Refugees and migrants face kidnap, rape, torture, slave labour and sexual violence in Libya before attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Italy, an Oxfam report has found.
The report carried out in partnership with Italian charities Doctors for Human Rights (MEDU) and Borderline Sicilia analysed 285 testimonies including 158 interviews with 31 women and 127 men who arrived in Sicily having made the dangerous crossing from Libya.
The testimonies revealed harrowing abuses of migrants in Libya. All but one of the women interviewed said they had suffered from sexual violence, with men also speaking of rape.
Three quarters of the refugees and migrants interviewed also said they had witnessed the murder and/or torture of a travelling companion, the report said.
Some refugees reported falling into the hands of gangs which imprisoned people in underground cells, before calling their families to demand a ransom for their release.
Chidi, 18, from Gambia, said he was kidnapped by a gang and remained in a prison in Sabratha for three months.
“Our captors…. regularly committed acts of torture and violence against everyone held there. I was subjected to repeated acts of suspension torture…. and I was continually beaten over the head.”
A teenager from Senegal said he was kept in a cell which was full of dead bodies before managing to escape.
Lamine, 18, said: “The cell was full of dead bodies. I saw soldiers breaking the nose of one guy and beating him so seriously on his head that he lost his eyes. They broke my finger and cut my left leg with a knife.”
In the report, Oxfam and its partners found that in 84 per cent of the testimonies, people said they had suffered inhuman or degrading treatment, extreme violence or torture, 80 per cent said they had regularly been denied food and water during their stay and 70 per cent said they had been tied up.
The report describes the conditions in which thousands lived trapped until they managed to make their way to Italy as a “living hell”.
Oxfam and its partners are calling on Italy and other European member states to stop pursuing migration policies that prevent people leaving Libya and escape the abuse they are suffering.
The charities are urging European countries to take their fair share of asylum seekers and create safe routes for migrants to leave Libya.
The report states: “The EU is meant to be a bastion of human rights: EU member states should ensure that migrants arrive safely in Europe where they can have access to a fair and transparent process for claiming asylum.”
The central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy has become the major port of entry for those trying to reach Europe. According to Oxfam, more than 180,000 people arrived in Italy via this route in 2016 and more than 95,000 have already arrived so far this year.
Penny Lawrence, deputy chief executive of Oxfam GB, described the testimonies of atrocities in Libya as “unimaginable cruelty”.
She said: “These testimonies paint a horrifying picture of desperate people who have risked their lives to escape war, persecution and poverty only to be confronted with unimaginable cruelty in Libya.
“The UK, along with other EU member states, has actively supported efforts to limit arrivals in Europe, trapping refugees and other migrants in a living hell.
“Outsourcing the policing of our borders to Libya isn’t the solution; EU member states, including the UK, should provide safe routes for people to come to Europe, including expanding opportunities for refugee families to reunite, and provide access to fair and transparent processes for claiming asylum.”
The report adds that a proposal by French President Emmanuel Macron to open processing centres on Libyan soil risks “entrapping more people in a lawless and dangerous state”.
In February, Italy signed a deal with the fragile Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli to curb migration. It promised training, equipment and money to fight human traffickers but also included “humanitarian repatriation” of migrants who are being held in camps before being sent back to their countries of origin.
In its report, Oxfam has accused the EU of “trying to keep migration at arm’s length” by using development money to reduce mobility at African borders, “effectively moving its borders so they are out of sight and out of mind”.