Stories of migrants and refugees being treated as commodities, subjected to torture and gang rape are just a few of the "unspeakable horrors" outlined in a new report by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), based on 1,300 first-hand accounts gathered in Libya, Nigeria and Italy.
"The overwhelming majority of women and older teenage girls interviewed by UNSMIL reported being gang raped by smugglers or traffickers," says the report published on Thursday.
The lawlessness of Libya and the desperation of migrants have created conditions where starvation, beatings and extortion have become the norm.
Male migrants used to travel alone but are now travelling with their families, including their wives and children, says Clotilde Warin, co-author of Caught in the Middle: A human rights and peace-building approach to migration governance in the Sahel, a report also released this week by the Netherlands-based Clingendael Institute for International Relations.
"The asylum seekers thought that it would be possible to get protection from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR," Warin tells RFI. "So they take the [migrant] route with their wife and children."
UN staff visited 11 detention centres in Libya, witnessing ill-treatment, forced labour, and torture. There were no female guards, the report noted, which made it easier to exploit the female detainees, including some who were raped by the guards. Women were also subjected to public strip searches and were watched by male guards.
A nightmare for women
The situation for individual women travelling from various sub-Saharan countries differs, according to Warin. Women from Nigeria and Cote d'Ivoire who are looking for regular jobs in Europe "start their journey in the hands of traffickers. And then they're forced into prostitution."
In Niger, formerly a major sub-Saharan migrant hub, women are publicly degraded, according to migrant eyewitness accounts.
"They are forced to have sex with traffickers in front of everyone. And sometimes they are filmed. And the film is sent to their families. It's a complete nightmare for these women," says Warin.
Some 29,000 migrants who attempted to flee in boats since 2017 have been returned to Libya by the Libyan Coast Guard, according to UNSMIL. Many of these migrants who thought their days of torture and starvation were over are subjected to the same abuse all over again. The UN report says that Libya cannot be considered a place of safety once migrant boats are intercepted and returned to the coast.
'Short-term' EU policies not working
Warin says that while the European Union has put a number of schemes in place to help transit countries, they promote policies that do not work, and even exacerbate the migrant and refugee situation.
"The EU gave 150 million euros to Morocco" this year, she says. This follows on from money the EU has given to Niger and Sudan. Migrants are now trying to enter Europe through Morocco, putting a strain on Spain and its social safety net.
"It's always the same policy of the EU. They are obsessed with the fact of stopping the migrants ... they want to secure the external borders of Europe. Since the beginning, they have taken very short-term decisions," Warin adds.
Policies agreed in Brussels have far-reaching consequences for transit countries, the Sahel region as a whole and for those attempting to escape war and poverty.
'Obsession' to cut numbers
"The European Union and its member states must also reconsider the human costs of their policies and efforts to stem migration to Europe, and ensure that their cooperation and assistance to the Libyan authorities are human rights-based," says the UN report.
UNSMIL warns that policies should not result in men, women and children being trapped in a cycle of abuse with no protection or opportunity for escape.
"The only obsession is to cut the figures, and to go to the European Council and tell the state members that there is a real decrease in arrivals - which is the case," says Warin, citing the 95 per cent drop in people coming to Italy via boat.
A humane, long-term response is critical, according to the researcher, but until migrants and refugees are viewed as individuals and not just numbers, the abuse will continue.
"We, as in Europeans, all close our eyes in what is behind that and why it is possible. The routes still exist, but they are longer, more expensive, dangerous. And the abuses against migrants are numerous," says Warin.