On a sunny March day on the island of Lampedusa, a group of young men from the West African nation of Guinea sat on a bench overlooking the peaceful port.
Just three days earlier, they had survived the dangerous journey from Libya and were brought by rescuers to the small Mediterranean island. I asked them what Libya had been like. “Libya is hell on earth,” came the answer. “That is the only word to describe it.”
Interviewing refugees and migrants who had recently arrived from Libya, there seemed to be no end to the cruelty they had endured at the hands of ruthless smugglers, detention center staff, members of the Libyan coast guard and criminal gangs.
Many said they had been held for weeks or months in warehouses by smugglers who beat and tortured them and fed them only an occasional piece of bread or a small handful of pasta. Others said they had been detained in appalling conditions in detention centers where food was similarly scarce and beatings were common.
Women and girls are subjected to sexual abuse at all stages of the journey to Europe: in official detention centers, traveling through the Sahara desert and at the hands of people smugglers.
Libya has been in turmoil since the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 and currently has three competing governments, militias operating across the country and a blossoming people-smuggling trade. Sub-Saharan refugees and migrants face staggering levels of racism and are often called “animals” by locals. Men and women told me how even walking in the street was too dangerous, as they could be kidnapped and sold like commodities.
European leaders, desperate to stem the flow of people arriving on their shores via Libya, have made a priority of preventing departures from the Middle Eastern country. They are working with the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and providing training and equipment to the Libyan coast guard as well as funding to international organizations working on the ground.
When the Libyan coast guard encounters a boat carrying refugees and migrants, these individuals are taken back to Libyan territory, where they are detained in migrant detention centers under appalling conditions and severe human rights abuses.
When it comes to finding and implementing solutions for the human rights crisis that refugees and migrants face in Libya, the list of obstacles and challenges is endless. But there are a number of urgently needed measures that European leaders can and should undertake immediately. They are essential if the E.U. and its member states are to ensure that their actions and funding do not result in, or even contribute to, the abuses that lead refugees and migrants to refer to Libya as “hell.”
To be clear, the E.U. is empowering the Libyan coast guard to do something none of its member states could do without violating international law – returning people to Libyan territory and thereby exposing them to horrific abuse.
For this reason, the E.U. must urgently take steps to prevent such abuses from occurring. A first step would be to work with the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for the deployment of human rights monitors in places where refugees and migrants are forced to disembark on Libyan soil, and in the detention facilities they are taken to. In their talks with the Libyan authorities, the E.U. should also urge them to grant nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the U.N. refugee agency free access to refugees and migrants in the centers where they are held.
One stated reason for the actions of E.U. leaders in the Central Mediterranean is the intention to prevent further loss of life at sea. But is saving a man, a woman or a child from drowning, only for them to be taken hours later to a detention center where they may face malnutrition, sexual abuse and deadly beatings, really saving them?
The E.U. is spending more than $146 million on migration-related projects in Libya, part of which has been earmarked to improve conditions in detention centers. Last week, the German foreign minister announced that Germany would provide the Libyan authorities with $3.9 million to improve conditions in centers where refugees and migrants are held.
But detention centers where people are deprived of their liberty with no judicial process and no end in sight, albeit with improved ventilation and more toilets, would still violate international law. The E.U. and its member states should insist that the Libyan authorities stop detaining migrants and refugees in closed facilities, or they risk legitimizing this abusive system.
It is no secret that for E.U. leaders, preventing refugees and migrants from reaching Italy via Libya is a priority. But actions that are taken in the name of European citizens and funded with their taxes should not lead to men, women and children becoming trapped in a place where they may face torture, slavery and rape. It is the duty of European leaders to uphold the values of human dignity and fundamental rights on which the E.U. was founded, whether it is north or south of the Mediterranean.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.