A group of migrant teenagers housed in a government-run detention center in Libya accused guards at the European Union-funded center of sexually assaulting them, according to an Associated Press report.
A 17-year-old Somali girl, whose identity has been kept anonymous, told the AP she was raped by a guard at the Shara al-Zawiya center in the capital Tripoli in April. More girls at the center have come out with similar accusations, and some have shared their ordeal with the AP.
The teenager was rescued by Libyan security forces in February, more than two years after she was captured by traffickers, who sexually abused her. Traffickers are notorious for extorting, torturing and assaulting migrants and refugees like her trying to reach Europe.
But the 17-year-old said the sexual assaults against her have continued, only now by guards at the government-run center where many of the migrants or refugees are kept.
She and four other Somali teenagers who suffer similar abuse plead to be released from the Shara al-Zawiya center.
It is one of a network of centers run by Libya’s Department to Combat Illegal Immigration, or DCIM, which is supported by the European Union in its campaign to turn Libya into a bulwark against mainly African migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
“While it is not the first time I have suffered sexual assault, this is more painful because the people who should protect us,” said the 17-year-old, speaking to The Associated Press on a smuggled mobile phone.
“You have to offer something in return to go to the bathroom, to call the family or to avoid beatings,” he said. “It is as if we are being held by traffickers.”
The Associated Press does not identify the victims of sexual assault, and the young woman also asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.
Smugglers and traffickers
Smugglers and traffickers in Libya, many of them members of the militias, have long been known for mistreating migrants. But human rights groups and United Nations agencies say abuse also occurs in official facilities run by DCIM.
“Sexual violence and exploitation abound in various detention centers (for migrants) across the country,” said Tarik Lamloum, a Libyan activist with the Belaady Organization for Human Rights.
The UN refugee agency has also documented hundreds of cases of women raped while in detention by DCIM or in smuggling jails, and some were even pregnant by guards and gave birth during detention, said Vincent Cochetel, special envoy of the UNHCR for the central Mediterranean.
The group of teenagers are the only migrants kept in Shara al-Zawiya, a facility where migrants generally stay for only short periods to be processed. Human rights organizations say they have been trying for weeks to secure his release.
After her rescue from smugglers in February, the 17-year-old was taken along with eight other young migrants to Shara al-Zawiya. Four of the others were later released in unclear circumstances.
One night in April, around midnight, she said she asked a guard to let her go to the bathroom. When she finished, the guard attacked her and grabbed her tightly, she remembered.
“I was petrified and didn’t know what to do,” she told the AP. The guard assaulted her as she cried, struggled, and begged him to leave her.
“I was lucky it ended quickly.”
The guard then ordered her to clean her clothes, she recalled, breaking down in tears.
Terrified, she returned to her cell and told one of the other girls what had happened. He soon learned that he was not the only victim. All the girls, ages 16 to 18, had suffered similar or worse abuse by guards, he said.
A 16-year-old girl in the same cell told the AP that she began being sexually harassed a few days after arriving at the center. When she begged a guard to call her family, he gave her a phone and let her out of her cell phone to call her mother. After she hung up, he stood behind her and grabbed her, she said.
She took his hands off and began to cry. The guard only stopped after realizing other employees were at the center, he said.
“Every day they do this,” he said. “If you resist, they will beat you or deprive you of everything.”
The Libyan government has not responded to AP requests for comment.
At least two of the girls attempted suicide in late May after alleged beatings and attempted rape, according to local human rights group Libyan Crime Watch and UN agencies.
One of them, a 15-year-old, was taken to hospital on May 28 and cared for by the international aid group Doctors Without Borders (Doctors Without Borders) only to be returned to the detention center.
Maya Abu Ata, a spokesperson for MSF Libya, confirmed that the group’s staff treated them at their clinic.
MSF teams “advocated for his release from detention and put pressure on protection actors and different interlocutors, however, these attempts were unsuccessful,” he said.
Human rights violations continue
UNHCR said it was working with the Libyan authorities for the release of the five young women still detained in Shara al-Zawiya and their subsequent evacuation from Libya.
The case of the adolescents in Shara al-Zawiya also renews questions about the role of the EU in the cycle of violence that traps migrants and asylum seekers in Libya.
The EU trains, equips and supports the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept people trying to cross the central Mediterranean into Europe.
At least 677 people are known to have died or disappeared taking this route in boats unfit to navigate so far this year.
Almost 13,000 men, women and children, a record number, have been intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard and returned to Libyan shores from the beginning of the year until June 12. Most are placed in centers managed by DCIM.
In some of the 29 centers run by DCIM across the country, human rights groups have documented a lack of basic hygiene, medical care, food and water, as well as beatings and torture. DCIM receives support, supplies and training, including on human rights, through the $ 5.1 billion EU Trust Fund for Africa.
Libya has been applauded by the West for the ceasefire reached last year and the appointment of an interim government earlier this year, prompting visits by European leaders and the reopening of some embassies. Despite seemingly growing political stability, human rights activists and organizations say their access to migrants in detention centers is becoming more restricted.
“The weapons are silent, there is a ceasefire … but human rights violations continue unabated,” said Suki Nagra, representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Libya, who follows reports of abuse in Shara. al-Zawiya.
Even when the cases are documented and the alleged perpetrators arrested, they are often released due to the lack of witnesses willing to testify for fear of retaliation. For example, Abdel-Rahman Milad, who was under UN sanctions and arrested last year on human trafficking and fuel smuggling charges, was released in April without trial.