Is the EU ignoring human rights abuses in Libya?

A shocking report produced by Amnesty International has revealed brutal human rights abuses against Libyan refugees. Various interviews conducted by the organisation detail harrowing accounts of rape, torture, unlawful killings, and enforced disappearances. It is believed European Union policies are partially to blame for the humanitarian emergency.

Libya is in crisis. The country is currently locked in the midst of a brutal civil war, with thousands of refugees hoping to escape the violence and lawlessness gripping an entire nation. The struggle is primarily a brutal account of civil violence between the UN-backed GNA (Government of National Accord), who occupy the majority of Western Libya, and the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA), who control much of the east. Since the demise of authoritarian leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the country has been a desolate region beset with chaos and rampant human rights abuse. Amnesty International’s report has exposed further accounts of shocking violence towards refugees attempting to flee a broken state. 

The damning report has found much of the abuse is being permitted by EU member states who are attempting to prevent an irregular influx of migrants in Europe. It is believed training, speedboats, and other assistance has been provided to the GNA’s LCG (Libyan Coast Guard) and GACS (General Administration for Coastal Security), by particular EU members to carry out the interception of migrants before their disembarkation in Libya. The report highlights such support has been provided without any guarantees of respect for migrants’ rights.

The European Union has come under heavy criticism for their implementation of ‘pushback’ policies in certain member states. Humanitarian organisations have openly condemned such strategies while claiming they violate the rights of legitimate refugees and asylum seekers. Greece is a country that has faced heavy criticism for the way in which the Athens government is expelling migrants and preventing entry at borders. These are claims the state has consistently denied despite numerous reports saying otherwise. Such policies throughout the Union have led to thousands of migrants being left in limbo, trapped in refugee camps or forced to return to a war-torn homeland.

According to the International Organization for Migration, the LCG disembarked at least 8,435 people in Libya between January and mid-September of this year. A significant number were then handed over to the Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM) before being placed in centres believed to be housing shocking cruelty. This includes enforced disappearances, indefinite and arbitrary detention, torture, and extortion. 

The report included an interview with “Dawit”, a refugee who had escaped forced conscription in his country of origin before being captured by a GNA-affiliated mafia in July 2020. He said: “for 15 days, they beat us with iron rods, they beat us with hoses, they beat us with anything they have. They ask us to pay 6,000 Libyan dinars for each [person], whether an adult or baby”.  “Zahra”, a refugee who escaped forced labour in her home country, reached Libya in 2018 before being detained in the town of Bani Walid. She said: “I was beaten, prevented from eating and drinking so frequently that I wasn’t able to walk and had problems in my kidney”. An anonymous migrant who has been in Libya for four years said: “Right now refugees [are] going to cross the sea… [There is] no evacuation and no resettlement… refugees in Libya are at risk. [We are] between life and death”. 

A number of refugees have confirmed reports of death in DCIM detention centres.  July 2020 saw a particularly heinous incident in which three unarmed migrants were shot dead by security forces. It is believed the armed officers opened fire on a large group of refugees after they attempted to flee detention in the city of al-Khums. Speaking on the issue, Amnesty International researcher Diana Eltahawy said, instead of being protected, refugees and migrants “seeking a better life” are “met with a catalogue of appalling human rights abuses… Despite this, even in 2020 the EU and its member states continue to implement policies trapping tens of thousands of men, women and children in a vicious cycle of abuse”. 

Abuse against migrants and refugees outside such detention centres is also commonplace with many facing exploitation from traffickers, armed groups and militias. A significant number have detailed reports of employers who refuse to pay wages or provide lower rates than initially promised. It is believed women and young girls are particularly at risk of exploitation by armed groups, with “Zhara” stating: “The women work as housekeepers, but they often leave work after a few days due to the sexual harassment and rape. They are afraid of working in Libyan houses”.

A specifically violent incident occurred in May 2020 when 30 refugees and migrants were killed by traffickers. It is believed the group were captured whilst attempting to cross the Libyan Desert in search of work. The traffickers repeatedly tortured their captives whilst waiting for a ransom shortly before opening fire on their victims. Bangladesh, the nation from which 24 of the victims originated, cited a survivor when announcing: “They tortured them inhumanely for a ransom. At some point in their ordeal, the captives killed the main kidnapper. In retaliation, the militia fired indiscriminately at them”.

Despite the violence, local law enforcement is not an option for migrants and refugees desperately searching for safety. “Ahmed”, an interviewee in the Amnesty report, claims: “If I walk to the [police] station, they tell me to show my passport. If I do not have a passport, they tell me I am an illegal immigrant and will be taken to a detention centre… If you go to complain against someone in the police, maybe his cousin or brother is in an armed group and that is why you are afraid for your life and cannot go to the law”.

It is difficult to comprehend such a desperate situation from the comfort of our homes in the UK. However, it is crucial these stories are heard and resonate with those who are prepared to listen. We are all aware of the desperate plight of migrants and refugees. Five years ago the world was shocked and outraged by the photographs of three-year-old Alan Kurdi dead on a Turkish beach. The child was found lying face down in the sand after drowning aboard an overcrowded migrant boat in the Mediterranean Sea. Despite this, it appears the world is becoming increasingly ignorant to such an alarming and despairing situation. It is shocking to believe the European Union could contribute to such horrific scenes, with numerous states claiming to represent the ‘free world’ operating such vicious pushback systems. The words of those in peril must be heard, whilst those in power must do more to prevent further atrocities. The eyes of the world must now look towards places such as Libya with tearful eyes and a heavy heart. Anguish and grief grips the many who are simply wanting for a better life, but instead remain helpless and completely at the mercy of a lawless state in a seemingly endless turmoil.


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William Warnes

William Warnes

Global Editor - 2019/20

Co-Deputy Editor - 2020/21

March 2021
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