Two years after Italy's EU-backed migration deal with Libya, more than 5,300 women, men and children have perished in the Mediterranean and more still are suffering back in Libyan detention camps, Oxfam said on Friday.
In a joint open letter to EU governments, over 50 organizations and platforms, including Oxfam, say EU governments have become complicit in the tragedy unfolding before their eyes in the Mediterranean. People are now in even more danger at sea and are being taken back by the Libyan coastguard to face human rights abuses in Libya.
The NGOs state that some EU member states have deliberately forced many of the organizations conducting search and rescue operations to stop their life-saving work. Governments have made unfounded allegations against ships operating in the Mediterranean and prevented them from leaving their ports, the letter says. This time last year there were five organizations conducting search and rescue for people in distress - now there is only one.
Since the Libya migration deal was struck, more than 4,000 people have drowned in the Central Mediterranean alone, and more than 5,300 in all corners of the Mediterranean Sea, making it the deadliest sea in the world. Those who are picked up by the Libyan coastguard are returned to Libya, a country still torn apart by war and where beatings, sexual abuse, detention without trial, human trafficking and slavery are rife.
Oxfam spoke to Moussa*, a 17-year old boy from Mali, who was intercepted by the Libyan coastguard and brought to a detention center in Tripoli: "There were many people in the prison. They asked me for more money, but I didn't have any left. They beat me on the soles of my feet, my calves and my knees, but I kept saying that I couldn't contact anyone because I had no family left in Mali... I saw a young Gambian boy beaten to death before my eyes because he dared to rebel and answer back to them."
Oxfam's EU migration policy advisor, Raphael Shilhav, said:
"EU countries are making the Mediterranean a watery graveyard as a matter of deliberate policy. They must allow search and rescue ships to dock in their ports, disembark rescued people, and return to sea to save people's lives, in line with international law. All attempts to prevent their work will inevitably lead to more deaths and run counter to Europe's humanitarian values."
The Libya deal promises logistical and financial support from Italy and the EU to the Libyan coastguard, in return for the coastguard preventing people leaving Libya for Europe. Numerous accounts collected by Oxfam and its partners over the past years show that in Libya, these people are often crammed into detention centers in abandoned buildings or pitch-black tunnels, without enough food. Many are mistreated before being sold to armed groups or as slaves. Recent testimonies collected by Oxfam and its partner Borderline show that the situation has not changed.
Yonas*, a 28-year old man from Eritrea, was detained by various gangs in Libya: "Altogether, I lived a year and a half in two prisons, where we were all living in terrible conditions, with many people getting sick and not receiving care. Many died and were buried like animals. The women were raped in front of us. We were beaten every day by prison guards selected from the group of migrants... They beat us and made us call our family to ask them to send us money."
Ibrahim*, a 26-year old man from Guinea, was kidnapped by one of the street gangs in Tripoli. He describes how the gang would deceive UN personnel who came to the detention center where he was held: "On the days when UN staff came they treated us well, cleaned everything, cooked good food, brought us clothes, brought us to a doctor for check-ups. As soon as the UN staff had left, things changed immediately. They took everything they had given us: food, clothes, soap."
In 2018, the Libyan coast guard intercepted 15,000 people and brought them back to these types of conditions. Currently, 6,400 people are known to be held in official detention sites in Libya, with many more in other centers, some of which are run by armed groups. According to the UN, even "official" centers can be run by people smugglers and traffickers, despite the EU's commitment to combat human trafficking.
Oxfam and the other signatories to the joint letter are calling on EU governments to stop sending back people rescued at sea to Libya. The organizations state that EU member states need to draw a line on issues like ending arbitrary detention in Libya and be prepared to suspend cooperation with the Libyan coastguard if it does not meet these conditions. Lastly, the NGOs state that EU governments must support search and rescue operations and ensure that people rescued at sea can arrive safely and without delay to Europe.
* names have been changed to protect their identity.
Notes to editors
Oxfam spokespeople are available in Brussels, Rome, Florence and Sicily.
Along with 43 other organizations and platforms, Oxfam signed an open letter to EU governments, calling on them to support search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, adopt timely and predictable disembarkation arrangements for migrants arriving to European shores, and end returns to Libya.
The Italy-Libya memorandum of understanding was signed on 2 February 2017 and was built on the model of the EU-Turkey deal. The memorandum was a trade-off providing money and technical support to the Libyan coastguard and other security services in return for stopping migrants on their way to Europe.
Based on data from the Missing Migrants Project, 4,085 people died or went missing in the Central Mediterranean route during the period from 2 February 2017 until the end of January 2019. 5,389 people died or went missing in the entire Mediterranean (Central, Western and Eastern routes) during the same period.
According to the UN Support Mission in Libya report from January 2019, approximately 6,400 individuals were being held in 26 official prisons operated by the Ministry of Justice, during the reporting period (Aug 18 - Jan 19). Thousands of others were being held in facilities nominally under the control of the Ministry of the Interior or the Ministry of Defence, as well as facilities directly run by armed groups. The report also states that arbitrary detention and torture continue to be widespread.
The UNHCR monthly update on activities at disembarkation in Libya says that as of 31 December 2018, the Libyan Coast Guard had rescued/intercepted a total of 15,235 people along the Libyan coast.
A UN report from December 2018 states that the UN support mission to Libya "continues to receive credible information on the complicity of some State actors, including local officials, members of armed groups formally integrated into State institutions, and representatives of the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defence, in the smuggling or trafficking of migrants and refugees. These State actors enrich themselves through exploitation of and extortion from vulnerable migrants and refugees."
Oxfam's report from August 2017, based on the testimonies of people who had escaped Libya, exposed how rape, torture and slave labor are among the horrendous daily realities for people stuck in Libya having tried to escape war, persecution and poverty in other countries.
Italy called for the seizure of the MSF migrant rescue ship the Aquarius, after alleging that it had disposed of potentially hazardous waste in its ports. MSF strongly condemned this "disproportionate and unfounded measure", stating that "The in-port operations, including waste management, of MSF's search and rescue vessels have always followed standard procedures" which the authorities had never taken issue with since they began in 2015.
Full testimonies gathered by Oxfam and Borderline Sicilia between February 2018 and January 2019. All names have been changed to protect the identity of the migrants.
Yonas, a 28-year old man from Eritrea
"Traffickers brought me to Bani Walid, where I was detained for six months. I was then sold to other traffickers who brought me to Sherif. The gangs of Bani Walid and Sherif exchanged their prisoners. I was part of a group of 450 people detained in Bani Walid who were exchanged against a group of 340 people detained in Sherif. Bani Walid is managed by Mohamed Muski, who is a famous arms dealer with links to ISIS.
"The prison in Bani Walid was in a hangar, while in Sherif we were closed in an underground tunnel where we lived in constant darkness. Altogether, I spent a year and a half in the two prisons, where we all lived in terrible conditions and many people got sick and did not receive care. Many died and were buried like animals. The women were raped in front of us. We were beaten every day by prison guards selected from the group of migrants. The Nigerians were the most violent. They beat us and made us call our family to ask them to send us money...
"We sailed for 56 hours until we arrived close to the coast of Malta. A motorboat from the Maltese coastguard came and provided us with life jackets and something to eat, and then escorted us until we had left their territorial waters. They showed the direction to take to get to Lampedusa, and then turned back.
"At this point, someone in our dinghy called the Italian coastguard who said to come closer to the coast and not to worry because they were monitoring us from a distance. Two hours later, the sea became rougher and the Italian coastguard decided to take us on board the Diciotti.
"We stayed on the Diciotti for 13 days off the coast of Lampedusa. 13 people - families with children - who needed urgent medical help were transferred to the island. Later, the Diciotti sailed to Catania where it arrived on 20 August. The ship landed at the port, but we were not allowed to disembark."
Ali, a 29-year old man from Eritrea
"The conditions onboard the Diciotti were terrible. Sitting in the sun was unbearable, and there was just one canopy above the deck where we could take shelter. There was not enough shade for everyone, and when it rained we all got wet.
"There were only two bathrooms. Two days after we had arrived at the port in Catania, they distributed clothes and told us we had to take a shower. Then, a sailor used a hose to sprinkle water at 10 people at the same time for about a minute. We were standing naked behind a plastic sheet. Nobody got a single drop of water. This was the only time we men got to wash ourselves. The women were helped by an aid worker from Intersos to take showers.
"I only heard why we were not allowed to leave the boat through a committee of three Eritreans that we had founded so that we could speak to the captain. He told us the problem was that we should have debarked in Malta, and this was why the Italian government was not allowing us to leave the boat."
Ibrahim, a 26-year old man from Guinea
"One day I went to buy cigarettes and the Asma Boys [a street gang in Tripoli] kidnapped me and sold me to a guy called Osama, a soldier working for the government. The Asma Boys worked for him. They kept me for a year. In this center, the conditions were better - we had beds. Now and then, UN personnel came, they wore white uniforms that said 'UN' on the back. On the days when UN staff were there, they treated us well, cleaned everything, cooked good food, brought us clothes, brought us to a doctor for check-ups. As soon as the UN staff left, things changed immediately. They took back everything they had given us: food, clothes, soap. The UN staff came once every two weeks, stayed for 3-4 hours and spoke to people. We were under control, we could not say anything.
"They called my family while they beat me to ask for money. But my family couldn't send anything. Osama came every day. One day, he asked who of us knew how to steer a boat. I said I knew how to do it and took the opportunity to leave the prison. As soon as I left, they took me straight to the beach."
Moussa, a 17-year old boy from Mali
"We left at 3am in three dinghies, with 170 people. At 6am, the Libyan coastguard tracked us down, made us board their ship and brought us to a prison in Tripoli. There were many people in the prison. They asked me for more money, but I didn't have any left. They beat me on the soles of my feet, my calves and my knees, but I kept saying that I couldn't contact anyone because I had no family left in Mali. Today, I still have severe problems with my knee. I would like to play football, but for now I'm happy to just go with my friends and watch them play.
"I saw a young Gambian boy beaten to death before my eyes because he dared to rebel and answer back to them. For me, these people weren't policemen.
"I stayed there for two months, and they beat me every day. One day, we broke down the door and escaped. They found out, but I still managed to escape, while others were injured and fell on the ground."