Thousands of refugees and migrants are dying, while many are suffering extreme human rights abuses on irregular journeys between West and East Africa and Africa’s Mediterranean Coast.
A new report by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC) at the Danish Refugee Council, titled “’On this journey, no one cares if you live or die’”, details how most people taking these routes suffer or witness unspeakable brutality and inhumanity at the hands of smugglers, traffickers, militias and in some cases even State officials.
“For too long, the harrowing abuses experienced by refugees and migrants along these overland routes have remained largely invisible,” said Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “This report documents killings and widespread violence of the most brutal nature, perpetrated against desperate people fleeing war, violence and persecution. Strong leadership and concerted action are needed by States in the region, with support from the international community, to end these cruelties, protect the victims and prosecute the criminals responsible.”
Collecting accurate data on deaths in the context of irregular mixed population flows controlled by human smugglers and traffickers is extremely difficult as many take place in the shadows and away from the view of official authorities and their formal systems for managing data and statistics. However, the report’s findings, primarily based on MMC’s 4Mi data collection programme, and data from additional sources, suggest that a minimum of 1,750 people died on these journeys in 2018 and 2019. This represents a rate of least 72 deaths per month, making it one of the most deadly routes for refugees and migrants in the world. These deaths are in addition to the thousands who have died or gone missing in recent years attempting desperate journeys across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe after reaching north African shores.
Around 28% of deaths reported in 2018 and 2019 happened as people attempted to cross the Sahara Desert. Other hotspots for fatalities included Sabha, Kufra, and Qatrun in southern Libya, the smuggling hub of Bani Walid south-east of Tripoli and several places along the West African section of the route including Bamako and Agadez.
While most reports and data are still coming in for 2020, at least 70 refugees and migrants are known to have died in 2020 already, including at least 30 people were killed at the hands of traffickers in Mizdah in late May.
The men, women and children who survive are often left with lasting and severe mental health issues as a result of the traumas they faced. For many, their arrival in Libya is the final staging post on a journey characterized by horrific abuses including random killings, torture, forced labour and beatings. Others continue to report being subjected to brutal violence, including being burnt with hot oil, melted plastic, or heated metal objects, electrocution and being tied in stress positions.
Women and girls, but also men and boys, are at high risk of rape and sexual and gender-based violence, particularly at checkpoints and border areas, and during desert crossings. Some 31% of respondents interviewed by MMC who witnessed or survived sexual violence in 2018 or 2019 did so in more than one location. Smugglers were the primary perpetrators of sexual violence in North and East Africa, accounting for 60% and 90% of the reports from the respective routes. However, in West Africa, the primary perpetrators were security forces/military/police officials, accounting for a quarter of reported abuses.
Many people reported being forced in to prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation by traffickers. Between January 2017 and December 2019, UNHCR recorded over 630 cases of trafficking of refugees in eastern Sudan, with nearly 200 women and girls reporting being survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.
Once inside Libya, refugees and migrants are at risk of suffering further abuses, as the ongoing conflict and weak rule of law means smugglers, traffickers and militias are often able to act with impunity. UNHCR welcomes recent steps taken by the Libyan authorities against armed groups and traffickers, including raiding a smuggling ring and freezing the assets of various traffickers. The agency calls on the international community to provide more support to the authorities in their fight against human trafficking networks.
Many who attempt the sea crossing to Europe are intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard and returned to Libyan shores. More than 6,200 refugees and migrants have so far been disembarked in Libya in 2020, suggesting the final figure for the year will likely eclipse the 9,035 returned in 2019. They are often taken and held arbitrarily in official detention centres, where they face daily abuses and appalling conditions. Others end up in ‘unofficial centres’ or warehouses controlled by smugglers and traffickers who subject them to physical abuse in order to extract payments.
“The careless treatment of refugees and migrants we witness along these routes is unacceptable,” said Bram Frouws, Head of the Mixed Migration Centre. “The data we provide also once again shows that Libya is not a safe place to return people to. Sadly, this may not be the last report documenting these violations, but it adds to the mounting evidence base that can longer be ignored.”
Pockets of progress have been achieved in recent years to address the situation, with some of the criminals responsible for the abuses and deaths placed under sanctions or arrested. There has also been a reduction in the number of people being held in official detention centres in Libya. UNHCR has repeatedly advocated for an end to arbitrary detention of refugees and asylum seekers and stands ready to support the Libyan authorities in identifying and implementing alternatives to detention.
Overall, greater efforts are needed to strengthen the protection of people travelling these routes and to provide credible, legal alternatives to these dangerous and desperate journeys. Greater cooperation is needed between States to identify and hold accountable the criminal perpetrators of these horrific abuses at different points along the routes, share key information with relevant law enforcement agencies, dismantle smuggling and trafficking networks and freeze their financial assets. National authorities should also take greater steps to investigate reports of abuses by State officials.
These measures must go hand in hand with efforts to address the root causes that drive these journeys and an unequivocal commitment to ensuring that no one rescued at sea is returned to danger in Libya.