‘The Libyan coastguard is intercepting and returning thousands of people to detention centres where they suffer torture and other abuses’ – Magdalena Mughrabi
‘The guards would beat us if we said we’re hungry … They would make us lie down on our stomach and two would hit us with [a] hose … I saw a Chadian man, they shot him for no reason in front of me’ – Eritrean man on conditions at Abu Slim detention centre.
The EU’s plans to work more closely with Libya on tackling people smuggling risk fuelling rampant ill-treatment and indefinite detention in shocking conditions of thousands of refugees and migrants in Libya, said Amnesty International today.
The EU recently announced plans to extend its “Operation Sophia” anti-smuggling naval mission in the Mediterranean for another year and to train and share information with the Libyan coastguard following a request by the new Libyan government. However, testimonies gathered by Amnesty during visits to Sicily and Puglia in Italy last month reveal shocking abuses by the Libyan coastguard and in immigration detention centres in Libya.
Amnesty spoke to 90 people who survived the treacherous crossing from Libya to Italy, including at least 20 refugees and migrants who described shootings and beatings while being picked up by the coastguard or harrowing torture at lawless Libyan detention centres for refugees and migrants (see Beatings and killings in Libyan detention centres below). At least 3,500 people were intercepted at sea by the Libyan coastguard between 22 and 28 May and transferred to detention centres. Abdurrahman, 23, from Eritrea, described the abuse he endured when the overloaded boat he was travelling on – with capacity for 50 people but carrying 120 – was intercepted by members of the Libyan coastguard in January. He said:
“They made everyone get off and beat them with rubber hoses and wooden sticks. They then shot one man in the foot – he was the last one coming off the boat so they asked him where the driver was. When he said he didn’t know they said ‘that means you are the driver’ and they shot him.”
Another Eritrean man, Mohamed, 26, said the Libyan coastguard who stopped them later abandoned their sinking rubber boat, leaving the 120 people on board stranded at sea:
“One of the men from the Libyan coastguard boat came onto our boat to drive it back to Libya. He drove it nearly half way back, but then the motor stopped working. [He] was very frustrated and went back to his own boat. I heard him say ‘if you die, you die’, before getting back on his boat and driving away, leaving us stuck in the sea.”
Eventually they were able to fix the motor themselves, but it was still letting in air so they were forced to return to Libya. Meanwhile, in October 2013 Amnesty documented the sinking of a trawler that was damaged while leaving Libyan waters when an unidentified Libyan vessel opened fire on it. The damaged boat began to take in water and subsequently sank taking about 200 men, women and children down with it. Some of the survivors alleged that the shooting came from the Libyan coastguard. The results of an investigation into the incident have never been made public.
Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Magdalena Mughrabi said:
“Europe shouldn’t even think about migration cooperation arrangements with Libya if it results, directly or indirectly, in such shocking human rights violations.
“Of course the Libyan coastguard’s search and rescue capabilities have to improve to save lives at sea, but the grim reality at the moment is that the Libyan coastguard is intercepting and returning thousands of people to detention centres where they suffer torture and other abuses.
“The fact that it is possible to detain someone indefinitely in Libya purely based on their immigration status is outrageous. Instead of being granted protection, refugees and migrants end up being tortured and ill-treated in custody.
“To avoid being complicit in keeping refugees and migrants stuck in a cycle of abominable abuses in Libya, the EU must focus its efforts on ensuring that the Libyan coastguard carries out its operations in line with human rights, that no refugee or migrant is detained unlawfully, and ultimately that there are alternatives to this dangerous journey in the first place. This means radically increasing resettlement to Europe and granting humanitarian admissions and visas.”
Beatings and killings in Libyan detention centres
According to officials in the Libyan coastguard, refugees and migrants are routinely returned to immigration detention centres in Libya. Since 2011, Amnesty has collected scores of testimonies from former detainees detailing terrible conditions, violence and sexual abuse at these centres, and the latest evidence shows that abuses continue unabated.
Former detainees – who include people intercepted at sea as well as foreign nationals arrested on the streets in Libya – said guards beat them on a daily basis using wooden sticks, hoses, electric cables and rifles, as well as subjecting them to electric shocks. Several people said they’d witnessed people dying in detention, either shot dead or beaten to death by the guards. A 19-year-old Eritrean man who was detained in Tripoli’s Abu Slim detention centre (where the UN Support Mission in Libya says at least 450 people are being held) said:
“The guards would beat us if we said we’re hungry … They would make us lie down on our stomach and two would hit us with [a] hose … I saw a Chadian man, they shot him for no reason in front of me. They took him to the hospital but he died in prison after they brought him back. In the records, they said he died in a car accident. I know because they made me work [for free] all day in the filing room.”
Another Eritrean man who spent five months from last October in an immigration detention centre in al-Zawiya in western Libya also said he witnessed a detainee being beaten to death by the guards. Afterwards, he said, they wrapped the dead body up in a blanket and removed it. In another incident, the man described how the guards came in and opened fire on seven men in his cell when they didn’t understand the guards’ orders to get up in Arabic.
A 20-year-old Eritrean whose boat was intercepted at sea by the Libyan coastguard in January said he was sent to a detention centre in al-Zawiya where he was beaten repeatedly. Another man who was held at Abu Slim detention centre said: “They [the guards] would hit us three times a day using electric wire that was folded three times to make it hurt more.” He said detainees slept in the open air without shelter from the extreme hot or cold weather and guards would spray the area with water forcing them to sleep on the wet floor.
Charles, a 35-year-old Nigerian man, was held at five different detention centres after he was stopped in the street in Tripoli last August. He told Amnesty: “They beat us all the time, every day … Once my arm got broken because of the beating and they took me to the hospital but I didn’t get any medication. They used sticks, their guns and sometimes electric shocks.” When the guards threatened to deport him he responded: “anything is better than the hell here.”
A 28-year-old Ethiopian man, who was arrested with his wife at a checkpoint as they tried to get to western Libya, spent four months in Kufra detention centre in south-east Libya. He described being beaten regularly, being placed in a box, and being flogged and burned with hot water. His wife said the head of the centre would regularly beat her and the other women there. They were eventually able to pay for their release.
Former detainees also complained of a lack of food and drinking water, poor medical care and squalid conditions which many said led to skin diseases. They explained that even when doctors from humanitarian organisations came to see them, the doctors were shown only a small number of detainees who would usually be too afraid to report injuries caused by the guards. The medication they were given was also confiscated by guards.
Made to work as ‘slaves’ or sold to smugglers
The testimonies collected by Amnesty suggest that detainees’ only hope of release from refugee and migrant detention centres is through escaping, buying their way out or being sold on to people smugglers. Many are exploited and forced into work without pay or face financial extortion. They are made to work in the detention centres or are given to Libyan men who pay the guards for their labour. Daniel, a 19-year-old from Ghana detained in March 2014, described how his only option to get away from repeated beatings and ill-treatment in detention was to attempt to escape, as he didn’t have the money guards were demanding for his release:
“I stayed there for three months, because I had no money to pay the police. They took me as a slave, I had to do any type of work, farming, carrying sand or stones … I was never paid. When I was hungry and I told them, they shouted. They gave me water with petrol inside. Or they would put salt in it, just to punish you. They gave me a phone to call my family to get them to send money to release me. I have no family, my mum and dad died. I couldn’t call anyone, so they beat me and didn’t give me any food.”
In some cases, detainees escaped from or were released by the men they were made to work for, who would help them get on boats in exchange for their work. In other cases, smugglers negotiated the release of a detainee – often by bribing the detention centre guards – just so they could get them to pay for another sea crossing, at a cost of around US$1,000 each. Mohamed, who was held at a detention centre in al-Zawiya after his boat was intercepted in January said the smugglers gave the guards “cars full of goods” in exchange for their release.
‘They hate Christians’
Christians are at increased risk of ill-treatment in Libya’s detention centres. Omar, a 26-year-old from Eritrea who was held in a detention centre in al-Zawiya, said: “They hate Christians. If you’re a Christian, all I can say is God help you if they find out … If they see a cross or a [religious] tattoo they beat you a lot more.”
Another former detainee from Nigeria said the guards in the detention centre in Misratah would separate the men according to religion and flog those who were Christians. “At the beginning I said I’m not going to change my religion even if I’m in a Muslim country. They took me out and flogged me. Next time I lied and said I was Muslim,” he said.
Semre, a 22-year-old man from Eritrea who was beaten in detention after his boat was intercepted at sea in January, also said Christians received far worse treatment: “They beat me, took my money and threw away my Bible and the cross I had on my neck … First they check whether one has money in the pockets, then they take an electrical cable and they whip you.”
No government control over detention centres
The centres are run by the Department to Combat Irregular Migration which nominally falls under the control of Libya’s Ministry of Interior. However, in practice many are run by armed groups and Libya’s internationally-backed Government of National Accord is yet to gain effective control of them. According to the UN Refugee Agency, there are currently 24 such centres currently across Libya. Libyan law criminalises entering, exiting and staying in Libya irregularly and allows for the indefinite detention of foreign nationals for the purpose of deportation. Those detained often stay in the centres for months without access to their families, lawyers or judges, and are unable to challenge their detention or access protection because of Libya’s non-existent asylum system. Meanwhile, deportations are carried out without any safeguards or assessment of individual claims.
Despite the violence and lawlessness pervading Libya, hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants – mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa – continue to travel there, fleeing war, persecution or extreme poverty in countries such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Nigeria and Somalia, usually in the hope of reaching Europe. Others have lived in Libya for years but want to flee the country because they live in constant fear of being stopped, beaten and robbed by local gangs or police. According to the UN Refugee Agency, more than 2,100 people lost their lives trying to make the dangerous sea crossing to Italy in the first five months of this year. More than 49,000 survived the journey