Since Médecins Sans Frontières launched search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean Sea last year, its teams have rescued more than 25,000 people from boats in distress. Regardless of their country of origin or their reasons for trying to reach European shores, almost everyone rescued from this stretch of water passed through Libya.
Hundreds of interviews with people rescued at sea by Médecins Sans Frontières during 2015 and 2016 have exposed the alarming level of violence and exploitation to which refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are subjected in Libya. They are suffering abuse at the hands of smugglers, armed groups and private individuals who are exploiting the desperation of those fleeing conflict, persecution or poverty. The abuses reported include being subjected to violence (including sexual violence), arbitrary detention in inhumane conditions, torture and other forms of ill-treatment, financial exploitation and forced labour.
Fifty percent of the people interviewed by Médecins Sans Frontières on its search and rescue boats during 2015 say they were detained for months against their will during their stay in Libya by police and other authorities, by militias involved in the conflict, by criminal gangs operating in the main cities or by private individuals. Locked up in houses, sheds or other buildings, in dire humanitarian conditions and without access to medical treatment, people told us they were frequently subjected to violence or made to do forced labour.
After their rescue by Médecins Sans Frontières’ ship in May 2016, one of a group of six women from Eritrea and Somalia told us: “Once we arrived in Libya they put us in a big hangar. We stayed in the hangar for different periods of time – some of us for two weeks and some for four months if they don’t have money. They brought us very little food, just once a day. There was not cleanliness, it was horrible. I can never return to Libya, whatever happens.”
According to many of those interviewed, kidnappings are a common way of extorting money, usually from the hostage’s family and friends in their country of origin. Sometimes hostages are able to buy their freedom using their own money – often banknotes sewn into their clothes. Menethueos, aged 23, was rescued at sea by Médecins Sans Frontières in May 2016 after fleeing arrest, torture, persecution and compulsory conscription into the military in Eritrea. He told us that he was kidnapped and held for four months while in Libya, with his captors demanding US$2,000 for his release.
He said: “They just keep people there and torture them and beat them to make their family send the money. Many times they beat and tortured me, but I didn’t have any family to call (…) I have heard that they keep people hostage for years (…) They beat you when you are lying on the ground, with whatever they have in front of them. If they have an iron bar, they use it. They use a lot of things. They hit you with the back of the gun. Whatever they like. They tie your hands together and your legs together and you lie on your stomach and they leave you there, day and night. The sun will be hitting down on you in the day and at night you will be cold. Nothing to eat. That is the kind of torture they use many times.”
In a practice similar to slavery, many people have described how they were forcibly taken and held for the purpose of forced labour. Shuttled between middlemen and ‘brokers’, locked up at night in detention-style conditions in private homes or warehouses, men are forced to work on construction sites or farms during the day, often for months at a time, until they have paid their way out. Many women report being kept in captivity as domestic servants or forced into prostitution.
Lami, aged 26, from Senegal was living in a half-constructed house with 30 other people. “They obliged us to work and we didn’t get any money. They used us as slaves. It was there that they beat me with an iron stick. I lost a lot of blood, I couldn’t even walk. There was a guy there (…) he was really sick and his condition was getting worse every day. He died in front of my eyes; we had to bury him there. In Libya, if you don’t have money to pay back the people that assault you, then they beat you. I prefer to die at sea.”
Sexual violence and enforced prostitution
Maria,* aged 26, from Cameroon, who was rescued by an Médecins Sans Frontières ship in June 2016, said: “People sell people. Selling people is normal in Libya.” She said that, after being abducted by four armed men, she was forced into prostitution and raped repeatedly. “They took all our things. Everybody has a gun in Libya – children too (…) I spent three and a half months in Libya, in two different houses. One day a girl died in front of us. She was sick, no food, and no water.”
Seeing the scars
“Someone comes in for a cough and takes off their shirt and you see all the scars from the torture they suffered, and you realise they have broken bones, and they tell you these horrendous stories. I have seen at least 32 patients with clear violence-related injuries during the past 12 rescues.” Dr Erna Rijnierse, Médecins Sans Frontières doctor on board the search and rescue boat Aquarius, June 2016 In the past few months, Médecins Sans Frontières medics have seen a man with a week-old infected machete wound on his forearm; a young woman who received so many blows to the head that her eardrum was perforated; a man with severe swelling after being beaten in the groin; a man with a broken collarbone and extensive scarring over his back as a result of the lashings he received while in detention; and a man hit repeatedly and so hard with a Kalashnikov that the bones in his hand had shattered.
*Names have been changed