UN: EU cooperation with Libya has led to 'unimaginable horrors' for migrants

EU-backed agreements between Italy and Libya have reduced the number of migrants reaching EU shores. But the cost has been "unimaginable horrors," according to the UN human rights commissioner Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein.

The European Union's (EU) policy of helping Libyan authorities in detaining migrants has been "inhuman," UN human rights commissioner Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said on Tuesday. "The suffering of migrants detained in Libya is an outrage to the conscience of humanity."

UN inspectors had seen "unimaginable horrors" endured by nearly 20,000 migrants during visits to four migrant detention centers in Tripoli, Libya in early November the commissioner said.

Zeid added they had seen evidence of widespread torture, rape and forced labor. At one point, the inspectors saw "thousands of emaciated and traumatized men, women and children piled on top of each other, locked up in hangars with no access to the most basic necessities."

According to Libya's Department of Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM), 19,900 people were being held in facilities under its control in early November, up from about 7,000 in mid-September.

Read more:  Is the EU putting African migrants at risk?

EU complicity

The Italian government signed multiple deals with the Libyan coast guard in the summer with the EU's backing. Rome also allegedly signed agreements with local militias.

Under the agreements, the EU and Libya cooperate in intercepting migrants as they try to cross the Mediterranean for EU shores and returning them for detention in Libya.

Migration from Libya to Italy, which had been a primary route for many Africans migrants, dropped substantially after the deals came into force. The number of detainees in the country was two and a half times higher in November than in mid-September.

Read more: EU-Horn of Africa migration policy inherently flawed, new report suggests

'Turning a blind eye'

But Zeid, who has criticized EU actions in Libya before, stressed that the agreements have not improved migrants' living conditions or protected them from abuse.

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He also dismissed a meeting between African and European interior ministers in Bern, Switzerland on Monday that ended with both sides agreeing on improving detention conditions in Libya.

"The international community cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the unimaginable horrors endured by migrants in Libya, and pretend that the situation can be remedied only by improving conditions in detention."

Read more: Doctors Without Borders decries 'blockade' on boat migrants in Libyan waters

Ready to rescue

Along with the Phoenix and the Argos, the "Dignity 1" makes up the rescue fleet MSF is running in the Mediterranean Sea throughout 2015. This 50-meter long vessel has brought aboard more than 5,000 people from the sea. Together, the three MSF ships have rescued 17,000 people. They operate in an area that stretches along an imaginary line 30 nautical miles off the coast of Libya.

Lost in the ocean

An average rate to make the crossing on one of these rafts is around 500 euros ($567). Despite their apparent fragility, they are much more reliable than the majority of the boats used by smugglers. "These ones always float, but bigger boats often capsize and sink with people locked in the vessel's hold," 2nd Officer David Prados told DW.

"We made it!"

The majority of the refugees aboard "Dignity 1" told DW that smugglers in Libya had said they'd be rescued "by a big boat" and taken to Italy. UNHCR recently reported that more than 300,000 refugees and migrants have used the dangerous sea route across the Mediterranean so far this year.

Women and children first

Women and children are the first to be rescued from the migrant boats. They make up around 10 to 15 percent of the passengers MSF rescues from each boat, and some of them are either pregnant or caring for babies. Accordingly, they get on board far more exhausted than their male counterparts, and many need special medical attention.

Africa is on deck

Unlike those crossing the Balkan Peninsula, an overwhelming majority of the refugees rescued off the Libyan coast are of sub-Saharan origin. Libya has turned into a main hub for migrants on their way to Europe, yet many are reportedly abused or killed in the North African country.

Slave trade

"After they put me in a detention center in Libya, the guards gave me a cell phone to call my family and tell them I'd be killed if they didn't pay a ransom. I was released. Those who can't pay are sold as slaves for construction work," Amin Jabi, a Senegalese refugee, told DW.

The nightmare is over

Many of the female refugees report sexual abuses at Libya's infamous detention centers. In addition to medical and psychological attention, the MSF crew offers AIDS testing on board. "Most of them are traumatized, and those who dare to speak tell gruesome stories," MSF member Laura Pasquero told DW on the ship.


"I was caught at gunpoint in the outskirts of Tripoli by five men. They wanted to rape me, but I had my period. They got very angry, and they beat me until I fell unconscious. My husband paid for my trip, so I'll wait for him in Italy," Evelyn, a refugee from Nigeria, told DW.

Europe full-steam ahead

Since the "Dignity 1" is a relatively small and slow vessel, it normally remains in a stand-by position in the so-called "rescue zone" off the Libyan coast as it waits to transfer the refugees to a bigger boat bound for Italy. They usually disembark in Sicily or the nearby port of Reggio Calabria.

High expectations

A majority of the refugees ignore what will happen after they disembark. This group will be transferred to northern Italy where they'll be taken care of for a month. After that, many will try to work and send money back home, but the chances of finding a job are poor, and many will have to beg for a living.

amp/jm (dpa, AP)