Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both released briefings on the horrific instances of sexual violence, abuse and exploitation endured by refugees and migrants fleeing Libya. The organisations interviewed several refugees and migrants at reception centres in Italy, who had been abused at the hands of people smugglers, traffickers, organised criminal gangs and armed groups. In particular, Human Rights Watch raises serious concerns about the EU’s decision to extend its anti-smuggling naval operation in the central Mediterranean to include training of the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy, which are intercepting boats at sea and sending people back to Libya.

The EU has acknowledged that under international law it may not send people intercepted at sea to Libya due to the extreme dangers in the country. For instance, Amnesty International collected the testimony of a 22-year-old Eritrean woman who witnessed other women being sexually abused, including one who was gang-raped because the smuggler wrongly accused her of failing to pay his fee. “Her family couldn’t pay the money again. They took her away and she was raped by five Libyan men. They took her out late at night, no one opposed it, everyone was too afraid,” she said.

“Supporting Libyan forces should be accompanied by ending torture and abuse in the facilities where those forces are sending people,” said Judith Sunderland from Human Rights Watch. “It’s unacceptable to save or intercept people at sea and then send them back for abuse on land.”

The organisations urge Libyan authorities and international actors, especially the EU and its Member States, to prioritise respect for rights over closure of borders, calling for an approach that “feeds into the larger goal of stabilising Libya and building rights-respecting institutions”.

“The EU should focus less on keeping migrants and refugees out and more on finding safe and legal ways for those trapped in Libya to access a place of safety. The priority should be saving lives, this means deploying enough resources in the right places to prevent further tragedy,” said Amnesty International Magdalena Mughrabi. “The EU should be tackling abuses by smugglers but should not be seeking to trap people in a country where their lives and rights are so obviously at risk.”

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 8 July 2016. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.