Migrants in a detention center in Libya | EPA/STR
Migrants in a detention center in Libya | EPA/STR

Migrants and refugees who travel to Italy face a high risk of sexual violence both during the journey and after they arrive. Among the victims are men and boys, yet their stories are not often heard. A report by the Women's Refugee Commission (WRC) details some of their testimonies of suffering.

On the border between Algeria and Libya this incident was reported to a health worker by a man from Ivory Coast called Paul*: "Armed uniformed men took [Paul's] friend away. When his friend came back, […] tears were leaking on his face. They [were] violent in his anus, not with a stick, with a real penis," Paul told the health worker. Paul was traveling with his wife and his friend. Paul says he "cries every time he thinks about [the incident] now;" he also couldn’t tell his wife what had happened because "he was afraid that she would think it had also happened to him."

Paul’s testimony is one of many equally upsetting accounts featured in the report "More Than One Million Pains", by Sarah Chynoweth, the WRC’s sexual violence project director. Several other organizations and individuals also collaborated with the WRC on the report, including UNICEF, UNHCR, MSF-Belgium, INTERSOS, Gay Center in Rome, and Oxfam Italia. Paul’s reluctance to talk openly about his experience is also reflected in almost every experience detailed in the report. It is "too much" to talk about, was a common response that the researchers and case workers heard when asking about people’s experiences in Libya and on route to Italy.

Multiple sources

Refugees and migrants waiting to be rescued off Libya in February 2018 Photo picture-allianceAP PhotoO Calvo

The research was gathered from a number of sources including reports by agencies and health workers on the ground, and fieldwork studies in Rome and Sicily. As well as summarizing existing data, Chynoweth and her team interviewed 63 key informants (humanitarian responders, service providers, cultural mediators, human rights experts and government officials). They also conducted focus groups with 52 refugees, including unaccompanied adolescent boys between the ages of 15 and 17, and men up to 40. Focus groups were also held with guardians, psychologists and reception centers and unofficial camps.

Although they found that men and boys tended to be more reluctant to report sexual violence, and in some cases didn’t perceive what had happened to them as being abuse or rape but rather just something that they had to suffer, many others confirmed that almost everyone suffered some form of violence, often sexual, on the journey to Italy. Oumar* from Mali, talking in a young men’s focus group, reported: "There is no person who can say that there was no violence. Each person experienced violence, from Niger, to Libya, to Italy…No one can say that it didn’t happen."

Sexual violence as a 'push factor'

Many migrants had also experienced violence before they even left home and this was often cited as one of the push factors. In a UNICEF report in June 2017 "Children on the Move in Italy and Greece", 720 unaccompanied and separated children were interviewed in Italy, 97 percent of whom were boys. Almost one in three had already experienced violence and problems at home. For children from The Gambia, this figure increased to almost half. In fact, of 231 refugees and migrants (92 percent male) who traveled through Libya to Tunisia in 2018, 83 percent disclosed experiencing violence or abuse (such as torture or sexual violence) in Libya, according to the UNICEF report.

Refugees in Libyan camps  Photo picture-allianceAFP MINDS Global SpotlightM Turkia

The authors of the WRC report found that while rape and sexual violence for women and young girls was almost across the board, rape for men, forced nakedness and torture of the genitals, or rape using sticks was also common. Sometimes, men and young boys were forced to rape other men or women within the group. At other times they might endure forced masturbation or oral rape in front of a whole group. Some others reported lethal torture of genitals or lethal rape. In one shocking testimony, one man said this happened frequently in overcrowded Libyan prisons and was known as "bath time". The practice, he said, was used to "clear out" people who could no longer be extorted, either because they had already exhausted all their funds or had no more family members to turn to.

‘Bath time’

The report states that the magnitude of these events is "still unclear", but testimonies suggest "the forms of sexual violence in Libya reported by research participants encompass penile- and object-anal rape; forced rape of others, including corpses; penile-oral rape; forced oral rape of others; genital violence and torture, including burning, mutilation, and electroshock of the genitals; castration and penis amputation; forced incest; forced witnessing of sexual violence; forced nudity; sexual slavery and sexual humiliation."

A health worker describes one testimony from a 24-year-old man from Sierra Leone who was held in Beni Walid, in an unofficial detention center. Because of the overcrowded conditions, this man said "when [the guards] couldn’t extort [the prisoners] anymore, they would initiate a 'cleaning out' saying 'it’s time to clean the prison and have a bath.' They would line up the men and women naked. The women had to masturbate the men. They were forced to do everything to make the man erect. If the men became erect, the guards would cut their penis off. If there was no erection, they would rape the woman with a stick. He said that no woman survived that – they’d rape her until she bled to death."

Later in the statement, the health worker said "I remember him talking about seeing the mutilated penises jumping on the floor afterwards – they were still activated. He said the guards were laughing while this happened, that it was like watching a movie for them – they would sit back and enjoy this." The man said this didn’t just happen once but was a regular occurrence.

Libya detention  Photo Picture Alliance  dpa

This kind of testimony is backed up by various official reports. In 2017, the US State Department and OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) reported that sexual violence, rape and ill-treatment of refugees and migrants was perpetrated in official and unofficial detention centers in Libya. Another report from 2017 by Osservatorio Diritti (the Italian Rights Observatory) said that "more than 90 percent of the refugees and migrants served by their mobile clinics in recent years were victims of extreme violence, torture or rape, […] in Libya." In 2018, an internal report for the German Federal Foreign Office described the "concentration camp-like conditions of private prisons where refugees and migrants are held."

Victims of shame

The WRC report found that those who had been forced to perpetrate sexual violence were also victims, and the shame made it difficult for them to talk about or process what they had done. For many cultures, even enforced nudity is shameful and difficult to deal with, and has a profound effect on those who manage to survive it and arrive in Italy.

This report continues in 'More Than One Million Pains': Sexual violence in Italy (Part 2)

*All names of survivors have been changed.


More articles