Migrants in Italy | Photo: Picture Alliance / dpa / C. Fusco
Migrants in Italy | Photo: Picture Alliance / dpa / C. Fusco

The Women’s Refugee Commission in a new study found that "sexual violence against all refugees and migrants –women, men, girls and boys- appears to be commonplace along the central Mediterranean route." Their study outlines recommendations for service providers, governments and donors to try and deal with this problem.

Sexual violence can be a reason for people to leave their homes and make their way to Italy, but it is also worryingly prevalent along the route to Italy too. In their study "More than one Million Pains: Sexual violence against men and boys on the central Mediterranean route to Italy" published March 25, the Women's Refugee Commission (WRC) found that "sexual violence, including sexual torture, against female and male refugees and migrants appears widespread in Libya." 

The abuse can take place in many different places and forms, the WRC says. It happens at official and unofficial detention centers and prisons, “in the context of forced labor and enslavement, during random stops and at checkpoints, in urban settings by armed groups, and in private homes.” The report made clear that this kind of sexual abuse doesn’t happen once but that most migrants are repeatedly exposed along the way, and some of them once they reach Italy, too.

Violence against men and boys

Sexual violence is a fact of life for nearly all women and girls on the route to Italy. But another worrying, and as yet unexplored, aspect is the violence perpetrated against men and young boys, the Women’s Refugee Commission stresses in their report. 

Libya detention  Photo Picture Alliance  dpa

Much of the violence against men and boys has been hitherto unreported, the WRC points out, partly because of the stigma of reporting the abuse, and partly because many service providers did not initially think to question men on whether or not they too had been victims. A ‘turning point’ if it can be designated as such, is that much of this violence is perpetrated in groups, and not alone, so that now the men too are able to talk about what happened to them because they can see that they were not alone.

Some of the abuse is forcing men and boys “to witness sexual violence against women and girls.” There are also “frequent reports” of men and boys being “forced to rape women and girls, including family members.” Sometimes women are also forced to perpetrate sexual violence against men and boys, the study finds.

Not just in Libya

The report makes clear that sexual violence is not just a symptom of the Libyan context but that some refugee and migrant adolescent boys and young men as well as persons with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and expression or sex characteristics are also being exploited on Italian soil.

Impacts of this sexual violence are myriad. They range from “depression: anxiety; post-traumatic stress disorder; sexually transmitted infections, including HIV; genital and rectal trauma; hemorrhoids; sexual dysfunction; and urinary problems.”

Migrants in a detention center in Libya  EPASTR

Some support centers in Italy are dealing very well with this problem, the report finds, but the “need far outweighs service availability.” The report made clear that the EU and its member states should “respect the principle of non-refoulement. " The EU should also “end all policies and practices that directly and indirectly support the forced return of refugees and migrants to Libya.” 

The WRC calls upon Italy to “reopen its harbors and ports to NGO search and rescue ships, end the criminalization of vessels, and reactivate search and rescue by the Italian Coast Guard." Targeted efforts are needed to prevent and respond to sexual violence both inside and outside the formal reception system, the study says.


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