One year on from Libya migration deal, people still in captivity and suffering abuses

Many people are still trapped in captivity and suffering abuses in Libya a year after Italy struck an EU-backed deal with the government to stop irregular migrants. Migrants who have managed to escape Libya following the deal have told Oxfam and its partner Borderline Sicilia of on-going kidnapping, murder, rape and forced labor.

Under the Libya deal, the EU and Italy have trained and provided logistical and financial support to the Libyan coastguard. This cooperation contributes to stopping people trying to escape Libya and to sending them back there, Oxfam and Borderline say. The organisations also say that Italy and the EU should immediately end the deal with Libya and all activities aimed at returning people to Libya, including the cooperation with the Libyan coastguard.

Italy signed the ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ with the UN-backed government in Tripoli on 2 February 2017 which EU heads of state and government endorsed a day later at their Malta informal summit. The deal lacks sufficient safeguards for human rights and international law, since Libya has refused to sign the 1951 refugee convention that protects people who flee persecution and conflict.

Oxfam believes that the EU’s support to the Libyan coastguard adds to the suffering of the people trapped in Libya.

Recent efforts by the African Union, the EU, and the UN to release migrants from detention centres are welcome, Oxfam says, but they do not reach the majority of migrants stranded in Libya because Libyan authorities recognise only a handful of nationalities as deserving of international protection.

Oxfam Italy’s executive director, Roberto Barbieri, said:

“The people we have spoken to are escaping war, persecution and poverty – and yet in Libya they encounter another hell. European governments have a duty to protect the human rights of all people, including migrants. Migrants crossing the sea to escape Libya should never be stopped and returned back to the serious danger there.

“The Libya migration deal is fundamentally flawed, and people are suffering in horrific conditions. Italy must end the deal immediately. A new agreement must prioritize the safety and wellbeing of all those in Libya who require help. Instead of trying to stop migrants from leaving Libya, the EU must focus on liberating all migrants – regardless of their nationalities – from the detention centres they are in.”

Libya is a country highly destabilized by conflict, where more than 1.3 million people need humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations. This includes internally displaced people, Libyans who have returned home as well as the hundreds of thousands of migrants from other countries who came to Libya for work or to continue their journey in search of safety and dignity. UN agencies are specifically worried about the levels of abuse being suffered by those migrants.

Last August, Oxfam and its partner organisations Borderline and MEDU exposed accounts of suffering, based on 158 interviews with migrants who had arrived through Libya. 84 percent of them had said they had experienced degrading and inhumane treatment, extreme violence or torture in Libya. 74 percent said they had witnessed people being murdered or tortured.

The new testimonies gathered by Oxfam’s partner Borderline Sicilia following the Italy-Libya migration deal indicate that the situation has not improved for many people in the country. Migrants continue to tell how they are often kidnapped to extort money, of men being forced to work without a salary and women raped and forced into sexual slavery. One person told of children being sold as slaves.

Precious, a 28-years old from Nigeria, said she was imprisoned with other migrants when she arrived in Tripoli. “They asked for money which we did not have. They treated us like trash. We only ate once per day, a bit of rice or raw pasta, and drank water from old gasoline barrels.” She said she saw several people die from illness or from violence from their captives. “The women among us were beaten and raped every day – only then did they give us anything to eat,” she said.

Blessing, a 24-year old Nigerian, said she came to Libya to find a job as a maid. “Instead they brought me to a center where I stayed for many months,” she said. “They put a fistful of rice into my hands to eat each day. They sold my body to local men. When I tried to escape, they beat me violently and raped me.”

Francis, a 20-year old man from The Gambia, was kidnapped by a criminal gang, he says. “There were more than 300 people held in one big room. I was there for five months. […] Every day we were forced to work. Anyone who opposed this was killed.”

Francis’ testimony also includes accounts of beatings and sexual violence against women and of the fate of children hold in unofficial prisons. “The women were systematically beaten and raped by groups of people. The children were raised in the prison and then sold as servants to Libyan households.”

Europe must expand what efforts it has made to help end the suffering of migrants in Libya, Oxfam says.

“Europe will not solve the problems that drive displacement and migration with policies that focus on border control and deterrence. The EU should instead provide safe routes for people fleeing hardship and ensure a fair and transparent process when they claim asylum”, says Barbieri.

Notes to editors

  • Oxfam spokespeople are available in Brussels, Rome and Sicily.
  • Pictures from Oxfam's work with refugees and other migrants in Sicily are available.
  • The memorandum, which was built on the model of the EU-Turkey deal, is a trade-off providing money and technical support to the Libyan coastguard and other security services in return for stopping migrants on their way to Europe.
  • The interviews with migrants who had escaped from Libya were conducted by Oxfam’s partner organisation Borderline Sicilia. Read the full testimonies below.
  • Read Oxfam’s August 2017 report, based on the testimonies of people who had escaped Libya, which exposes the immense suffering of many people who crossed Libya before arriving to Europe.
  • Oxfam Italy assists new arrivals, including food, clothes, shoes, and personal hygiene kits as well as longer-term psychological and legal support. Oxfam Italy also helps asylum seekers find accommodation, learn Italian, and provides them with cash to meet their basic needs.
  • Oxfam has warned the EU is increasingly diverting overseas development aid towards migration management instead of its original purpose of helping people lift themselves from poverty. Oxfam’s analysis of the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa finds a worrying trend towards using development money to de facto outsource Europe’s borders to African countries.
  • Furthermore, an Oxfam report on the EU’s Migration Agenda, which sets the European approach for migration policies, criticises a disproportionate focus on reinforcing borders and blocking irregular migration, over long-term and human rights-based solutions. In the report, Oxfam outlines eight guiding principles for a more humane response to migration.
  • UNHCR warns that “Hundreds of thousands of people across [Libya] are suffering. They are living in unsafe conditions with little or no access to health care, essential medicines, food, safe drinking water, shelter or education.”

Full testimonies gathered by Oxfam and Borderline (all names have been changed to protect the identity of the migrants):

Precious, a 28-years old woman from Nigeria

“When I arrived to Tripoli, I was put in prison. There where men and women with me. They asked for money which we did not have. They treated us like trash. We only ate once per day, a bit of rice or raw pasta, and drank water from old gasoline barrels. Some people died from illnesses or the beating while I was there. The women among us were beaten and raped every day – only then did they give us anything to eat. I thought several times I would die. Ever since then, I struggle to sleep, and I have nightmares.”

Blessing, a 24-year old woman from Nigeria

“After the terrible journey through the desert I hoped the situation in Libya would be better than what I had experienced until then. I thought I would be employed as a maid in an Arab household, as I had been told. Instead they brought me to a center where I stayed for many months. They put a fistful of rice into my hands to eat each day. They sold my body to local men. When I tried to escape, they beat me violently and raped me. I remember a man with such a strong and disgusting smell that I vomited when he came close to me. He injured me with a knife on my breast and my legs to force me to do what he wanted. I was then taken to the sea in the middle of the night. I was so afraid, but I didn’t have any force to resist. Beating me and yelling at me, they forced me on a boat. I had never seen the sea, and I thought I would die. But God wanted me to arrive in Italy, he has given me a second chance.”

F., an 18-year old man from Guinea Bissau

“In Tripoli, I lived with other Africans in a ‘connection house’ [smugglers’ hideouts] for four and a half months. I could leave for small jobs, but I had to be careful as it was really dangerous. The house was managed by Libyans who, every day, took the money we had earned. When the Libyans did not receive money, they took the people and transported them far way, then beat them and often left them dead. One day the Libyans came to the place where I was working and forced me to go with them; they tied my hands and feet and put me into a car. They took me to an isolated place and beat me. I still vomit blood because of this beating. Then they brought me to a beach where they beat me again and shot me in the arm; I still have the scars. In the meantime, a boat arrived at the beach. A boy got: he had been meant to steer the boat, but returned because the sea was too rough. That was why the Libyans beat him in front of everybody, they cut one of his fingers, they cut his arm and they shot his hand. The Libyans then came to me and put me on the rubber dinghy with the others. Four of them came on board and drove us up to a certain point. There, they made me understand that I had to steer the boat. They were armed. The Libyans went on the other boat and I drove the dinghy until we were in international waters where we were rescued. As soon as I arrived in the port of Pozzallo, I was arrested for [abetting irregular migration].

Frances, a 20-year old man from The Gambia

“In Saba, we were kidnapped by bandits that brought us to the Abdoul Kafir prison in the city center, an apartment building transformed by the kidnappers into a prison for migrants. There were more than 300 people closed in into one big room. I was there for five months. […] Every day we were forced to work. Anyone who opposed this was killed. The living conditions were terrible: we received little food and little water. The sanitary conditions were appalling. Many people got sick. Women were systematically raped. We were all forced to attend the killing of several people by the Libyans who managed the prison. […] [In another prison,] I was again forced to work on a construction site. There were hundreds of us, and we had to sleep on the ground. There were women and children, too. The women were systematically beaten and raped by groups of people. The children were raised in the prison and then sold as servants to Libyan households. There were people who had been held in prison for a year.”

Contact information

Florian Oel | Brussels | florian.oel@oxfam.org | office +32 2 234 11 15 | mobile +32 473 56 22 60

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