Tripoli — Guards in migrant detention centers under Libyan government control have tortured and otherwise abused migrants and asylum seekers, including with severe whippings, beatings, and electric shocks.
Human Rights Watch released preliminary findings from its April 2014 investigation in the country which included interviews with 138 detainees, almost 100 of whom reported torture and other abuses.
The alleged abuses, massive overcrowding, dire sanitation conditions, and lack of access to adequate medical care in eight of the nine centers that Human Rights Watch visited breach Libya's obligations not to engage in torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
"Detainees have described to us how male guards strip-searched women and girls and brutally attacked men and boys," said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher. "The political situation in Libya may be tough, but the government has no excuse for torture and other deplorable violence by guards in these detention centers."
Libya's coast guard, which receives European Union (EU) and Italian support, intercepts or rescues hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers each week as they head to Italy in smugglers' boats and detains them pending deportation, together with thousands of others apprehended in Libya for entering the country without permission or for staying without valid residence documents.
Both the EU and Italy also support Libya's detention centers by rehabilitating some centers and funding international and Libyan nongovernmental organizations providing assistance there. The EU and Italy have committed at least €12 million over the next four years to the centers.
The EU and Italy should suspend all assistance to the centers, which are operated by the Interior Ministry, until the ministry agrees to investigate the abuses and the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have independently verified that the abuses have stopped, Human Rights Watch said.
If the abuses end, the EU and Italy should also seek an agreement with the Interior Ministry on how further aid will be used to bring detention conditions in line with minimum international standards by the end of 2014. If that deadline is not met, all aid to sub-standard centers should be suspended.
The revelations of abuse come as the number of migrants and asylum seekers making the dangerous sea crossing to the EU from Libya is set to reach record levels in 2014.
The Italian Navy has been running a large scale rescue operation, known as Mare Nostrum, since October 2013, rescuing thousands of asylum seekers and migrants from unseaworthy boats. On June 17, the Italian Defense Minister said that at the June 26-27 EU summit, Italy would ask the EU's border agency, Frontex, to take over the operation.
Record levels of migrants and asylum seekers have recently reached Italy from Libya. In the first four months of 2014, just about 42,000 people disembarked in Italy, of whom just under 27,000 came from Libya, according to the EU's border agency Frontex. The highest ever recorded number of boat arrivals in Italy and Malta in one year, 2011, was almost 60,000, according to Frontex.
Human Rights Watch visited 9 of the 19 migrant detention centers run by the Interior Ministry's Department for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM). In eight of the centers 93 detainees, including a number of boys as young as 14, described how guards regularly assaulted them and other detainees.
They said guards beat them with iron rods, sticks, and rifle butts, and whipped them with cables, hose pipes, and rubber whips made of car tires and plastic tubes, sometimes over prolonged periods of time on the soles of their feet.
They also said the guards had burned them with cigarettes, kicked and punched them on their torsos and heads, and used electric shocks with tasers on them. In one center five detainees said guards suspended them upside down from a tree and then whipped them.
Both men and women said male guards had strip-searched them on arrival at the center and conducted invasive body searches, including cavity searches. Detainees in four centers said guards threatened to shoot them or shot above their heads. Detainees also described verbal abuse by guards including racial slurs, threats, and frequent swearing.
Persistent violence by guards working in detention centers at least nominally under government control breach Libya's international obligations to protect everyone on its territory against torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
The absolute prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in international law is articulated in both the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), treaties by which Libya is bound.
Torture under both treaties includes the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering by a public official for purposes such as intimidation and coercion. The special rapporteur on torture has deemed administration of electric shocks and severe beatings a form of torture, as has the Human Rights Committee.
None of the detainees Human Rights Watch interviewed said they were taken to court or given an opportunity to challenge the decision to detain and deport them. Prolonged detention without access to judicial review amounts to arbitrary detention and is prohibited under international law.
"In center after center, detainees lined up to talk about the daily fear in which they live, wondering when the next round of beating or whipping will come," Simpson said. "The authorities have turned a blind eye to these terrible abuses and created a culture of complete impunity for abuses against migrants and asylum seekers."
Human Rights Watch also documented severe overcrowding in the nine centers it visited and extremely poor sanitary conditions in eight. In some centers, Human Rights Watch researchers saw up to 60 men and boys crammed into spaces as small as 30 square meters. In others, hundreds of detainees spilled from rooms into narrow corridors - in some cases flooded by overflowing blocked toilets - to use every inch of space.
Detainees needing medical treatment said guards either refused to transfer them to hospitals and clinics or that they did not receive adequate care in the detention center.
Some detention center staff told Human Rights Watch they did not have sufficient means to give detainees, including pregnant women and children, adequate care, nor sufficient means to transfer them to hospitals for specialized care.
"The EU and other donors should make clear to the Libyan authorities that they won't keep supporting detention centers where guards abuse migrants and asylum seekers with complete impunity," Simpson said. "Donors should insist that abuses must end and conditions improve before aid keeps flowing."
Human Rights Watch will release a full report on its findings of the abuses and detention center conditions.
The Interior Ministry's Department for Combating Illegal Migration should immediately shut down the Soroman and Tomena detention centers.
Of the nine centers visited, detainees there face the most serious violence and the most severe conditions due in part to the dilapidated state and the limited size of the buildings combined with massive overcrowding. The authorities should transfer detainees there to other detention centers such as the Abu Saleem migrant detention center - distinct from the Abu Saleem prison - in Tripoli, which has much more space.
In line with its international legal obligations relating to all migrant and asylum seekers detained in Libya, the authorities should either remove all detainees from Libya without delay if they are found to have been in the country unlawfully or release them if they wish to make refugee claims with the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.
The government should announce that guards are prohibited from using violence against detainees, issue instructions to guards about how to conduct searches of detainees, including using female guards to search female detainees where possible, and suspend and punish those found to have committed violence.
It should also work with the EU, Italy, and international agencies working in the centers - including the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) - to determine what help the authorities need to bring the centers in line with minimum detention standards under the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
These require, among other things, a limit to the number of people held in a room, depending on its size, appropriate sleeping arrangements, adequate facilities for personal hygiene, clothing and bedding, adequate food, and access to medical services.
The EU and Italy should immediately suspend all aid to the centers until it is clear the abuse has ended. To achieve this, the Interior Ministry needs to take a number of steps including investigating the abuses, prosecuting those found to be responsible, and agreeing on a monitoring mechanism. Under the monitoring mechanism, the UN Mission and UNHCR should be given unfettered access to all official migrant detention centers and should report publicly on whether abuse has stopped.
The EU and Italy should also inform the Interior Ministry that they will suspend all further aid for any detention centers that do not meet minimum detention standards by the end of 2014.
Human Rights Watch's Visits to Detention Centers
In mid-April, the Department for Combating Illegal Migration gave Human Rights Watch unlimited access to all 19 of Libya's official migrant detention centers and allowed its researchers to speak confidentially with detainees. The agency says the centers hold between 1,000 and 6,000 people at any given time, depending on the number of people apprehended, released and deported.
Human Rights Watch visited nine of the centers - two for women, girls, and young boys and seven for men and older boys - and spoke with 138 detainees about problems they faced in detention.
In eight of the centers - Burshada and al-Hamra, near Gharayan; al-Khums,100 kilometers east of Tripoli; Zliten, and Tomena, near Misrata; abu-Saleem and Tuweisha in Tripoli; and Soroman, 60 kilometers west of Tripoli - detainees spoke of serious abuses by guards. Some interviews were conducted in groups and others in private and confidentially.
Structures used to detain migrants include shipping containers, former veterinary centers and unused government offices and are unsuited as places to detain people for even brief periods. Dozens of detainees told Human Rights Watch they had spent months confined 24 hours a day in rooms and containers.
When Human Rights Watch discussed its findings on abuses in the migrant detention centers on April 29 with migration department officials, they said no other organization had ever raised such abuses with officials.
But UNHCR told Human Rights Watch it had raised its concerns about some violent guards a few times with the authorities. It said that since March 2013 the Interior Ministry had prohibited organizations regularly working in the centers from conducting private interviews with detainees, which the Interior Ministry confirmed with Human Rights Watch, but that some directors and guards still allowed UNHCR staff to carry out such interviews.
In a June 2013 report, Amnesty International documented cases of violence by guards in three migrant detention centers, one in the town of Sabha and two in unspecified locations. Migration department officials told Human Rights Watch they had not read Amnesty International's report.
Libyan Detention, Deportation Policies
Libya has long attracted migrants and asylum seekers wishing to work in Libya or looking to find work and protection in Europe. In April 2014, Libya's Ministry of Labor told Human Rights Watch it estimated there were up to three million undocumented migrants in the country.
In May 2013, the EU established the European Union Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) in Libya to "support the Libyan authorities in improving and developing the security of the country's borders."
An EUBAM official in Libya told Human Rights Watch their work included training the Libyan coast guard in border control management techniques. The Italian Embassy in Libya also told Human Rights Watch that Italy was supporting the Libyan coast guard in logistical terms, including by financing the repair of patrol boats.
When detaining undocumented foreign nationals, Libya does not distinguish between those looking for work in Libya or the EU, and asylum seekers fleeing persecution and other abuses in their countries.
Libya has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not have its own asylum law or procedures. UNHCR in Libya does not have an official Memorandum of Understanding governing its presence and operations in Libya. Libya has ratified the Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa.
The Libyan authorities told Human Rights Watch they do not deport Eritrean and Somali nationals to their countries, recognizing widespread human rights abuses in Eritrea and the conflict in Somalia. However, detained Eritreans and Somalis who do not benefit from other informal release procedures languish for months - and sometimes for more than a year - in detention, according to Libyan migration officials, UNHCR and International Organization for Migration.
Although UNHCR registers some asylum seekers living in Libya's urban areas, the authorities stopped all registration of detained asylum seekers in June 2013, UNHCR told Human Rights Watch.
The Libyan authorities should immediately allow UNHCR to resume its registration of anyone wishing to seek asylum in Libya and to end its automatic prolonged detention of asylum seekers.
UNHCR Detention Guidelines, which draw on international law, say government authorities should detain asylum seekers only "as a last resort" as a strictly necessary and proportionate measure to achieve a legitimate legal purpose and should not detain asylum seekers simply for the purpose of deportation.
Detention is permitted only briefly to establish a person's identity or for longer periods if it is the only way to achieve broader aims such as protecting national security or public health.
Libya is also a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says that children shall only be detained "as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time."
The UN committee interpreting the convention says that children must not be criminalized for reasons related to their immigration status or illegal entry and that countries should not detain any children based on their immigration status.
Libyan migration agency officials agreed with Human Rights Watch that migrants and asylum seekers deported from Libya could easily re-enter through Libya's wide-open 1,000-kilometer southern border, a point many detainees themselves made during interviews.
Accounts of Abuse in Detention
The guards here are so violent. In November , some people tried to escape. They caught them. Then they punished all of the detainees in one of the [shipping] containers. I saw it all happen.
They took them out, stripped off their shirts, threw water all over them, and then whipped them with rubber on their backs and heads for about half an hour. They were all vomiting because they were in so much pain. Other times the guards say they will shoot people if they don't put their feet through the bars at the front of the container and then they just beat them.
- 33-year-old Eritrean man in the al-Hamra migrant detention center, where detainees are held in shipping containers
Since I came here [in 2014], the guards attacked me twice. They whipped me with metal wire and beat and punched me all over my body. I also saw them hang four or five people upside-down from the tree outside the entrance door and then beat and whipped their feet and stomach. And a week ago [mid-April 2014], I saw them attack an Egyptian man who had been here for three months and was mentally sick. They kicked him in the head and broke one of his teeth.
- 27-year-old Somali man, Tomeina migrant detention center
When the guards don't like what someone does, they come in and shout and beat him with sticks. When I arrived here, the guards put us [23 women] in a room, told us to take off our clothes and then put their fingers inside our vaginas.
- 21-year-old Eritrean woman on how guards at the Soroman migrant detention center treated her on arrival in February 2014