a report published today.

‘No one will look for you’: Forcibly returned from sea to abusive detention in Libyadocuments how decade-long violations against refugees and migrants continued unabated in Libyan detention centres during the first six months of 2021 despite repeated promises to address them.

The report also found that since late 2020 Libya’s Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM), a department of the interior ministry, had legitimized abuse by integrating two new detention centres under its structure where hundreds of refugees and migrants had been forcibly disappeared in previous years by militias. At one recently rebranded centre, survivors said guards raped women and subjected them to sexual violence including by coercing them into sex in exchange for food or their freedom.

“This horrifying report sheds new light on the suffering of people intercepted at sea and returned to Libya, where they are immediately funnelled into arbitrary detention and systematically subjected to torture, sexual violence, forced labour and other exploitation with total impunity. Meanwhile, Libyan authorities have rewarded those reasonably suspected of committing such violations with positions of power and higher ranks, meaning that we risk seeing the same horrors reproduced again and again,” said Diana Eltahawy, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

“The report also highlights the ongoing complicity of European states that have shamefully continued to enable and assist Libyan coastguards in capturing people at sea and forcibly returning them to the hellscape of detention in Libya, despite knowing full well the horrors they will endure.”

Amnesty International is calling on European states to suspend cooperation on migration and border control with Libya. This week Italy’s parliament will debate the continuation of their provision of military support and resources to Libyan coastguards.

The report details the experiences of 53 refugees and migrants previously detained in centres nominally under the control of DCIM, 49 of whom were detained directly following their interceptions at sea.

Libyan authorities have vowed to close DCIM centres rife with abuse, but similar patterns of violations have been reproduced in newly opened or re-opened centres. In an illustration of entrenched impunity, informal sites of captivity originally run by non-DCIM affiliated militias have been legitimized and integrated into the DCIM. In 2020, hundreds of people disembarked in Libya had been forcibly disappeared at an informal site, then controlled by a militia. Since then, Libyan authorities have integrated the site into the DCIM, named it the Tripoli Gathering and Return Centre, colloquially known as Al-Mabani, and also put the former director and other staff of the now-closed Tajoura DCIM centre in charge. Tajoura, which was notorious for torture and other ill-treatment, was ordered closed in August 2019, a month after airstrikes that killed at least 53 detainees.

Ongoing abuse in Libyan detention centres

In the first half of 2021, more than 7,000 people intercepted at sea were forcibly returned to Al-Mabani. Detainees held there told Amnesty International they faced torture and other ill-treatment, cruel and inhuman detention conditions, extortion and forced labour. Some also reported being subjected to invasive, humiliating and violent strip-searches.

Tripoli’s Shara’ al-Zawiya centre is a facility which was also previously run by non-affiliated militias and was recently integrated under DCIM and designated for people in vulnerable situations. Former detainees there said that guards raped women and some were coerced into sex in exchange for their release or for essentials such as clean water. “Grace” said she was heavily beaten for refusing to comply with such a demand: “I told [the guard] no. He used a gun to knock me back. He used a leather soldier’s shoe … to [kick] me from my waist.”

Two young women at the facility attempted to commit suicide as a result of such abuse.

Three women also said that two babies detained with their mothers after an attempted sea crossing had died in early 2021 after guards refused to transfer them to hospital for critical medical treatment.

Amnesty International’s report documents similar patterns of human rights violations, including severe beatings, sexual violence, extortion, forced labour, and inhuman conditions across seven DCIM centres in Libya. In Abu Issa centre in the city of al-Zawiya, detainees reported being deprived of nutritious food to the point of starvation.

In Al-Mabani and two other DCIM centres, Amnesty International documented the unlawful use of lethal force when guards and other armed men shot at detainees, causing deaths and injuries. 

“The entire network of Libyan migration detention centres is rotten to its core and must be dismantled. Libyan authorities must close all migration detention facilities immediately and stop detaining refugees and migrants,” said Diana Eltahawy.

Libyan “rescue” missions endangering lives

Between January and June 2021, the EU-backed Libyan coastguards intercepted around 15,000 people at sea and returned them to Libya – more than in all of 2020 – during what they describe as “rescue” missions.

People interviewed by Amnesty International consistently described Libyan coastguards’conduct as negligent and abusive. Survivors described how Libyan coastguards deliberately damaged their boats, in some cases causing them to capsize, leading refugees and migrants to drown on at least two occasions. One eyewitness said after Libyan coastguards caused a dinghy to capsize, they filmed the incident with their phones instead of instead of rescuing all survivors.  Over 700 refugees and migrants drowned along the central Mediterranean Sea route in the first six months of 2021.

Refugees and migrants told Amnesty International that as they attempted sea crossings, they frequently saw aircraft overhead or ships nearby that did not offer them assistance before the Libyan coastguards’ arrival.

Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard agency, has carried out aerial surveillance over the Mediterranean to identify refugee and migrants’ boats at sea and has operated a drone over this route since May 2021. European navies have largely abandoned the central Mediterranean to avoid having to rescue refugee and migrants’ boats in distress.

Italy and other EU member states have also continued to grant material assistance, including speedboats, to Libyan coastguards and are working to establish a maritime coordination centre in Tripoli’s port, mostly funded by the EU Trust Fund for Africa.

“Despite overwhelming evidence of reckless, negligent and unlawful behaviour by Libyan coastguards at sea and systematic violations in detention centres after disembarkation, European partners have continued to support Libyan coastguards to forcibly return people to the very abuse they fled in Libya,” said Diana Eltahawy.

“It’s well past time for European states to acknowledge the indefensible consequences of their actions. They must suspend cooperation on migration and border control with Libya and instead open urgently needed pathways to safety for the thousands in need of protection currently trapped there.”

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