Skip to main content
Amnesty International UK
Log in

Libya: wave of abductions, torture and gang rape is driving Mediterranean migrant exodus - new report

Migrants and refugees who had been heading for Europe detained by Libyan coastguards in Zawia © REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny
People smugglers subjecting migrants and refugees to horrific abuse, while lawless militia make whole country unsafe
Christians from Nigeria, Eritrea, Egypt and Ethiopia at particular risk
Refugees and migrants in Libya face rape, torture and abduction by traffickers and smugglers, as well as systematic exploitation by their employers, religious persecution and other abuses by armed groups and criminal gangs, said Amnesty International in a new report today (11 May).
The 30-page report, ‘Libya is full of cruelty’: Stories of abduction, sexual violence and abuse from migrants and refugees, exposes the full horror of the plight of refugees and migrants in Libya, many of whom are driven to risk their lives in treacherous sea crossings in a desperate attempt to reach safety in Europe.
Migrants and refugees face abuses at all stages of the smuggling routes from west and east Africa towards the Libyan coast. Many, including women and unaccompanied children, have been abducted on their journeys and tortured to coerce them and their families to pay ransoms. Those unable to pay are often held effectively as slaves - forced to work without pay, physically assaulted and robbed. Smugglers also sometimes pass the migrants and refugees on to criminal groups once they cross the border in desert areas or in major transit cities along the migration route such as Sabha in the south-west or the coastal city of Ajdabya in eastern Libya.
Migrants and refugees interviewed by Amnesty said smugglers saw them “as slaves” and treated them “like animals”. One said the smugglers kept them in a dirty overcrowded room with no toilet, blankets or mattresses and fed them only dried morsels of bread. “It is effectively a business that they are running. They detain you so that you have to pay … If you don’t answer their questions, they beat you …with rubber pipes,” one man said. 
Women, particularly those travelling alone or without men, are at serious risk of rape or sexual abuse by smugglers and criminal gangs. Women abducted along the smuggling route unable to pay ransoms are at times coerced into sex in exchange for being released or being allowed to continue their journey. One eyewitness told Amnesty: “I know that [the smuggler] used three Eritrean women. He raped them and they were crying. It happened at least twice.” Another woman from Nigeria described how she was gang-raped by 11 men from an armed gang as soon as she arrived in Sabha:
“They took us to a place outside the city in the desert, tied my husband’s hands and legs to a pole and gang-raped me in front of his eyes. There were 11 men in total.”
Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Director Philip Luther said:
“The ghastly conditions for migrants, coupled with spiralling lawlessness and armed conflicts raging within the country, make clear just how dangerous life in Libya is today. 
“With no legal avenues to escape and seek safety, they are forced to place their lives in the hands of smugglers who callously extort, abuse and attack them.
“The international community has stood and watched as Libya has descended into chaos since the 2011 NATO military campaign ended, effectively allowing militias and armed groups to run amok. 
“World leaders have a responsibility and must be prepared to face the consequences, which include greater levels of refugees and migrants fleeing conflict and rampant abuse in Libya. Asylum-seekers and migrants are among the most vulnerable people in Libya and their plight must not be ignored.”

Rising lawlessness pushing people out of Libya

For years Libya has been both a destination and a transit country for refugees and migrants fleeing poverty, conflict or persecution in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. However, increasing lawlessness and threats posed by armed groups has exacerbated the risks they face, leading even established migrant communities to flee to Europe by boat. Abuses in immigration detention centres where thousands of migrants and refugees, including children, face indefinite detention in deplorable conditions are another reason why many are trying to leave. With few viable routes overland to reach safety in Europe, Syrian refugees are also travelling to Libya to attempt dangerous sea crossings towards European shores. 
At a recent Brussels summit the European Council announced plans to increase resources for Mediterranean search and rescue operations, also saying it would intensify efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before their use by smugglers. If implemented, this could lead to thousands of migrants and refugees being trapped in a conflict zone. Meanwhile, Egypt and Tunisia have also tightened border restrictions fearing a spill-over of Libya’s conflict, leaving migrants and refugees whose passports have often been stolen or confiscated by smugglers, criminal gangs or their Libyan employers with no other feasible route out of the country except to embark on a perilous sea journey to Europe.   
Philip Luther added: 
“The commitment made by EU leaders to deploy more resources for search and rescue is a welcome step, but more people will continue to drown in the Mediterranean Sea unless rescue vessels are delivered promptly, deployed in areas where they are needed most - where most calls for help come from - and remain available for as long as high numbers of refugees and migrants continue to depart from Libya.
“Introducing measures to tackle smugglers without providing safe alternative routes out for the people desperate to flee conflict in Libya, will not resolve the plight of migrants and refugees.
“The world cannot continue to ignore its obligation to grant sanctuary to anyone fleeing such dreadful abuse. Neighbouring countries, including Tunisia and Egypt, must keep their borders open to ensure anyone fleeing violence and persecution in Libya is granted safe refuge.”
Amnesty is also calling for wealthy countries to increase the number of resettlement places for vulnerable refugees and for the international community to take effective steps to urgently address human rights abuses and serious violations of international humanitarian law being committed by all sides in Libya. 

Christians at heightened risk

Christian migrants and refugees in Libya are at particular risk in Libya, both from armed groups aiming to impose their own interpretation of Islamic law and from the authorities and lawless gangs. Christians from Nigeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Egypt have been abducted, tortured and killed. Recently at least 49 Christians, mostly from Egypt and Ethiopia, were beheaded and shot in summary killings claimed by the Islamic State armed group. 
Charles, 30, from Nigeria, told Amnesty he was forced to flee to Europe by boat last month after being abducted and assaulted a number of times by members of a criminal gang in the coastal city of Zuwara. He had gone there to escape indiscriminate shelling and fighting in Tripoli. He said:
“In Zuwara, sometimes young men would come to our house to steal our money. They would come with guns. As a black man, I cannot go to complain to the police. I went to complain at the police station twice but they did not believe me. They refused to listen to me. They call us slaves. I am a Christian and that’s why the men would always come to our house and attack us. We were three Christian Nigerians living in the same house … In October 2014 four men kidnapped me … because they saw I was carrying a bible.”
They took away his money and phone, and held him for two days while they tortured and beat him until he finally managed to escape one night through the window.
“Such horror stories about the dangers driving migrants and refugees to flee Libya highlight the continuing desperate need to save lives in the Mediterranean. European leaders must ensure that refugees and migrants fleeing conflict and human rights abuses are never pushed back to Libya,” added Phil Luther.

Abuses by smugglers before boat departures 

Some migrants and refugees said they were ill-treated by smugglers while held in partly-constructed houses in Libya for periods of up to three months waiting for more passengers to be gathered. They said smugglers withheld food and water and beat them with sticks or stole their possessions. Other Syrian refugees said they were transported in poorly ventilated refrigerator trucks. “Two children were starting to suffocate and stopped breathing. Their parents would slap them on their faces so they would wake up. We were banging on the walls but the driver would not stop,” they said. The children were later resuscitated. 

Abuses at immigration detention centres in Libya

Migrants and refugees in Libya also face indefinite detention at immigration detention centres in dire conditions where they face rampant torture and other ill-treatment. Most are detained for irregular entry and similar offences. Those captured on boats that are intercepted by the Libyan coastguard while making the journey to Europe are also detained at such centres. Women held in these centres have also reported sexual harassment and sexual violence. One woman told Amnesty how officials at an immigration centre beat to death a pregnant woman detained in one such centre. 
“They used to beat us with pipes on the back of our thighs; they even beat the pregnant women. At night they would come to our rooms and tried to sleep with us. Some of the women were raped. One woman got pregnant … This is why I decided to go to Europe. I suffered too much in prison,” one witness said. 
Phil Luther added:
“The Libyan authorities must immediately end their policy of systematic detention of refugees and migrants based solely on their immigration status, and ensure that individuals are only detained when strictly necessary for the shortest possible period.” 

View latest press releases

Libya Is Full Of Cruelty