European governments are complicit in the torture of tens of thousands of migrants currently being detained in appalling conditions in Libya, according to rights group Amnesty International.
Up to 20,000 people are held in overcrowded, unsanitary detention camps where they are at the mercy of authorities, people smugglers and armed groups, it said in a new report ‘Libya’s dark web of collusion’.
Amnesty said that governments have been “fully aware” of the abuse and were complicit by acting to stop sea crossings across the Mediterranean that saw at least 5,000 people die in 2016 trying to reach Europe. The moves came as European leaders came under intense domestic political pressure to act to limit the flow of migrants from conflict zones.
Italy struck a deal in February with Fayez al-Serraj, the head of Libya’s U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, to slash the number of migrants reaching its shores in return for funding for his administration.
It was just one of a number of measures introduced by EU member states since 2016, which included training the Libyan coastguard to intercept migrant boats, striking deals to increase border controls and backing the organisation that runs the detention camps, said Amnesty.
The group said the moves had led to “mass, arbitrary and indefinite” detention of migrants that routinely exposed them to serious human rights violations including torture”, according to the report.
“Hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants trapped in Libya are at the mercy of Libyan authorities, militias, armed groups and smugglers often working seamlessly together for financial gain,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe Director.
The Libyan government set up the Tripoli-based Department for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM) in 2012 which controls 33 detention centres but has limited oversight. Many were only nominally under the control of the DCIM with local militias often controlling them, according to Amnesty.
It found that a lack of funding placed a huge strain on the centres with some little more than warehouses or old factories, ill-served to hold refugees. Windows were sealed off to prevent anyone from escaping leaving little ventilation or access to sunlight. Detainees received mainly water and bread and sometimes pasta, according to the report.
Food could be withheld unless the detainees paid a ransom, according to testimony to Amnesty. Some were allowed to call their families but then tortured while on the phone, the report said.
A man, identified as Ousman, 18, from Gambia, said: “In prison they would hit us often… I saw many people dying in prison, either because they fell sick or were beaten.
“Guards were Libyan, they used to beat everybody without a reason.”
Detainees interviewed by the group said that guards released them if they were able to pay.
Amnesty said that some of the detainees were passed onto smugglers who colluded with the Libyan coastguard to escape to international waters.
It also claimed that a boat donated by Italy in April was used by the Libyan coastguard in a “reckless” escape attempt, in which 50 people died.
The crew failed to launch a small inflatable boat to rescue survivors from a sinking boat off the Libyan coast. The refugees were instead forced to try to climb the high side of the ship, but many fell back into the water, the charity said.
The controls on migration has sparked a thriving slave trade fuelled by a supply of African migrants who are unable to leave the country.
Secretly recorded footage of a slave market emerged last month, prompting the French to demand action by the Libyan government or face international sanctions.
Libya remains divided after the unseating of former strongman Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, with rival governments set up in Tripoli and the east of the country.