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
Netherlands, IOM launch Global Migration Initiative to protect people on the move
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands launched the Cooperation on Migration and Partnerships for Sustainable Solutions initiative (COMPASS) at the beginning of 2021. COMPASS is a global initiative, in partnership with 12 countries, designed to protect people on the move, combat human trafficking and smuggling, and support dignified return while promoting sustainable reintegration.
The initiative is centred on a whole-of-society approach which, in addition to assisting individuals, will work across all levels – households, communities, and the wider communities – and encompasses the following partner countries: Afghanistan, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, and Tunisia.
“We want to mobilize families, peers and communities to encourage informed and safe migration decisions, protect migrants, and help those returning home reintegrate successfully,” said Monica Goracci, Director of the Department of Migration Management at IOM.
“One key component is also undermining the trafficking and smuggling business models through the promotion of safe alternatives and information sharing to reduce the risks of exploitation and abuse by these criminal networks.” Vulnerable migrants, including victims of trafficking and unaccompanied or separated children, will have access to a broad range of protection and assistance services such as mental health and psychosocial support, while migrants in transit who wish to return home will be supported with dignified return and reintegration.
Community level interventions will focus on improving community-led efforts to address trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants, and support sustainable reintegration of returning migrants. COMPASS will work with national and local governments to enable a conducive environment for migrant protection, migration management and international cooperation on these issues.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is pleased to launch the COMPASS programme in cooperation with IOM, an important and longstanding partner on migration cooperation,” said Marriët Schuurman, Director for Stability and Humanitarian Aid of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.
“The programme is a part of the Dutch comprehensive approach to migration with activities that contribute to protection and decreasing irregular migration. Research and data gathering are also important components, and we hope that the insights that will be gained under COMPASS will contribute to broader knowledge sharing on migration and better-informed migration policies.”, added Schuurman. The initiative has a strong learning component, designed to increase knowledge and the uptake of lessons learned, both within the programme and beyond its parameters. COMPASS will actively contribute to global knowledge that supports countries in managing migration flows and protecting vulnerable migrants such as victims of trafficking. The implementation of COMPASS is set to start soon.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, as the donor to the COMPASS initiative, pledges its active support to partner countries to improve migration cooperation mechanisms within its long-term vision.
IOM, the leading inter-governmental organization in the field of migration, contributes its expertise as the technical implementation partner to the initiative. IOM works closely with governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental partners in its dedication to promoting humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all.
A child, 40 others drown in shipwreck off Tunisia
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are deeply saddened by reports of a shipwreck off the coast of Sidi Mansour, in southeast Tunisia, yesterday evening. The bodies of 41 people, including at least one child, have so far been retrieved.
According to reports from local UNHCR and IOM teams, three survivors were rescued by the Tunisian National Coast Guard. The search effort was still underway on Friday. Based on initial information, all those who perished were from Sub-Saharan Africa.
This tragic loss of life underscores once again the need to enhance and expand State-led search and rescue operations across the Central Mediterranean, where some 290 people have lost their lives so far this year. Solidarity across the region and support to national authorities in their efforts to prevent loss of life and prosecute smugglers and traffickers should be a priority.
Prior to yesterday’s incident, 39 refugees and migrants had perished off the coast near the Tunisian city of Sfax in early March. So far this year, sea departures from Tunisia to Europe have more than tripled compared to the same period in 2020.
UNHCR and IOM continue to monitor developments closely. They continue to stand ready to work with the national authorities to assist and support the survivors, and the family members of those lost.
Ethiopian migrants return home from Yemen with IOM support in wake of tragic boat sinking
One hundred and sixty Ethiopian migrants have returned home safely from Yemen today with the assistance of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), just one day after a perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden claimed the lives of dozens of people, including at least 16 children.
More than 32,000 migrants, predominantly from Ethiopia, remain stranded across Yemen in dire, often deadly, circumstances.
“The conditions of migrants stranded in Yemen has become so tragic that many feel they have no option but to rely on smugglers to return home,” said Jeffrey Labovitz, IOM’s Director for Operations and Emergencies.
At least 42 people returning from Yemen are believed to have died on Monday when their vessel sank off the coast of Djibouti. Last month, at least 20 people had also drowned on the same route according to survivors. IOM believes that, since May 2020, over 11,000 migrants have returned to the Horn of Africa on dangerous boat journeys, aided by unscrupulous smugglers.
“Our Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) programme provides a lifeline for those stranded in a country now experiencing its seventh year of conflict and crisis. We call on all governments along the route to come together and support our efforts to allow migrants safe and dignified opportunities to travel home,” added Labovitz.
COVID-19 has had a major impact on global migration. The route from the Horn of Africa to Gulf countries has been particularly affected. Tens of thousands of migrants, hoping to work in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), now find themselves unable to complete their journeys, stranded across Djibouti, Somalia and Yemen.
While the pandemic has also caused the number of migrants arriving to Yemen to decrease from 138,000 in 2019 to just over 37,500 in 2020, the risks they face continue to rise. Many of these migrants are stranded in precarious situations, sleeping rough without shelter or access to services. Many others are in detention or being held by smugglers.
“We cannot find jobs or food here; Yemen is a problem for us,” said Gamal, a 22-year-old migrant returning on the VHR flight. “I used to sleep in the street on cardboard. I could only eat because of the charity people would give me and sometimes we were given leftovers from restaurants. I never had much to eat.”
Since October 2020, in Aden alone, IOM has registered over 6,000 migrants who need support to safely return home. Today’s flight to Addis Ababa was the second transporting an initial group of 1,100 Ethiopians who have been approved for VHR to Ethiopia. Thousands of other undocumented migrants are waiting for their nationality to be verified and travel documents to be provided.
Prior to departure on the VHR flight, IOM carried out medical and protection screenings to ensure that returnees are fit to travel and are voluntarily consenting to return. Those with special needs are identified and receive specialized counselling and support.
In Ethiopia, IOM supports government-run COVID-19 quarantine facilities to accommodate the returnees on arrival and provides cash assistance, essential items and onward transportation to their homes. The Organization also supports family tracing for unaccompanied migrant children.
Across the Horn of Africa and Yemen, IOM provides life-saving support to migrants through health care, food, water and other vital assistance.
Today’s flight was funded by the US State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM). Post-arrival assistance in Addis Ababa is supported by EU Humanitarian Aid and PRM.
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