Thousands of migrants and refugees are being held captive by smugglers in different locations, including farms and warehouses in and around the coastal city of Sabratha in Libya, according to a statement by UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic on 17 October.
UNHCR staff on the ground detail a picture of abuse on a shocking scale. “Amongst the refugees and migrants who suffered abuse at the hands of smugglers, there are pregnant women and new born babies. Hundreds of people were discovered with no clothes or shoes. Scores of them are in need of urgent medical care, with some suffering from bullet wounds and other visible signs of abuse.”
Likewise, UNHCR underlined how traumatized refugees and migrants were, after being rescued from the smugglers. “Most of them say that they were subjected to numerous human rights abuses, including sexual and gender-based violence, forced labour and sexual exploitation.”
Following three weeks of fighting between rival groups in Sabratha, which left at least 43 dead and 340 wounded, Libyan authorities took control of various informal detention centres and camps previously run by criminal networks where 4.000 to 6.000 refugees and migrants have been held.
According to a recent report by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, the larger share of the migrants (2600 by 7 October) including pregnant women, newborn babies and unaccompanied minors have been transferred to a hangar of the Libyan Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM). This report further noted that most of the migrants were in urgent need of food, water, medical treatment and psychological support.
“We are seriously concerned by the large number of migrants caught up in recent developments in Sabratha. Alternatives to detention must be found for migrants in Libya, said Othman Belbeisi, IOM Libya Chief of Mission.
Furthermore, the UN Security Council expressed concerns over the deteriorating security, and humanitarian situation in Libya, while the EU mission to Libya EUbam noted that sustainable progress could remain limited “in the absence of a political solution, an end to the military conflict and a return to stability”.
Forced labour and lack of healthcare provided to sick migrants in Libyan detention centres were key concerns raised by Human Rights Solidarity (HRS). In a statement in July the Rights organisation called on Libyan authorities to assume responsibility toward the “blatant violations” against irregular migrants in the country.
Finally, HRS called on the European Union to tackle the reasons behind irregular migration in the source countries, such as civil wars, political and financial corruption, adding that the cost of uprooting the issue could be less than that spent on coastguards and rescue operations. One can further argue that the deplorable conditions in Sabratha at once emphasise the need for international action, while also highlighting the high price refugees have to pay to reach safety in the absence of safe legal routes.