Recently the United Nations Human Rights Office reported that asylum seekers in Libya were being detained, bought and sold at ‘‘open slave markets.” Migrants are intercepted by the Libyan authorities as they attempt to be smuggled across the Mediterranean into Europe. They are treated as commodities and auctioned off for profit between militias and detention centres. Last year, a CNN investigation captured footage which showed African migrants being auctioned off.
Tens of thousands of migrants, mainly from Sub-Saharan Africa, have traveled to Libya in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean and reach Europe to search for opportunities. It is a dangerous route; on average, 14 migrants die crossing the sea every day. European Union states have implemented measures for the closure of migratory routes through Libya and across the Mediterranean to prevent illegal migration. Italy, for instance, provides financial support, training and equipment, like boats for Libyan authorities to stop migrants. This has enabled the Libyan Coast Guard to secure the border, intercept migrants and transport them back to Libya.
According to Amnesty International, EU governments are complicit in human rights abuses of refugees and migrants detained in Libya. This is because the EU gives technical support and assistance to the Libyan Department for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM), which operates the detention centres where migrants are held in arbitrary detention.
When refugees and migrants intercepted by the coast guard are sent to detention centres, they are exposed to human rights violations, including torture, forced labour and extortion. Very few people can afford to pay a ransom fee to be released. Currently, 20,000 people trapped in such detention centres. They withstand overcrowding and inhumane conditions – with little access to food, water or medical attention.
Mass detention is the primary form of migration management in Libya. The operation of detention centres is a result of the criminalization of illegal and undocumented migrants entering the country. But there is also inadequate legislation and infrastructure for the protection of asylum seekers and trafficking victims. Amnesty International is urging European leaders to end arbitrary detainment and release all refugees and migrants from detention centres. This was reiterated by John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s European Director, who said, “European governments must rethink their cooperation with Libya on migration and enable people to get to Europe through legal pathways, including by resettling tens of thousands of refugees. They must insist that the Libyan authorities end the policy and practice of arbitrary arrests and detention of refugees and migrants, immediately release all foreign nationals held in the detention centres, and allow the UNHCR to operate unhindered.”
The Libyan government must formally recognize the UNHCR’s mandate by signing the Refugee Convention, and developing migration policies which will enable the protection of refugees and migrants, rather than confining them in Libya. In addition, it is also necessary for the authorities to investigate allegations of human rights violations, including the sale of migrants. The Libyan embassy in London is currently investigating the claims of slavery auctions, stating that if the perpetrators are found guilty they would be prosecuted under the 1953 law banning slavery.