Last weekend, the Libyan coast guard captured more than 400 refugees and migrants fleeing on boats across the Mediterranean to Europe. According to the International Organization for Migration, most were forced back into detention centers. The Libyan coast guard has intercepted and returned more than 2,500 people since January and around 40,000 since 2017; many—if not most—were forcibly detained. This cannot continue to happen.
One year ago, the Women’s Refugee Commission published a report highlighting the severe sexual violence inflicted on refugees and migrants in Libya, particularly in detention centers and unofficial places of captivity. We met with refugees, including survivors, and frontline service providers and heard from them directly about the atrocities being perpetrated against refugees and migrants in Libya.
Since the report, more evidence of such violations has been documented. A newly published study involving 72 refugees and migrants in France, for example, found that 18% of the men and 53% of the women disclosed they had suffered sexual violence while transiting through Libya, with the authors noting that these may be underestimations given the difficulties in disclosing such violence. One-third of victims reported that sexual violations occurred daily or almost daily and involved multiple perpetrators.
A recent UNSMIL/OHCHR report on Libya also notes that they continued to receive “alarming reports of sexual violence in prisons and detention centres against women, men and boys” throughout 2019. And in October 2019, Médecins Sans Frontières reported that every person who had been treated on board the Ocean Viking rescue ship off the coast of Libya had directly experienced or witnessed sexual violence on their journey to Europe.
The situation for refugees and migrants in Libya has deteriorated even further in the past year. In April 2019, the conflict flared, with refugees and migrants caught in the middle of the fighting. In the Tajoura detention center, some refugees and migrants were forced to clean and move weapons for militias. Airstrikes on the center killed 53 migrant detainees and injured more than 130. Despite an arms embargo, military supplies are flowing into the country and the possibility of peace looks bleak. Although no official cases of COVID-19 have been announced, the virus could devastate Libya’s weak health infrastructure, with refugees and migrants in overcrowded detention centers at extreme risk.
Forced returns to Libya must end. The successor to the notorious Operation Sophia—the expiring EU naval mission that supported the Libyan coast guard to intercept fleeing refugees and migrants—must respect the principle of non-refoulement and ensure that its policies and practices do not directly or indirectly support the forced return of refugees and migrants to Libya. The potentially devastating impacts on detained refugees and migrants—and all people within Libya—once the novel coronavirus reaches Libya’s shores makes this more urgent than ever.