|An image from a video shows masked militants in a desert in Libya ready to execute men said to be Ethiopian Christians. (Getty Images)|
Monday, May 11, 2015
Widespread abuses by armed groups, smugglers, traffickers and organized criminal groups in Libya as well as systematic exploitation, lawlessness and armed conflicts are pushing hundreds of thousands of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees to risk their lives by attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Despite the continuing influx of refugees and migrants and the scale of abuses against foreign nationals in Libya, the European Union (EU) has failed for a long time to respond to a growing humanitarian crisis and provide the necessary resources to save lives at sea. In 2015 alone, over 1,700 persons died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
According to 70 new testimonies collected by Amnesty International in Sicily and in Tunisia between August 2014 and March 2015, foreign nationals travelling irregularly to and from Libya face abuses, including abductions for ransom, torture and other ill-treatment, and in some cases rape and other forms of sexual violence at all stages of the smuggling routes running from west and east Africa towards the Libyan coast. Most often they are handed over to criminal groups upon entry to Libya at the country’s southern borders or in major transit cities along the migration routes such as Ajdabya and Sabha. At times, the smugglers themselves hold the migrants and refugees in remote areas in the desert forcing them to call their families to pay a ransom.
Despite ongoing armed conflicts between various coalitions of armed groups, and the establishment of two parallel governments contending for power, the systematic detention of foreign nationals for migration-related offences has continued. Torture and other ill-treatment in immigration detention centres have remained widespread. In many cases, migrants and refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea have been subjected to prolonged beatings in such facilities following their interception and arrest by the Libyan coastguard or militias acting on their own initiative in the absence of strong state institutions. Women held in these facilities, which lack female guards, are vulnerable to sexual violence and harassment.
The recent videos showing the summary killings of at least 28 Ethiopian Christians claimed by the armed group calling itself the Islamic State (IS) in two separate locations has drawn the world’s attention to some of the serious human rights abuses and violations of the laws of war perpetrated with complete impunity in in the context of several interconnected armed conflicts. These deplorable murders follow the summary killing of a group of 21 Christian Copts, most of them Egyptians, which was claimed by the same armed group earlier this year.
Chaos and lawlessness appear to have sparked increased xenophobia against foreign nationals amongst some local communities who blame them for the rise of smuggling networks and criminality. Research conducted by Amnesty International reveals that migrants and refugees are increasingly exploited and forced to work without pay, physically assaulted and robbed in their homes or in the streets. Religious minorities, in particular Christian migrants and refugees, are at highest risk of abuses, including abductions, torture and other ill-treatment and unlawful killings, from armed groups that seek to enforce their own interpretation of Islamic law and have been responsible for serious human rights abuses. They also face widespread discrimination and persecution from their employers, criminal groups and in immigration detention centres. In some cases the detention and abuse of foreign nationals, in particular sub-Saharan Africans, have been motivated by a fear of illnesses, which was exacerbated by last year’s outbreak of Ebola.
As violence continues in Libya, neighbouring countries, including Algeria,Tunisia and Egypt, have sealed off their borders and imposed more stringent entry requirements out of fear of the conflict spilling over. Migrants and refugees who cannot obtain valid visas who have had their passports stolen or confiscated from them by smugglers, criminal gangs or their Libyan employers often are effectively left with no viable alternative to embarking on the perilous sea route to Europe.
In light of the seriousness of the abuses faced by foreign nationals in Libya and in order to reduce deaths at sea, Amnesty International is calling on Tunisia and Egypt to keep their borders open to all those in need of international protection. Amnesty International is also calling on the international community to ensure the safety of migrants and refugees who are currently trapped in Libya.
The recent deaths of over 1,000 migrants and refugees off the coast of Libya in one week alone shocked the world and prompted the EU to finally act and adopt a set of measures to prevent deaths at sea, fight traffickers and prevent irregular migration flows. Extra resources for search and rescue were committed by EU leaders on 23 April 2015. In order to save lives, however, it is essential that such resources are delivered promptly and remain available for so long as high numbers of refugees and migrants continue to depart from Libya on unsafe boats. It is crucial that ships are deployed along the main migration routes and in the areas where most calls for assistance come from and a great number of shipwrecks occur, which is approximately 40 nautical miles from the Libyan coast.
While Amnesty International welcomes the EU’s commitment to increase resources for search and rescue operations, it is also concerned that some of the proposed measures, in particular plans to “systematically identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers” would effectively contribute to migrants and refugees being trapped in Libya and expose them to a risk of serious human rights abuses. Amid lawlessness, the breakdown of state institutions and fighting, smugglers’ networks in Libya are thriving and exposing persons in need of international protection to serious human rights abuses. However, focusing solely on combating transnational organized crime and smuggling without allowing thousands of migrants and refugees to access a place of safety would be grossly inadequate.
As more people are drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, the priority for the international community must be to dramatically expand search and rescue operations and take effective steps to urgently address human rights abuses and serious violations of international humanitarian law in Libya. EU governments must also increase the number of resettlement places, humanitarian admissions and visas for people in need of international protection.
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