September 21, 2009

XIII. Abuses against Vulnerable Migrant Groups

Migrants who resided in or traveled through Libya consistently told Human Rights Watch of living in fear of arrest or of being robbed, beaten, and extorted by police officials and criminals. They also said that they feared xenophobic and discriminatory treatment in the work place and other walks of life, including the frequent occurrence of children throwing stones at them. These experiences make migrants wary of walking on the street.

Many migrants told Human Rights Watch that they hid virtually the entire time they were living in Tripoli or Benghazi. In some cases this was because they were being held as virtual prisoners by the smugglers. But in other cases it was because they feared being attacked on the street. As it turns out, they were safe neither on the street nor in the homes where they were hiding, as policemen and thugs would also enter migrants’ homes to attack and extort.

Being mugged is a common experience for migrants, particularly for sub-Saharan Africans, in Tripoli and other cities, as is having children throw stones at them. Ermi, a 25-year-old Eritrean, expressed experiences and feelings shared by other migrants in interviews with Human Rights Watch:

Even children took money from me. Libyans could beat me and I couldn’t defend myself. Even their parents didn’t stop them. The police back them up. Most of them don’t know that we are human beings. I lived in Tripoli for one month. If I was taking coffee, the police would come and search me. They would take my money or if I didn’t have money take me to jail. I escaped from the jail after one week, but they took a lot of my friends to Kufra, to the border with Sudan.[149]

Though all migrants are at risk in Libya, certain groups are particularly vulnerable.

Abuse of Women Migrants

Women migrants making the journey through Libya are particularly vulnerable to smugglers and police who abuse them with impunity. Although Human Rights Watch was not able to document specific cases of rape and sexual assault, both men and women told Human Rights Watch that they frequently saw smugglers and police separate or try to separate women from groups of migrants.  They told Human Rights Watch that they believed the women were being taken away to be sexually assaulted. In addition to sexual abuse, women interviewed by Human Rights Watch also described other violations, including beatings, lack of adequate sanitation, and extortion.

Sexual abuse may occur not only at the hands of smugglers but also for women migrants in police custody. Madihah, a 24-year-old Eritrean woman who was detained in both the Al Fellah and Misrata migrant detention facilities, told Human Rights Watch that although men and women were separated at Al Fellah, they were not separated at Misrata. At Misrata, she said, “All of the women had problems from the police. The police came at night and chose ladies to violate.”[150] According to UNHCR, men and women have been separated at Misrata since 2007 and there have been no reports of rape there since that time.[151]

The smugglers held Nadifa, a 19-year-old Somali woman, for ransom for 20 days in Kufra. She described the room that she shared with 25 other women as very narrow and dirty in a rough, broken building with only one toilet for all to share. Nadifa told Human Rights Watch about how the guards treated her and her fellow detainees:

They beat us. They beat everyone, men and women. They usually beat us in the same room where we were kept. But they took some people out of the room. Not me, but they took other women out of the room.[152]

Amina, another 19-year-old Somali woman and a friend of Nadifa, was held together with Nadifa in the same place in Kufra, and described it similarly. She also spoke about physical, but not sexual, mistreatment:

They held us for ransom. They hit me and the others too. They hit us with a special stick for hitting people. Every time the smuggler guard entered the room he beat us. He said that we needed to pay them money. We stayed in the same room for ten days. The women stayed together, we refused to be taken alone out of the room.
The smugglers used police handcuffs, so we thought they were with the police, but they did not wear police uniforms. They handcuffed two or three people to frighten us. The smuggler used to say, “I’ll kill you if you do not pay the money.” He also said, “I will take you to prison.” I paid the $800.
He handed us to another smuggler who took us to Ajdabiya, where we were held for one month and where they again held us for ransom and demanded more money. The beatings there were even more severe because we couldn’t pay the money. They took some of the boys out and beat them with clubs and electric shocks. The women were not taken out.[153]

Although no woman interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that she had been raped, the accounts of some of the men leave little doubt about what occurs to female migrants in Libya. A 20-year-old Somali man told Human Rights Watch about a “special house” outside of Tripoli where migrants are held and where women are raped:

The traffickers were involved with the soldiers. They work with the government to keep the special house outside Tripoli. There were 32 of us held in this house, 25 men and 7 women. They didn’t respect the women. They saw one girl and admired her. They forced her into a room. She said to me three times, “Why didn’t you save me?” I answered, “What could I do?” She said, “They forced me.” I cried. I couldn’t do anything.[154]

Daniel, a 26-year-old Eritrean man, witnessed a girl falling victim to smugglers in Kufra:

There was a beautiful girl in our group, about 16 years old. When we arrived in Kufra they put us into a house. They told us to call our families to send them money. They held us for two days in the house. They beat us if we spoke to them. They took the underage girl outside. We then made a problem for them. We were able to help her the first day. On the second day, the girl did not have money to go with us. The Libyans made her stay behind. There were 68 people in two cars, and she was the only woman left behind. The Libyans were always trying to get to the women.[155]

Later, Daniel was held in a smuggler’s house in Tripoli where women were preyed upon:

They took us to a big house that held a lot of Eritreans and Somalis, about 190 people. The doors were locked. We couldn’t go out. We spent one week in that room. Every day, the Libyans came and took women to do whatever they wanted with them. No one slept well. We were worried that they would turn us over to the police. No one had the right to ask any questions.[156]

Problems for migrant women are not limited to when they are traveling and actually in the custody of smugglers; those who spend time living in Libya encounter problems on the street and in the workplace where their lack of status makes them vulnerable. Iskinder, a 40-year-old Ethiopian man who is now in Malta, spoke to Human Rights Watch about his wife who is still in Libya. UNHCR has recognized her as a refugee, he said, and Iskinder had a UNHCR refugee status determination interview in Libya, but left the country before getting the result. The interview also indicates the reticence people have about talking about the treatment of migrant women in Libya in detention:

My wife was caught in June 2006 when our boat didn’t succeed. She was pregnant and couldn’t run and the police caught her. I was not caught. She was arrested three more times, always when she was alone. I stayed with our son and she worked outside. Most of the problems happened to her. She was held after each arrest for about two months. I never went to the police to check on her. She never said anything to me about how she was treated in prison. But I was also in detention. I know what happens to women.[157]

Abuse of Unaccompanied Children

Libyan detention authorities appear not to make any distinction between adults and unaccompanied children. They usually do not hold unaccompanied children in separate facilities and their detention jointly with adults puts them at risk of abuse and violence. Unaccompanied children are also vulnerable to other forms of violence during their migration journey. One unaccompanied child, Kofi, an orphan from Ghana, was 16 years old while in Libya for one year in 2007. Kofi spoke of being detained and pressed into forced labor, and, finally, of being forced onto the boat that took him to Europe. As is usually the case, the line between police authorities and smugglers is blurred:

I was the only boy traveling with a group of 24 adults. We were caught and taken to Janzur prison for 12 days. We only ate bread, macaroni, and water the whole time we were there. I got sick and asked for medical help, but they refused. Once they pushed my face against the wall.
The guards gathered us at 4:30 am every day to be counted. I don’t know the difference between police and military. It was a very big prison with Libyan prisoners and Palestinians, Afghans, Bangladeshis. The men and boys were in one area and the women in a separate area.
The guard took me out to work on his house. I worked all the time every day for four months, but he never paid me.  Then he gave me to an Egyptian woman. I worked on her farm for seven months. She also didn’t pay me, but she at least gave me food and clothes.
After seven months the guard from before came back and took me. He put me with a large group of 200 people that was just released from the prison. He controlled us. His men shouted and used force and put us on a boat. I was afraid. I was crying. They told me to be quiet. They controlled me.[158]

Jonatan, an 18-year-old Eritrean, traveled through Libya as an unaccompanied child and spent two months in a regular Libyan prison with criminals because Misrata, the migrant detention center which holds a large number of Eritreans, was full:

Misrata was full, so I was put in another prison with criminals and drug addicts. They didn’t differentiate between underage and adults. Prison was terrible and the Libyan police are racists. If they knew you were a Christian, they did bad things like hitting you. When we were first caught they punched us like animals. One guy tried to escape because the beating was so bad. He ran and was hit by a car. There was no inquiry. No one took responsibility for his death.[159]


[149] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, B63), Rome, May 19, 2009.

[150] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, R/L1), Rome, October 23, 2008. The Human Rights Watch interviewers were a male and a female.

[151]  UNHCR email to Human Rights Watch, August 12, 2009.

[152] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, B50), Salina Grande center for asylum seekers, Trapani, Sicily, May 9, 2009. The Human Rights Watch interviewer and interpreter were both male.

[153] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, B49), Salina Grande center for asylum seekers, Trapani, Sicily, May 9, 2009. The Human Rights Watch interviewer and interpreter were both male.

[154] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, B11), New Ta’Kandja detention center, Malta, May 2, 2009.

[155] Daniel Testimony,

[156] Ibid.

[157] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, B13), Malta, May 3, 2009.

[158] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, B53), Agrigento, Sicily, May11, 2009.

[159] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, L4), Sciacca, Sicily, October 27, 2008.