Migrants, detained after trying to reach Europe, sit on the ground of a detention camp in Gheryan, Western Libya, on December 1, 2016.

(Tunis) – Libyan authorities should urgently respond to a new United Nations report documenting a pattern of torture, forced labor, sexual violence, and arbitrary detention of migrants and asylum seekers. Libya’s coast guard intercepts thousands of migrants each year as they try to reach the European Union and returns them to centers operated by the Department for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM).

The UN said that the EU, which started training Libya’s coast guard in November 2016, should press the Libyan authorities to end the abuses. It also urged Libya to end the arbitrary detention of migrants and asylum seekers, close all unofficial detention centers, and dismiss and prosecute anyone suspected of abusing the migrants and asylum seekers.

The UN has made clear that Libyan authorities should end the torture, forced labor, and sexual violence that has been the lot of detained migrants for years.The partners in Libya’s policies toward migrants, including the EU, should insist on nothing less.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director

“The UN has made clear that Libyan authorities should end the torture, forced labor, and sexual violence that has been the lot of detained migrants for years,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The partners in Libya’s policies toward migrants, including the EU, should insist on nothing less.”

The report was published jointly by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN mission in Libya. The agencies reported that migrants detained in Libya suffer widespread malnutrition, forced labor, illness, beatings, sexual abuse, torture of men and women alike, confiscation of documents and possessions, and lack of basic health care. The agencies also cited abuses by smugglers and traffickers.

Human Rights Watch has reported since 2009 on the abuse of detained migrants and asylum seekers in Libya. In July 2016, Human Rights Watch documented cases in which Libyan coast guard members subjected intercepted migrants to physical and verbal abuse. Human Rights Watch said that the EU, as a primary destination for migrants, should ensure that none of its training, financing, or material assistance to the Libyan coast guard and other Libyan authorities contributes to human rights abuses. It also urged the EU to support UN and EU monitoring and public reporting on migrant detention center abuses.

Migrants, detained after trying to reach Europe, look out of a barred cell door at a detention camp in Gheryan, western Libya, on December 1, 2016.

EU leaders meeting in Brussels on December 15 are expected to endorse increased capacity-building measures for the Libyan coast guard. These efforts reflect a general trend in EU migration and asylum policy towards outsourcing responsibility to third countries, Human Rights Watch said.

Internal fighting in Libya has caused a humanitarian crisis, with a half million Libyans displaced, and a breakdown in the economy and the judicial system. The country has three rival authorities competing for legitimacy: a UN-backed Government of National Accord based in Tripoli, the Government of National Salvation, also based in Tripoli, and a third, Interim Government, based in the eastern cities of al-Bayda and Tobruk.

DCIM operates about 24 “official” detention facilities for migrants, and is formally under the control of the Tripoli-based Interior Ministry. Militias and criminal gangs detain migrants at parallel, unofficial centers.

To date in 2016, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recorded more than 175,200 arrivals to Italy by sea from North Africa, most from Libya. At least 4,742 died or were reported missing while crossing the Mediterranean, according to UNHCR. The International Organization for Migration estimated in September that about 770,000 migrants and asylum seekers were in Libya, of whom 4,000 to 7,000 are held in detention facilities operated by DCIM, according to the UN report.