Human rights group Amnesty International said in a new report that European governments are knowingly complicit in the systematic torture, abuse and exploitation of refugees and migrants held in appalling conditions by Libyan authorities.
The group also told WikiTribune that it is now considering the possibility of legal action against European Union (EU) member states.
Amnesty International says around 20,000 migrants are held in detention centers in the North African state. Operated by militias, the facilities have been routinely condemned as overcrowded and unsanitary. The militias have been accused of perpetrating beatings, torture and rape, as well as demanding money from migrants in exchange for their release.
The report documents how migrants then enter a cycle of exploitation as they are sold by the militias operating the centers, to people smugglers. However, many are stopped while crossing the Mediterranean by the coast guard and returned back into militia custody.
Since late 2016, the EU’s attempts to stop migration from Libya into Europe by providing technical support and training to Libyan authorities have actively supported this system of abuse, the report says.
“European governments have not just been fully aware of these abuses; by actively supporting the Libyan authorities in stopping sea crossings and containing people in Libya, they are complicit in these crimes,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe Director.
Amnesty International is now “studying the possibility of issuing a legal case for complicity” against EU member states, Mehdi Ben Youssef, Amnesty International Libya Campaigner, told WikiTribune.
“Our focus is on making the legal arguments proving the complicity of Italian government,” Ben Youssef said. “We believe that this report will shine light on the abuses of migrants and refugees in Libya and will add to the evidences of complicity for future use.”
A spokesperson for the European Commission told WikiTribune that it was “aware of the inhumane and terrible conditions some face [in Libya],” but that the “European Union, its institutions and its Member States are working to save lives.”
“The situation is not bad because of the European Union, it is slightly better because of the European Union. And we have a lot more work to be getting on with to make it better still.”
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“Amnesty together with other NGOs has documented the sale of migrants,” said Ben Youssef. “This usually occurs between militias, traffickers and criminal groups who are already known to one another.”
EU governments have provided technical support to the Libyan Department for Combating Illegal Migration, which controls the various militias that run the nation’s detention centers, said Ben Youssef.
The Libyan Coast Guard, which has received boats and training by EU member states, is accused in the report of colluding with people smugglers and being responsible for migrant deaths due to negligence.
One case reviewed by the watchdog indicated that a boat donated by Italy, the Ras Jadir, was used in an incident that led to the deaths of 50 migrants.
The Ras Jadir, operated by the Libyan Coast Guard, ignored basic security protocols when approaching a sinking migrant boat on 6 November 2017, failed to deploy lifeboats and tried to force away an NGO vessel attempting to rescue drowning migrants, Amnesty said.
On 8 December, the International Organization of Migration (IOM), also accused Facebook and Whatsapp of failing to prevent their platforms being used by Libyan people smugglers.
Smugglers often use Facebook to reach would-be migrants with false promises of jobs in Europe, while Whatsapp is used to send video of torture to relatives as a means of extortion, IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle said.
“We really … ask social media companies to step up and behave in a responsible way when people are being lured to deaths, to their torture,” Doyle said.
EU efforts have led to a drop in migrants reaching Italy, according to figures from IOM. From July to November 2017 33,288 migrants reached Italian shores, a 67 percent decrease from the same period in 2016.
IOM estimates 416,556 migrants are currently in Libya. 60 percent of which are from sub-Saharan Africa, 32 percent from North Africa and 7 percent from Asia and the Middle East.
Libya has been divided since 2011 when a popular uprising, and a NATO-led military intervention, led the downfall of its long-ruling President Muammar Gaddafi.
A civil war has been ongoing since, between the UN-recognized Government of National Accord, which is based in Tripoli, and the rival Tobruk-based House of Representatives, supported by the forces of former Libyan Army general Khalifa Haftar.