European governments are actively supporting the Libyan Coast Guard in its abusive campaign against refugees and migrants, while ignoring repeated warnings about the agency’s history of corruption, Amnesty International charged in a scathing new report on Monday.
Libyan authorities are accused of beating, torturing, extorting, trafficking and otherwise exploiting migrants, backed by European Union member states intent on curbing trans-Mediterranean migration.
The International Organization for Migration’s latest figures count more than 416,500 migrants in Libya, which is a major transit hub for African migrants attempting to reach European shores. The actual number is likely to be much higher, according to Amnesty.
A recent video of an alleged modern-day slave auction in Libya, where African migrants were reportedly being sold for a few hundred dollars each, stoked international outrage and drew attention to the country’s critical state of instability. Although the auction was allegedly run by Libyan militias, a United Nations report from June found that the country’s coast guard and its Department to Counter Illegal Migration (DCIM) are “directly involved” in the enslavement of migrants.
With ships, training and sustained funding from the EU, the Amnesty report said, Libya’s coast guard works to intercept refugees and migrants at sea. It returns them to detention centers across the country, where some 20,000 men, women and children are currently imprisoned.
In these unsanitary, overcrowded centers, which are run by the DCIM, detainees allegedly endure “horrific” conditions and ill treatment, according to Amnesty. For many, the only escape is through illegal payments to guards and smugglers.
In interviews with Amnesty, dozens of migrants and refugees described a system of collusion between guards, smugglers and the Libyan Coast Guard:
Detention center guards regularly torture detainees to extort money, releasing those that can pay, and sometimes passing them on to smugglers who secure their departure from Libya in cooperation with the coast guard. Agreements between the coast guard and smugglers are signaled by markings on boats that allow specific vessels to pass through Libyan waters without interception, and the coast guard has also been known to escort boats out to international waters.
“It’s like hell,” a former detainee told Amnesty, describing the camps. “You never see the light of the sun. You are closed in a room, locked, each with a toilet. Rooms are packed ― no space to sleep on the floor at the same time.”
It’s unclear how many members of the coast guard collaborate with smugglers, Amnesty noted, but increased European support has enabled the coast guard to intercept more migrants over the past year. So far in 2017, it has captured 19,452 people en route to Europe and taken them to Libyan detention centers.
Christopher Daniel, a 20-year-old Nigerian, was among a group of more than 150 migrants on a rubber boat stopped by the Libyan Coast Guard in November.
“I suffered a lot ― kidnappings, demands for ransom,” he told Reuters of his failed journey to Italy. “I don’t know what to say or do. All the money I have wasted ― what will I tell my parents?”
U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called the situation “an outrage to the conscience of humanity” in a statement last month. “The European Union’s policy of assisting the Libyan coast guard to intercept and return migrants in the Mediterranean [is] inhuman,” he said.
A review by the U.K. Independent Commission for Aid Impact sounded alarm back in March that the Libyan Coast Guard was “deliver[ing] migrants back to a system that leads to indiscriminate and indefinite detention and denies refugees their right to asylum.”
But British officials have ignored such warnings “time and time again,” Amnesty asserted in its report.
“By supporting the Libyan authorities in trapping people in Libya, without requiring the Libyan authorities to tackle the endemic abuse of refugees and migrants or to even recognize that refugees exist, European governments have shown where their true priorities lie: namely the closure of the central Mediterranean route, with scant regard to the suffering caused,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty’s Europe director. “They are complicit in these crimes.”