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1st July 2016, 14:44:14 UTC

“Sometimes they would frighten us with their guns, or threaten to slaughter us with their knives,” Amal, a 21-year-old refugee

Horrifying accounts of sexual violence, killings, torture and religious persecution collected by Amnesty International reveal a shocking range of abuses along the smuggling routes to and through Libya. The organisation spoke to at least 90 refugees and migrants at reception centres in Puglia and Sicily, who had made the journey across the Mediterranean from Libya to southern Italy in the past few months and who were abused by people smugglers, traffickers, organised criminal gangs and armed groups.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants – mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa – travel to Libya fleeing war, persecution or extreme poverty, often in the hope of settling in Europe. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that there are over 264,000 migrants and refugees currently in Libya. According to UNHCR, there are around 37,500 registered refugees and asylum-seekers, half of them Syrians.

“From being abducted, incarcerated underground for months and sexually abused by members of armed groups, to being beaten, exploited or shot at by people smugglers, traffickers or criminal gangs – refugees and migrants have described in harrowing detail the horrors they were forced to endure in Libya. Their experiences paint a terrifying picture of the conditions many of those who come to Europe are so desperate to escape. The EU, and governments around the world, should dramatically increase the number of resettlement places and humanitarian visas to vulnerable refugees facing these horrific human rights abuses,” said Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland.

Despite the formation of a UN-backed Government of National Accord fighting continues in parts of Libya including in Benghazi, Derna and Sirte. Amidst the lawlessness and violence, a lucrative people-smuggling business has been established along routes running from southern Libya to the Mediterranean coast in the north where boats bound for Europe depart. At least 20 of the people Amnesty International spoke to also described abuses suffered at the hands of the Libyan coastguard and in immigration detention centres inside Libya.

“The Libyan authorities must take urgent steps to restore the rule of law and protect the rights of refugees and migrants. The internationally-backed Government of National Accord has made commitments to respect and uphold human rights – they have a duty to hold those responsible for these abhorrent crimes accountable,” said Colm O’Gorman.

The majority of people Amnesty International spoke to reported being victims of human trafficking. They were held by smugglers as soon as they entered Libya or sold on to criminal gangs. Several described being beaten, raped, tortured, or exploited by those who held them captive. Some witnessed people being shot dead by smugglers, others saw people left to die as a result of illness or ill-treatment.

Amnesty International spoke to 15 women most of whom said they lived in perpetual fear of sexual violence along the journey to the Libyan coast. Many said rape was so commonplace that they took contraceptive pills before travelling to avoid becoming pregnant as a result of it. Medical staff at a reception centre for migrants and refugees which the organisation visited in Bari, Italy, confirmed that other women reported having gone through the same experience.

The rise of powerful armed groups in recent years, including some which have pledged allegiance to the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS) and aim at imposing their own interpretation of Islamic Law, has put foreign nationals – particularly Christians – at an increased risk of abuse and potential war crimes. As well as the persistent threat from armed groups, foreign nationals in Libya also face widespread racism and xenophobia as public sentiment remains hostile. Many refugees and migrants interviewed reported being physically assaulted, threatened with knives and guns or robbed of their possessions at gunpoint or beaten on the streets by criminal gangs.

“The lawlessness and proliferation of rival armed groups and militias increases the risks faced by refugees and migrants in Libya. The Government of National Accord must put a halt to abuses by its own forces and allied militias. And it must ensure that no one, including members of armed groups, can continue to commit serious abuses, including possible war crimes, with impunity. The international community must also support the International Criminal Court, which continues to have jurisdiction over Libya, to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity. And all parties to the conflict should cooperate with the ICC investigation,” said Colm O’Gorman.

On 28 June the European Council endorsed a decision to extend Operation Sophia, the naval operation in the central Mediterranean, for a further year, maintaining its primary function of tackling smugglers and adding to its tasks training of and information sharing with the Libyan coastguard as well as monitoring the implementation of the arms embargo on Libya.

The EU should be tackling abuses by smugglers and should not be seeking to trap people in a country where their lives and rights are so obviously at risk

Colm O’Gorman.

“The EU should focus less on keeping migrants and refugees out and more on finding safe and legal ways for those trapped in Libya to access a place of safety. The priority should be saving lives, this means deploying enough resources in the right places to prevent further tragedy. “The EU should be tackling abuses by smugglers and should not be seeking to trap people in a country where their lives and rights are so obviously at risk,” said Colm O’Gorman.


Amnesty International documented abuses by smugglers, traffickers and armed groups in Libya in its 2015 report Libya is full of Cruelty. The latest testimonies show that one year on, refugees and migrants continue to be subjected to horrifying abuse.

According to IOM, most foreign nationals residing in Libya originate from Niger, Egypt, Chad, Ghana and Sudan. The majority of those transiting through the country and then crossing to Italy by boat are from Eritrea, Nigeria, Gambia, Somalia and Côte d’Ivoire. The main transit point for people from West Africa entering Libya is the south-western city of Sabha. Those entering via Sudan from Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia come through Kufra, and then travel onto Ajdabiya in the north eastern part of the country. Most boats heading to Europe depart from north-western Libya. Before departure, foreign nationals are held in houses and farms until more people are gathered for the journey.

Some of the abuses documented by Amnesty International against refugees and migrants in Libya amount to human trafficking. Trafficking people constitutes a human rights abuse as well as being a crime in most national criminal law systems. It includes the transfer of persons through threat, the use of force or coercion such as abduction, fraud or deception. Its disruption and prosecution with the end of bringing perpetrators to justice is an obligation under international human rights law. By contrast, smuggling does not involve coercion; it is consensual. While smuggling can involve the commission of criminal offences, it is not in itself a human rights abuse.

Case studies

Horrors along the journey

“When you [arrive in] Libya, that’s when the struggle starts. That’s when they start to beat you,” said Ahmed, an 18-year-old from Somalia describing his arduous journey through the desert from Sudan to Libya in November 2015.  He said the smugglers refused to give them water as punishment and even shot at them when they begged for water for a group of Syrian men travelling with them who were gasping with thirst. “The first Syrian died, he was young, maybe 21 years old. After this they gave us water, but the other Syrian man also died…he was only 19,” he said, adding that the smugglers seized the belongings of the dead men and did not allow them time to bury them.

Paolos, a 24-year-old Eritrean man who travelled through Sudan and Chad and arrived in Libya in April 2016, told how the smugglers abandoned a disabled man in the desert along the way, as they crossed the Libyan border heading to the southern town of Sabha. “We saw them throw one man [out of the pick-up truck] into the desert. He was still alive. He was a disabled man,” he said.

Sexual violence along the smuggling route

A 22-year-old Eritrean woman told Amnesty International that she witnessed other women being sexually abused, including one who was gang-raped because the smuggler wrongly accused her of failing to pay his fee. “Her family couldn’t pay the money again. They took her away and she was raped by five Libyan men. They took her out late at night, no one opposed it, everyone was too afraid,” she said.

Ramya, 22, from Eritrea said she was raped more than once by the traffickers who held her captive in a camp near Ajdabya, in northeastern Libya after she entered the country in March 2015. “The guards would drink and smoke hashish [cannabis] and then come in and choose which women they wanted and take them outside. The women tried to refuse but when you have a gun pointed at your head, you don’t really have a choice if you want to survive. I was raped twice by three men…I didn’t want to lose my life,” she said.

Antoinette, a 28-year-old woman from Cameroon said of the traffickers who held her captive in April 2016: “They don’t care if you’re a woman or a child…They used sticks [to beat us] and would shoot in the air. Maybe because I had a child they didn’t rape me but they raped pregnant women and single women. I saw this happen.”

Sexual abuse and religious persecution

Amal, a 21-year-old Eritrean woman, described how the group of 71 people she was travelling with was abducted by an armed group they believed to be IS near Benghazi while they were on their way to Tripoli in July 2015. “They asked the smuggler why he was helping Christians. He pretended that he didn’t know we were Christians so they let him go. They separated us into Christians and Muslims and then they separated the men and women. They took [the Christians] to Tripoli and kept us underground – we didn’t see the sun for nine months. We were 11 women from Eritrea,” she said.  “Sometimes we didn’t eat for three days. Other times they would give us one meal a day, half a piece of bread.”

She also described how they were pressured into converting to Islam and beaten with hoses or sticks when they refused. “Sometimes they would frighten us with their guns, or threaten to slaughter us with their knives,” she said. When the women finally succumbed and agreed to convert, she said they suffered sexual violence. The men considered them their “wives” and treated them as sexual slaves. She said she was raped by different men before being assigned to one man who also raped her.

In another case, in 2015 Adam, 28, a man from Ethiopia living in Benghazi with his wife, was abducted by IS simply because he was a Christian. They kept me in a prison for one and half months. Then one of them felt sorry for me after I told him I have a family and he helped me memorise the Quran so they would let me go…They killed many people,” he said. He was eventually able to escape after seven months in captivity.

(Photo credit PRIOLO GARGALLO)