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Detention of migrants in Libya is a human rights crisis

15 December 2016

“We are called animals and are treated as animals,” said a 16-year-old migrant boy, who was detained while traveling through Libya.

The boy described being taken by armed men in uniform to a windowless metal cell in a Tripoli detention facility, where he was held for more than a month with some 200 men, women and children from Somalia and Eritrea. There was very little ventilation, he said, many of the detainees were ill, and they were given very little food.

Dozens of other migrants recounted similar experiences during their transit through Libya, according to a report released this week by the UN Human Rights Office and the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). Information gathered from visits to several Libyan detention facilities and from interviews with previously detained migrants who had arrived in Italy detailed abuse and violations suffered in detention centres run by the Department for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM).

Migrants are brought to detention facilities where there is no formal registration, no legal process, and no access to lawyers or judicial authorities, according to the report. Migrants described being detained in severely overcrowded cells, without adequate food and clean water. UNSMIL visited several detention centres where they saw large groups of migrants held in rooms so crowded there was not enough room to lie down. Many lacked access to toilets, forcing detainees to urinate and defecate in their cells. Infectious diseases, respiratory problems and malnutrition are common.

Information received by UNSMIL showed a consistent and widespread pattern of guards beating migrants. A number of those interviewed by UNSMIL had gunshot and knife injuries and visible wounds and head injuries. Women detainees reported being beaten and raped.

“This is, quite simply, a human rights crisis affecting tens of thousands of people,” said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. “The report serves to deepen our compassion and strengthen our resolve that the rights of migrants should be fully protected and respected.”

Recent years have seen a worrying trend towards the detention of migrants in breach of international human rights principles. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has registered about 38,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Libya. The total number of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers is believed to be much higher.

“Arbitrary deprivation of liberty is a human rights violation,” Zeid said at a recent panel discussion of the OHCHR Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

The report calls on Libyan authorities to immediately release the most vulnerable migrants, to end the arbitrary detention of all migrants and to amend Libyan legislation to decriminalize irregular migration.

Migrants reported being subjected to torture, forced labour and sexual violence by traffickers, criminal gangs and armed groups who control the migration flow through the country. Some said they had been held in “connection houses,” where they were forced to work as payment for their transport and subject to rape and beatings. UNSMIL also received reports that some State employees and local officials have participated in smuggling and trafficking activities.

The report urged Libyan authorities and the international community to address urgently the human rights crisis affecting migrants in transit, emphasizing that both countries of origin and destination must play an equal role in addressing the crisis.

“Libya must acknowledge that migrants are being abused,” said Martin Kobler, head of UNSMIL and the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Libya. “But addressing migration is not only Libya’s responsibility. Countries of origin and destination also need to play their part.”

15 December 2016