EU’s policy of helping Libya intercept migrants is ‘inhuman’, says UN

Human rights chief calls suffering of people detained in Libyan prisons ‘an outrage to the conscience of humanity’.

The EU policy of helping Libyan authorities intercept people trying to cross the Mediterranean and return them to prisons is “inhuman”, the UN has said.

“The suffering of migrants detained in Libya is an outrage to the conscience of humanity,” said the UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, in a statement issued on Tuesday. “The European Union’s policy of assisting the Libyan coastguard to intercept and return migrants in the Mediterranean [is] inhuman.”

Chaos-ridden Libya has long been a major transit hub for people trying to reach Europe. Many have fallen prey to serious abuse in the country at the hands of traffickers and others.

Hussein said “the detention system for migrants in Libya is broken beyond repair”.

“The international community cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the unimaginable horrors endured by migrants in Libya, and pretend that the situation can be remedied only by improving conditions in detention,” he said.

According to Libya’s department of combating illegal migration (DCIM), 19,900 people were being held in facilities under its control in early November, up from about 7,000 in mid-September.

The increase came after authorities detained thousands of people previously held by smugglers in Libya’s trafficking hub Sabratha, west of Tripoli.

Hussein said UN staff members had visited four DCIM facilities earlier this month and were shocked by what they saw. “[There were] thousands of emaciated and traumatised men, women and children piled on top of each other, locked up in hangars with no access to the most basic necessities, and stripped of their human dignity,” he said.

People including children described horrific beatings by guards at detention centres, while many women said they faced rape and other sexual violence at the hands of smugglers and guards.

One woman told UN staff she was gang-raped by three men, including a DCIM guard, while another woman said four armed men had gang-raped her during her journey, when she was pregnant.

“I bled profusely, and I think I lost the baby. I haven’t seen a doctor yet,” she said.

The UN urged Libyan authorities to take concrete steps to halt violations and abuses in the detention centres, and stop detaining migrants.

“The increasing interventions of the EU and its member states have done nothing so far to reduce the level of abuses suffered by migrants,” Hussein said, adding that instead, there appeared to be a “fast deterioration in their situation in Libya”.

Zeid’s comments came after ministers from 13 European and African countries pledged on Monday to act to ease the crisis around the Mediterranean, especially to help improve conditions for people held in Libya.

At a meeting in Bern of the contact group on the crisis along the central Mediterranean migration route, ministers reiterated a pledge to strengthen Libya’s coastguard.

Italy, with the support of the EU, has since the summer been training the Libyan coastguard to intercept boats as part of a controversial deal that has resulted in arrivals to Italy falling by nearly 70% since July.

Reacting to Hussein’s charges, an EU spokesperson said Brussels was funding UN agencies on the ground in Libya that were working to protect people.

“We believe that the detention centres in Libya must be closed. The situation in these camps is unacceptable,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

The EU wanted rescued people to be brought to “reception centres that meet international humanitarian standards”, they said, while at the same time improving the Libyan coastguard’s capacity to prevent deaths at sea.

But the UN human rights office criticised European countries for ignoring warnings that the deal with Libya could condemn more people to detention, exposing them to torture, rape, forced labour and extortion.

“We cannot be a silent witness to modern-day slavery, rape and other sexual violence, and unlawful killings, in the name of managing migration and preventing desperate and traumatised people from reaching Europe’s shores,” Hussein said.