Tens of thousands of refugees and migrants in Libya are trapped in a vicious cycle of cruelty with little to no hope of finding safe and legal pathways out, Amnesty International said in a new report published today. After enduring unconscionable suffering in Libya, refugees and migrants risk their lives at sea seeking safety in Europe, only to be intercepted, transferred back to Libya and delivered to the same abuses they sought to escape. This comes a day after the European Commission announced its new ‘Migration Pact’, a major pillar of which is even stronger cooperation with countries outside the EU to control migration flows.
Libya, a country torn apart by years of war, has become an even more hostile environment for refugees and migrants seeking a better life. Instead of being protected, they are met with a catalogue of appalling human rights abuses and now unfairly blamed for the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic on deeply racist and xenophobic grounds. Despite this, even in 2020 the EU and its member states continue to implement policies trapping tens of thousands of men, women and children in a vicious cycle of abuse, showing a callous disregard for people’s lives and dignity,
The report ‘Between life and death’: Refugees and migrants trapped in Libya’s cycle of abuse documents the harrowing accounts of refugees and migrants who have suffered or witnessed a litany of abuses in Libya including unlawful killings; enforced disappearances; torture and other ill-treatment; rape and other sexual violence; arbitrary detention; and forced labour and exploitation at the hands of state and non-state actors in a climate of near-total impunity. The report also details more recent developments, including the transfer of people disembarked in Libya to unofficial places of detention – such as Tripoli’s notorious Tobacco Factory – and the summary deportation of thousands of refugees and migrants from Libya’s eastern regions.
“Libya, a country torn apart by years of war, has become an even more hostile environment for refugees and migrants seeking a better life. Instead of being protected, they are met with a catalogue of appalling human rights abuses and now unfairly blamed for the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic on deeply racist and xenophobic grounds. Despite this, even in 2020 the EU and its member states continue to implement policies trapping tens of thousands of men, women and children in a vicious cycle of abuse, showing a callous disregard for people’s lives and dignity,” said Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“Given the Libyan authorities’ consistent failure to address long-standing patterns of abuse against refugees and migrants, including by state officials and affiliated militias, the EU and its member states must completely reconsider their co-operation with Libyan authorities, making any further support conditional on immediate action to stop horrific abuses against refugees and migrants. This would include ending arbitrary detention and closing immigration detention centres. Until then, anyone rescued or intercepted in the central Mediterranean should not be returned to Libya, but instead be allowed to disembark in a place of safety.”
Since 2016, European Union (EU) member states, led by Italy, have been collaborating with the Libyan authorities – providing speedboats, training and assistance in the co-ordination of operations at sea – to ensure people attempting to flee the country by boat are intercepted at sea and brought back to Libya. During this period, an estimated 60,000 men, women and children have been captured at sea and disembarked in Libya by the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard (LCG), 8,435 of them between 1 January and 14 September 2020 alone. Driven by a desire to stop arrivals at all costs, EU states have offered their support to Libya – in an effort to circumvent international laws prohibiting pushbacks – without conditioning it upon strict human rights guarantees.
Brought back to Libya to face abuse
Refugees and migrants intercepted at sea by the LCG are brought back to Libya, where they are subjected to enforced disappearances, indefinite and arbitrary detention, torture and extortion.
When disembarked in Libya in 2020, thousands of refugees and migrants have ended up detained in official Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM) detention centres, under the authority of the ministry of interior of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), in control of western Libya. But thousands more have been subjected to enforced disappearance in 2020 after being transferred to unofficial places of detention, including the Tobacco Factory (a reference to its former function) under the command of a GNA-affiliated militia led by Emad al-Trabulsi in Tripoli, amid fears for their life and safety.
Given the Libyan authorities’ consistent failure to address long-standing patterns of abuse against refugees and migrants, including by state officials and affiliated militias, the EU and its member states must completely reconsider their co-operation with Libyan authorities, making any further support conditional on immediate action to stop horrific abuses against refugees and migrants.
On land, refugees and migrants also live under constant risk not only of being arrested and sent to detention centres, but also of being abducted by militias, armed groups and traffickers. Some are tortured or raped until their families pay ransoms to secure their release. Others die in custody as a result of violence, torture, starvation or medical neglect.
Dozens of refugees and migrants described to Amnesty International witnessing the death of their loved ones while detained at official DCIM centres or in other places of captivity run by traffickers.
On 27 May 2020, armed men opened fire on around 200 refugees and migrants held by traffickers near the town of Mazda, killing at least 30 and injuring 11. The others remain unaccounted for, feared dead or abducted.
Libyan authorities’ promises to investigate the Mazda killings and other crimes against refugees and migrants have not led to accountability. Two men under arrest warrant by the Libyan prosecution and placed on the UN sanctions list for their alleged role in human trafficking retain official ties to the GNA. Ahmad al-Dabbashi, also known as “al-Amou”, was seen fighting alongside GNA forces in April 2020, while Abdelrahman Milad, also known as “Bidja”, works as an LCG commander at the al-Zawiya oil refinery.
Caught in the crossfire
Militias and armed groups have committed violations of international humanitarian law against refugees and migrants including unlawful deprivation of liberty, torture and apparently indiscriminate attacks Amnesty International verified videos showing militias and armed groups parading and abusing refugees and migrants. They have also forced migrants to participate in military operations, endangering their lives and safety.
One refugee told Amnesty International that in May 2020 a militia affiliated with the GNA took him along with other refugees and migrants from a Tripoli DCIM detention centre, where they were all detained, and forced them for hours to transport ammunition between two positions in Tripoli. At that time, fighting was raging in Tripoli.
No way out but the deadly sea
Given the horrific conditions and abuses, existing resettlement and evacuation programmes are insufficient for providing safe and legal pathways out of Libya for those in need, with only 5,709 vulnerable refugees benefiting from such programmes since 2017, as of 11 September 2020. This reflects the small number of resettlement pledges made by countries receiving refugees, including EU member states. Travel restrictions imposed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have further exacerbated the situation, with only 297 refugees evacuated from Libya in 2020, before borders closed in March 2020.
A refugee told Amnesty International in August: “Right now refugees [are] going to cross the sea… [There is] no evacuation and no resettlement… Refugees in Libya are at risk. [We are] between life and death.”
This means that desperate refugees and migrants have few viable ways out of Libya other than risk crossing the Mediterranean on unseaworthy boats. Crossings, however, continue to be extremely dangerous, including because of interceptions by LCG and criminal groups. In one deadly incident in mid-August, survivors told Amnesty International that armed men on board a boat named “Captain al-Salam 181” robbed them and then fired at their boat, causing the engine to catch fire and the boat to capsize. An estimated 40 people died after being left in distress at sea.
Exploitation, squalid living conditions, violence
Amnesty International’s research found that refugees and migrants are often exploited by employers and subjected to forced labour by militias and armed groups.
Many live in squalid conditions without access to clean water and washing facilities, increasing their vulnerability to COVID-19 with physical distancing and preventative hygienic measures impossible to follow. Despite this, refugees and migrants face barriers to accessing health care and have been largely excluded from official COVID-19 prevention efforts.
Refugees and migrants are also a constant target for robbery. Women and girls are at heightened risk of sexual violence. They refrain from approaching police or prosecutors, fearing detention or revenge by alleged perpetrators.
Racism and xenophobia
Refugees and migrants also face rampant racism and xenophobia. Government officials, members of armed groups and militias, and media often use racist language to refer to Black people. The COVID-19 pandemic has further fuelled racism, with officials and private individuals publicly blaming refugees and migrants for the spread of the virus and calling for their expulsion.
Amnesty International’s research revealed that de facto authorities in eastern Libya forcibly expelled over 5,000 refugees and migrants in 2020 without due process or the opportunity to challenge their deportation. The accusation that those arrested were “carriers of contagious diseases” was among the reasons cited for the deportations.
In a blatant incident of discrimination documented by Amnesty International, an armed group prevented a bus from entering the south-eastern city of Kufra, unless three Chadian nationals alighted. The armed men ordered them to take a COVID-19 test and left them in the desert outside the city. The other passengers, all Libyan nationals, were allowed to proceed without the need for COVID-19 testing or other checks.
The plight of refugees and migrants in Libya is taking place against the backdrop of ongoing armed conflict, insecurity and lawlessness. The struggle for governance and territorial control rages between the GNA, in control of most of western Libya, and the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army, in control of most of eastern Libya
Frightened residents brace as Cyclone Eloise approaches Mozambique
Roughly 160 International Organization for Migration (IOM) staff in central Mozambique are working to prepare local communities for the imminent arrival of Cyclone Eloise, which is currently packing winds of at least 150 km/h.
“The people are scared,” said Cesaltino Vilanculo, an IOM Mobile team leader in the provincial capital Beira, who helped hundreds of families evacuate from unsafe temporary settlements to two accommodation centers.
“The water is rising in their zones and people are frightened, bracing for yet another storm.”
Eloise is expected to make landfall in Beira late Friday or early Saturday. By mid-afternoon today shops across the city are closed and flooded streets, empty.
IOM personnel will be ready to respond immediately with specialists in camp coordination and management, shelter, the distribution of non-food items, health and protection services and data mapping under IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM).
The Port of Beira is set to close on Friday for a period of about 40 hours in expectation of dangerous winds and rain from the afternoon of 22 January through the morning of 24 January. Beira is the main entry point for goods bound for north coastal Mozambique.
A limited supply of emergency non-food items had been stockpiled in Beira, including tarps and water tanks. However, resources are stretched, as IOM is actively responding to the crisis across Northern Mozambique.
At the same time, over 900 people are already displaced in Beira City due to recent heavy rains and the impact of Tropical Storm Chalane, which hit nearby Sofala Province on 30 December.
“The government is working, identifying the safe places to bring the people who are most vulnerable,” explained Aida Temba, a protection project assistant with IOM Mozambique.
“The rain is coming, and the water is rising and it’s not easy to reach all the people who need assistance. But we do our best to respond.”
Hundreds of families were evacuated to two accommodation centres, sheltered in tents provided by Mozambique’s National Institute for Disaster Management and Risk Reduction (INGD). One accommodation center was today closed, in favor of moving families to schools, which provide more stable structure. Those families’ needs include food, potable water, hygiene kits and soap.
IOM Mozambique also has reported that due to heavy rainfall and the discharge of water from the Chicamba dam and the Mavuzi reservoir—both in the Buzi District west of Beira—over 19,000 people have been affected and hundreds are being moved to accommodation centers. Their needs include food, hygiene kits, and COVID-19 prevention materials.
IOM staff are supporting the Government of Mozambique with the movements in both Beira and Buzi and actively working to improve drainage ways in resettlement sites in preparation for further rains.
IOM’s DTM, working jointly with Mozambique’s INGD, is poised to produce a report on displacement and damages within the first 72 hours of the cyclone’s arrival.
Tropical storms historically are common in these early months of rainy season. Cyclone Idai struck the country in March 2019. It is considered one of the worst tropical cyclones to hit Africa on record, claiming hundreds of lives, and affecting three million people across wide swaths of Mozambique, Madagascar, Malawi and Zimbabwe. A second powerful storm, Cyclone Kenneth, hit Mozambique just weeks later.
Total property damages from Cyclone Idai have been estimated at some USD2.2 billion. Almost two years later, roughly 100,000 people remain in resettlement sites, which also have been battered by the recent rains.
IOM commends United States’ inclusion of migrants in COVID-19 vaccine roll-out
In light of this announcement, IOM calls on all countries to adopt similar migrant-inclusive approaches, to ensure that as many lives as possible can be saved.
“COVID-19 vaccines provide the opportunity we have been waiting for, but only if we use them wisely and strategically, by protecting the most at-risk first, no matter their nationality and legal immigration status,” warned IOM Director General António Vitorino. “I applaud those Governments choosing the path of inclusion and solidarity for their vaccine roll-outs.”.
According to the COVAX Facility – the multilateral mechanism created to ensure equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines – immunization campaigns have already started in over 50 countries.
Many countries have yet to release their prioritization strategies for the vaccine roll-outs, but the United States, Germany and Jordan, among others, have already announced various measures to provide access to the vaccine equitably, including to asylum seekers, migrants in irregular situations and forcibly displaced persons. Last year, similar migrant-inclusive approaches were adopted for COVID-19 testing, treatment and social services in Ireland, Malaysia, Portugal, Qatar and the United Kingdom.
To facilitate truly effective and equitable immunization campaigns, IOM is working closely with the COVAX Facility, Member States, the World Health Organization, and other partners, and recommending that national authorities adopt practices to account for all migrant, such as:
Ensuring an adequate number of vaccine doses is planned for and procured to include migrants in-country, and that delivery systems are fit-for-purpose;
Reducing the number of administrative hurdles for migrants to access health care and vaccines, including high costs and proof of residence or identity.
Actively reaching out to migrant communities through linguistically and culturally competent communication methods to build trust, inform and engage in programming;
Offering guarantees that vaccination will not lead to detention or deportation;
Strengthening health systems and setting up mobile vaccination mechanisms where needed to ensure last-mile distribution.
“Migrants play an enormous part in our socioeconomic development and collective well-being. Despite this, many migrants have remained disproportionately exposed to excessive health risks through their living and working conditions and have continued to face tremendous challenges in accessing COVID-19 and other essential health services,” said Director General Vitorino.
“If we are not careful and deliberate about including migrants in vaccination plans, we will all pay a higher price.”
IOM assists border control on route linking Ethiopia, Kenya
Addis Ababa – Ethiopia, Africa’s second largest country (by population) after Nigeria, is also one of the continent’s largest sources of international migrants.
Along its vast national circumference –some 5,311 kilometres, connecting Ethiopia to Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Kenya and Somalia– government control posts are limited. Lack of adequate staffing and modern technology impedes proper migration management, a matter of concern for national governments as well as for the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
At the start of this new year, IOM has helped open a new Border Control Post (BCP) between Ethiopia and Kenya. The post, at Neprumus in Ethiopia’s Dasenech district, straddles one of the 830-kilometer Ethiopia-Kenya frontier’s most frequented migratory routes, alongside a major route for Ethiopian migrants trying to reach South Africa. Ethiopians normally pass through Kenya into Tanzania, then travel further south.
In March 2020, at least 60 Ethiopian irregular migrants were killed after being trapped in a lorry along this route. Hence, the urgent need for better and improved border control posts in the region.
“Supporting the establishment of modern and efficient BCPs will facilitate safe and orderly migration of citizens, enhance the relationship between bordering countries, provide protection, and increase the political and socio-economic stability between Ethiopia and Kenya,” explained Kederalah Idris, IOM’s Better Migration Management (BMM) Project Officer.
IOM is also supporting Ethiopia’s Immigration, Nationality, and Vital Events Agency (INVEA) with training to enhance the capacity of immigration officers, and at the same time supplying infrastructure and office equipment, computers, and generators to establish new border control posts.
“Strengthening BCP will play a great role in facilitating safe movement of community members to neighbouring Kenya and will create job opportunities for the community. In addition, it will have a big contribution in facilitating regular migration, while monitoring irregular movements,” said INVEA Director-General, Mujib Jemal, during his opening speech. He also recognized IOM and the zonal administration’s efforts in facilitating the opening of the BCP.
At stake is more than improved border efficiency. IOM sees hope for improved trade benefiting the regional economy and raising livelihoods for some 48,000 people living in the Dasenech District.
Health checks are also being integrated into the BCP, which is a timely development given that COVID-19 continues to affect the nation. As of 18 January, there has been 131,546 confirmed cases in Ethiopia leading to 2,033 deaths. Against this COVID-19 backdrop, IOM looks forward to these new controls reducing mobility restrictions and facilitating movement of goods, services and skills. Beyond commerce, IOM also views BCPs as vital for protecting people from falling prey to human smugglers and traffickers.
Plans are to open more BCPs in the Pagag, Kurmuk, and Fefrer border towns in Gambella, Benishangul Gumuz, and Somali regions, bordering South Sudan, Sudan and Somalia respectively.
During the inauguration attended by representatives from IOM and senior officials from INVEA, IOM Ethiopia received a ‘Certificate of Recognition’ from the Ethiopian authorities for the support to strengthening Ethiopia’s border management and control efforts.
The establishment of this important BCP is supported by the US State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.
Frightened residents brace as Cyclone Eloise approaches Mozambique
IOM commends United States’ inclusion of migrants in COVID-19 vaccine roll-out
IOM assists border control on route linking Ethiopia, Kenya
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