According to the Associated Press, a group of young immigrants living in a detention center run by the Libyan government accused the guards of the facility of sexually assaulting them. The facility is funded by the European Union.
A 17-year-old Somali girl, whose identity has remained anonymous, told the Associated Press that she was raped by a guard at the Shara al-Zawiya Center in the capital Tripoli in April. More girls from the center made similar allegations, some of them shared their ordeal with the Associated Press.
The girl was rescued by Libyan security forces in February after being captured by traffickers and sexually abused her for more than two years. Human traffickers are notorious for blackmailing, torturing and assaulting immigrants and refugees like her who are trying to reach Europe.
But the 17-year-old girl said that the sexual assault on her continues, only that it is now carried out by guards from a government-run center, where many immigrants or refugees are held.
She and four other Somali teenagers who had suffered similar abuse pleaded for their release from the Shara al-Zawiya center.
It is one of the central networks operated by the Libyan Department of Combating Illegal Immigration (DCIM), which is supported by the European Union and aims to build Libya into a stronghold mainly for African immigrants crossing the Mediterranean.
“Although this is not the first time I have been sexually assaulted, it is more painful than the people who should protect us,” the 17-year-old told the Associated Press via a smuggled cell phone.
“To go to the toilet, call family members or avoid assaults, you must provide something in return,” she said. “It’s like we are controlled by human traffickers.”
The Associated Press did not identify the victim of the sexual assault, and the young woman also asked to remain anonymous, fearing retaliation.
Smugglers and traffickers
Smugglers and traffickers in Libya — many of whom are members of the militia — have long been notorious for abusing migrants. However, human rights organizations and UN agencies stated that abuses have also occurred in official facilities operated by DCIM.
Libyan activist Tarik Lamloum, who works with Berardi Human Rights Group, said: “Several (immigrant) detention centers across the country are experiencing sexual violence and sexual exploitation.”
The UN Refugee Agency has also recorded hundreds of cases of women being raped in DCIM detention facilities or prisons for traffickers. Some of them were even pregnant and given birth while in custody. Chetel said.
This group of teenagers are the only immigrants detained in Shara al-Zawiya, where immigrants usually stay for a short period of time for processing. Human rights groups say they have been working hard to ensure their release for several weeks.
After being rescued from traffickers in February, the 17-year-old girl was taken to Shara al-Zawiya along with eight other young female immigrants. The other four were later released under unknown circumstances.
One night in April, at about midnight, she said she asked a guard to let her go to the toilet. She recalled that when she finished speaking, the guard attacked her and grabbed her forcefully.
“I was shocked and didn’t know what to do,” she told the Associated Press. When she was crying, struggling, and begging him to get off her, the guards attacked her.
“I’m very lucky, he finished it quickly.”
She recalled, and then the guard ordered her to wash her clothes, and she burst into tears.
She was frightened and went back to her cell to tell another girl what had happened. She soon learned that she was not the only victim. She said that all girls between the ages of 16 and 18 have experienced similar or more severe guard abuse.
A 16-year-old girl in the same cell told the Associated Press that she had been sexually harassed a few days after she arrived at the center. When she begged the guard to call her family, he gave her a call and asked her to walk out of the cell to call her mother. She said that once she hung up, he stood behind her and grabbed her.
She removed his hand and began to cry. She said the guard stopped after realizing that other employees were in the center.
“They do it every day,” she said. “If you resist, you will be beaten or deprived of everything.”
The Libyan government has not yet responded to the Associated Press’ request for comment.
According to local human rights organization Libya Crime Watch and UN agencies, at least two girls tried to commit suicide at the end of May after being suspected of attempted assault and rape.
One of the 15-year-old teenagers was sent to the hospital on May 28, where he was treated by the international aid organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF) before being returned to the detention center.
Maya Abuata, a spokesperson for MSF Libya, confirmed that the organization’s staff treated two people in its clinic.
She said that the MSF team “advocated for their release and lobbied to protect actors and different interlocutors, however, these attempts were unsuccessful.”
Continuing human rights violations
UNHCR stated that it is cooperating with the Libyan authorities to release the five young women still detained in Shara al-Zawiya and subsequently evacuate them from Libya.
The youth case of Shara al-Zawiya also raised questions about the EU’s role in the violent cycle of immigrants and asylum seekers in Libya.
The European Union trains, equips and supports the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept persons trying to cross the central Mediterranean to Europe.
So far this year, at least 677 people have died or disappeared on this route due to unseaworthy ships.
From the beginning of the year to June 12, the Libyan Coast Guard intercepted nearly 13,000 men, women and children — a record number — and returned to the Libyan coast. Most people were subsequently placed in centers operated by DCIM.
Among the 29 DCIM-operated centers across the country, some human rights organizations document the lack of basic sanitation, medical care, food and water, and beatings and torture. DCIM receives support, materials and training through the EU’s US$5.1 billion Africa Trust Fund, including human rights training.
Libya was praised by the West for the ceasefire agreement reached last year and the interim government appointed earlier this year, prompting European leaders to visit and reopen some embassies. Despite political stability, activists and human rights organizations say their contact with immigrants in detention centers is increasingly restricted.
“The guns are silent and the ceasefire is in place… But human rights violations are increasing unabated,” said Suki Nagra, the representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Libya, who is following reports of Shara’s abuse by Zavia.
Even if the case is recorded and the alleged perpetrators are arrested, they are often released due to fear of retaliation and lack of witnesses willing to testify in court. For example, Abdel-Rahman Milad, who was sanctioned by the United Nations and was arrested last year for human trafficking and smuggling of fuel, walked freely without trial in April.