Fatouma*, a 17-year-old asylum seeker from the Ivory Coast, carried her eight-month-old son in her arms when she left Libya to try to reach Europe on 16 May this year. A few hours later, the wooden boat they were travelling in with around 90 other people started to sink. Before setting out, Fatouma had known attempting the crossing was dangerous. But did she really have a choice?
Back home, the man she had been forced to marry when she was only 13 beat her severely and sexually abused her. Fatouma said she feared for her life. So she fled, eventually reaching Libya. By that time, she was pregnant, but struggled to access medical care and was arbitrarily detained by Libyan authorities several times.
Fatouma tried unsuccessfully to leave Libya twice by boat – once before giving birth and once after – but each time the vessel was intercepted by the EU-backed Libyan Coast Guard and she was sent to a detention centre.
“I knew we were facing death,” Fatouma told The New Humanitarian of her third attempt. “But my baby has been imprisoned in three different prisons where he was starved and mistreated. He was dying in my arms.”
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“In Libya, prison guards refused to give him food, milk, or water. He could have died, and I wanted to give him a chance to live,” she added, with tears streaking down her face.
Fatouma and the other passengers were rescued after around nine hours at sea by the Sea-Eye 4, a search and rescue vessel operated by a German NGO. During a three-week mission in May, the Sea-Eye 4 rescued 408 people from six boats: 150 were children – including 19 infants – and 36 were women, at least five of whom were pregnant.
Search and rescue NGOs operating in the central Mediterranean have counted thousands of women and children among the people they’ve rescued off the coast of Libya in recent years – accounting for somewhere between 25 and 40 percent of the total, according to spokespeople from several NGOs consulted by The New Humanitarian. Almost all of them have passed through official and unofficial Libyan detention centres.
The cycle of extortion, deprivation, and violence faced by asylum seekers and migrants, even in government-affiliated facilities, is well documented. But because of stigma and trauma, violations against women and children in Libyan detention centres – including rapes and sexual violence – often go under-reported.
Migration trends in the Central Mediterranean
As the number of interceptions by the Libyan Coast Guard has soared this year – already reaching nearly 18,300, as of 24 July, compared to around 12,000 all of last year – the EU and its member states are facing increasing scrutiny over what critics say is their complicity in the cycle of abuse.
At least 930 asylum seekers and migrants have died attempting to cross the central Mediterranean, and around 27,000 have reached Europe. Most recently, at least 57 people – including at least 20 women and two children – drowned in a shipwreck on 26 July.
Since 2017, the EU and several of its member states have provided training, funding, equipment, and, increasingly, aerial surveillance support to the Libyan Coast Guard, helping to facilitate interceptions. The asylum seekers and migrants returned to Libya by the Coast Guard – including nearly 1,200 women and more than 600 children so far this year – are automatically sent to government-affiliated detention centres.
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In remarks to the UN Security Council on 15 July, Ján Kubiš, head of the UN’s support mission in Libya, or UNSMIL, said, “[UN] Member states who support operations to return individuals to Libya should revisit their policies, bearing in mind that migrants and refugees continue to face a very real risk of torture and sexual violence if returned to Libyan shores.”
The same day as Kubiš’ remarks, the Italian parliament voted to renew funding for the Libyan Coast Guard for another year.
As of 4 July, 840 children and over 700 women were recorded as being held in 16 government-affiliated detention facilities in Libya, out of a total detainee population of 6,134, according to Safa Msehli, a spokesperson for the UN’s migration agency, IOM. However, Libyan authorities do not systematically register detainees, so the exact numbers are unknown, Msehli added.
“There is a lack of transparency about the presence and the situation of women and children in detention centres, but we know that they are also detained in horrific conditions,” Matteo de Bellis, a researcher at Amnesty International, told The New Humanitarian.
A recent report from Amnesty found that – just in the first six months of 2021 – asylum seekers and migrants in Libyan detention centres have been subjected to unlawful killings, torture, extortion, rape, sexual violence, and forced labour, among other violations, despite vows by Libyan authorities to improve conditions. Women and children are particularly vulnerable.
The report describes a pattern of sexual violence and harassment of women and girls in several Libyan detention centres, including guards demanding sex in exchange for allowing them to use the toilet or receive food. Children are also not spared. During an escape attempt from a detention centre in May, guards shot a 13-year-old boy in the leg, according to the report.
The abuses recorded by Amnesty are consistent with testimonies gathered while The New Humanitarian was embedded onboard the Sea-Eye 4 during its May mission – testimonies that paint a grim picture of the experiences of women and children in Libyan detention centres.
Libya’s Department for Combating Illegal Immigraton (DCIM), which oversees official detention centres in the country, did not respond to The New Humanitarian’s request for comment on allegations of widespread rape and sexual abuse in facilities under its authority.
‘I knew we had to flee’
Grace, who is from West Africa, gave birth on the floor of a detention centre in Libya. “On the day of my delivery, the police arrested me and left the baby abandoned, lying on the floor,” she recounted after being rescued – along with her daughter – by the Sea-Eye 4.
Irregular entry to Libya is criminalised, so asylum seekers and migrants face the constant threat of being apprehended by authorities and detained. “I had seen Libyans shoot people dead, and I was terrified,” Grace added. “I knew we had to flee.”
After being rescued, women aboard the Sea-Eye 4 described a staggering level of rape and sexual violence in Libyan government-affiliated detention centres. Mariam, a 24-year-old from Mali who fled domestic abuse from her husband, said she was raped and beaten every day during the six months she was held in a facility in the coastal town of Zuwara.
Mariam’s five-year-old daughter was with her and witnessed her mother being abused. “My daughter saw me in this state, and she just cried and cried,” Mariam said. “My head has gone crazy. When I see a person in the street now, I am scared, and I feel like they are following me. I saw too many other women and girls get raped in front of me.”
The detention centre in Zuwara has since been closed – along with several others notorious for abuse – but conditions in new centres opened by Libya’s Department for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM) are reportedly just as dismal.
Julia, a 22-year-old from Mali, was arbitrarily arrested by Libyan authorities and sent to one of the new facilities, called Shara’ al-Zawiya, in Tripoli, which is designated as a centre for vulnerable groups – such as women and children – by the DCIM, according to the Amnesty report.
Julia said adults in Shara’ al-Zawiya only received one meal a day, and children were not provided with food at all, adding that she had seen pregnant women being beaten by guards for asking for more food. “Libyans do not like Black people and mistreat us,” she said. “We did not have access to drinking water, and we had to drink water out of a toilet.”
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Julia said she was repeatedly raped while in the facility and became pregnant. It was impossible for her to tell who the father of the child was. "When the men in the detention centres rape you, there's always at least two of them," she added. "One man is pointing a gun at you. The other one is raping you. Sometimes, there is a third one to film the scene."
In June, five teenage girls between the ages of 15 and 17 from Somalia who were also held in Shara’ al-Zawiya told the Associated Press they were being sexually abused by guards in the facility. At least two of the girls attempted to commit suicide because of the abuse.
On board the Sea-Eye 4, Aicha, a 23-year-old from West Africa, said she had also become pregnant after being raped multiple times while in a DCIM-affiliated facility. “When I started feeling sick and vomiting in the detention centre, I understood what happened. I cried every day, until I fled and crossed the Mediterranean,” she said.
When she was rescued by the Sea-Eye 4 on 16 May, she was in her last trimester of pregnancy, and her body was covered in bruises and scars from beatings she had recently received.
Many of the children rescued by Sea-Eye behaved in ways that were abnormal for their age, according to Marlene Fiessinger, a nurse on board the boat.
“Immediately after the rescue, they started hugging the crewmembers, and it was clear they had been deprived of body contact and affection,” Fiessinger told The New Humanitarian. “They wanted to be carried in our arms, and were thirsty for a peaceful and loving environment.”
Most children suffered from malnutrition, dehydration, and different kinds of infections, likely stemming from the conditions they experienced in Libyan detention centres and aboard the crowded boats they were rescued from, according to Fiessinger.
Conditions in detention centres can have long-lasting effects on children, according to Serena Colagrande, an advocacy manager for Médecins Sans Frontières France, which is one of the few NGOs that has access to Libyan detention centres.
“All of that will influence the physical and mental health of the children, most of whom are already very weak and underweight,” Colagrande said.
The EU ‘perpetuates the cycle’
IOM and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, maintain that Libya is not safe for refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants, and urge states to refrain from returning people rescued at sea to the country. Both agencies have also called for people held in Libyan migration detention centres to be released.
“We call for the immediate release of the most vulnerable, including women and children,” Jean-Paul Cavalieri, UNHCR’s chief of mission in Libya, told The New Humanitarian.
An EU spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy did not respond directly when asked by The New Humanitarian if the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, should revisit its support for the Libyan Coast Guard due to widespread documentation of abuses taking place in detention centres, including the sexual abuse of women and girls, but they said reports of sexual and gender-based violence “have to be condemned in the strongest possible terms”.
“Our position towards the conditions in which migrants are held in detention centres in Libya is clear: The situation in these centres is unacceptable. The current arbitrary detention system must end,” the spokesperson continued, adding that the EU is working with UN agencies and international NGOs to provide humanitarian assistance to asylum seekers and migrants in Libya.
But critics say this isn’t good enough.
“There is no question that EU support for Libyan interceptions perpetuates the cycle of arbitrary detention and abuse in Libyan detention centers,” Judith Sunderland, associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, told The New Humanitarian. “Support for humanitarian aid doesn’t absolve the EU of its complicity.”
Meanwhile, search and rescue NGOs, such as Sea-Eye, are struggling to maintain a presence in the central Mediterranean due to a host of policies implemented by EU member states that have made it more difficult for them to operate.
After people rescued during its mission in May were disembarked in Italy, Italian authorities impounded the Sea-Eye 4, citing “various irregularities of technical nature”. The ship has yet to be released.
Since 2019, Italian authorities have impounded NGO search and rescue vessels on similar grounds at least 13 times, and 58 legal proceedings have been opened by EU member states since 2016 against search and rescue boats operating throughout Mediterranean.
“In 2015, when a toddler’s body washed up on the Turkish shore, Europe was outraged,” Sophie Weidenhiller, a Sea-Eye spokesperson, told The New Humanitarian, referring to the famous case of Alan Kurdi. “Six years later, the situation has only worsened, and dead bodies of children washing up on shores are not even worthy of a headline anymore.”
*All names have been changed to protect the safety of the rescued women and children.
With additional reporting from Tunis by Ghady Kafala.
The New Humanitarian used transportation provided by the Sea-Eye 4, a search and rescue vessel operated by a German NGO.