Women and children victims of abuse in Libyan holding centres

A migrant gestures from behind the bars of a cell at a detention centre in Libya, Tuesday 31 January 2017
A migrant gestures from behind the bars of a cell at a detention centre in Libya, Tuesday 31 January 2017 UNICEF

A report issued by United International Children's Emergency Fund (Unicef) on Tuesday reveals that migrants in Libya, mainly women and children, have been victims of abuse, including beatings, rapes and starvation, while living in "hellholes". Unicef says almost 26,000 children, most of them unaccompanied, crossed the Mediterranean last year.


This report is only the latest in a series of reports by human rights groups that have described the atrocious conditions that migrants are going through.

But in terms of numbers, it highlights a record number of nearly 26,000 children who have crossed the Mediterranean from Libya.

That is also because the facilities where people are being held and detained in Libya are currently unable to accommodate such large numbers of people.

"The fact that there are so many areas that are not controlled by a central government authority, but rather by militias, means that the detention centres that we know exist around the country are the places where we feel the levels of abuse are probably worse," Afshan Khan, Unicef's Regional Director and Special Coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in Europe, tells RFI.

Khan adds that Unicef does not have access to many of these detention centres.
"The current facilities are insufficient. Both in terms of the way children are being held, as in detention behind bars, which should never happen, and in terms of inadequate health and sanitation services," Khan says.

"We have seen the spread of disease in some of these centres. And children have reported being beaten by men in uniform. Now, we don't know who those men in uniform are, but it is clear that the detention centres are currently inadequate to house children."

Epicentre of violence

Without getting too much into the political turmoil that Libya has been going through in the past few years, the situation on the ground, aside from the migrant crisis, is already a very difficult one for Libyans themselves.

But "this level of abuse is new," Claudia Gazzini, the Senior Analyst on Libya for the International Crisis Group, tells RFI.

"The fact that it has increased so much in this past year or two is also directly related to the deteriorating economic situation in Libya. It's a country that is increasingly on the verge of an economic crisis," Gazzini explains.

"Normal Libyans face cash shortages and pay check delays, and the government doesn't have much money left in its reserves to spend. So by default, the self-proclaimed security forces that are in charge of monitoring migrants have themselves become smugglers and racketeers, thereby exerting violence on migrants to obtain money that is no longer available in the country."

Controversial deal

The EU struck a deal with Libya recently to help with the migrant crisis, but it is a very controversial deal. It was specifically signed between Italy and Libya - since Italy is the first country migrants arrive to after the crossing the Mediterranean.

It is controversial because it is hard to tell if the EU wants to help Libya with its crisis, or if it's intended to keep migrants from coming to Europe.

"The deal proposes building holding centres in Libya to keep the migrants inside the country. It's been controversial for a number of reasons. Human rights groups have highlighted the fact that the authorities in Libya simply do not have the capabilities to maintain such centres without abuse occurring," Mary Fitzgerald, a political analyst on Libya, tells RFI.

"The UN-backed unity government that has agreed to this deal is in fact struggling to impose its authority over the whole of Tripoli, let alone other parts of the country. So there are real concerns here. There are also concerns inside Libya, in that many Libyans resent the fact that Europe wants to keep migrants inside Libya rather than actually stemming the flow in other ways."

Fitzgerald says there are no easy answers, nor easy solutions, as Libya is simply incapable of processing the flow of migrants that are currently coming into the country.
"That capability does not exist right now in terms of infrastructure. It's going to take a very long time, so there are no quick fixes to this crisis," Fitzgerald explains.

"But of course, as we know, certain European governments are under pressure from their citizens to address this issue. So you have a situation where you have a certain dynamic in Europe, pushing towards what some people might think is a quick fix, while inside Libya there are none, and they're leaving it wide open for further abuse to occur."

Claudia Gazzini underlines that it is hard to see how Italy and EU states can alleviate living conditions in these detention centres by signing up to a deal where you do not have a counterpart able to actually enforce the terms of the deal.

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