There are growing calls for the release of five girls being held in a government-run migrant detention center in Libya. One of the girls told the Associated Press that all of them had been subjected to sexual abuse.
Earlier this year, a 17-year-old Somali girl who had been held captive and assaulted for more than two years by migrant traffickers was finally rescued by Libyan security forces. The teenager believed then that her suffering was over at last. Instead, she continued to be sexually abused, only now by guards at the government-run center in the Libyan capital Tripoli where she is being kept.
"While it is not the first time I suffer from sexual attacks, this is more painful as it was by the people who should protect us," the girl told AP, using a smuggled mobile phone. "You have to offer something in return to go to the bathroom, to call family or to avoid beating," she said. "It's like we are being held by traffickers."
The teenager, who asked to remain anonymous, is one of five Somali girls being held in Shara al-Zawiya, one of a network of detention centers run by Libya's Department for Combating Illegal Immigration, or DCIM, which is supported by the European Union in its effort to prevent irregular migration across the Mediterranean from north Africa.
Abuses in government facilities
The abuse of migrants has long been rampant among smugglers and traffickers in Libya, but humanitarian groups and United Nations agencies say it is also happening in the official DCIM-run facilities. "Sexual violence and exploitation are rife in several detention centers (for migrants) across the country," Tarik Lamloum, a Libyan activist working with the Belaady Organization for Human Rights, told AP.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR has documented hundreds of cases of women having been raped while they were in DCIM detention or traffickers' prisons. According to Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR’s special envoy for the Central Mediterranean, girls and women have become pregnant through rape and given birth during detention.
The group of teens are the only migrants being kept at Shara al-Zawiya, a facility where migrants usually only stay for short periods. Human rights organizations say they have been trying to secure their release for weeks. After their rescue from traffickers in February, the girl who spoke with AP was brought to the center along with eight others, four of whom were later released under circumstances which were not clear.
All reported abuse by guards
One night in April, at about midnight, the girl told AP that she asked a guard to let her go the bathroom. When she finished, the guard attacked her and grabbed her breasts forcefully, she recalled.
"I was petrified and didn't know what to do," she said. The guard touched the rest of her body including her genitals, then unzipped his pants and tried to strip her clothes in an attempt to rape her, she said. He continued his assault while she cried, struggled and pleaded for him to get off her. "He only stopped when he was done on my clothes," she said. "I was lucky that he was done quickly."
The guard then ordered her to clean her clothes that had been covered in his semen, she recalled, breaking down in tears.
When she returned to her cell and told one of the other girls what had happened she discovered that she was not the only victim. All the girls, aged 16 to 18, had experienced similar or worse abuse by guards, she said.
A 16-year-old in the same cell told AP she started being sexually harassed a few days after arriving at the center. When she pleaded with a guard to call her family, he gave her a phone and let her out of her cell to call her mother. Once she hung up, he stood behind her and grabbed her breasts, she said. She removed his hands and started to cry. The guard only stopped after realizing other employees were at the center, she said. "Every day they do this," she said. "If you resist, you will be beaten or deprived of everything."
The Libyan government did not respond to AP’s requests for comment.
Calls for release
At least two of the girls tried to kill themselves in late May after the alleged beatings and attempted rapes, according to local rights group Libyan Crimes Watch and UN agencies. One of them, a 15-year-old, was taken to the hospital on May 28 and treated by the international aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF), but she was then returned to the detention center.
Maya Abu Ata, a spokesperson for MSF Libya, confirmed to AP that the group's staff treated the two at its clinic. The MSF teams "advocated for their release from detention […], however, these attempts were unsuccessful," she said.
The UNHCR said it was working with Libyan authorities for the release of the five young women still held at Shara al-Zawiya and their subsequent evacuation from Libya.
EU role questioned
This year a record number of people – nearly 13,000 as of June 12 – have been intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard and returned to Libyan shores. Most are then detained in DCIM-run centers.
At some of the 29 DCIM-run centers around the country, rights groups have documented a lack of basic hygiene, health care, food and water as well as beatings and torture, AP reports. DCIM receives support, supplies and training, including on human rights, through the EU's 4.9 billion-euro Trust Fund for Africa.
Despite a cease-fire reached last year and growing political stability in Libya, activists and human rights organizations say their access to migrants in detention centers is becoming more restricted.
"The guns are silent, a cease-fire is in place ... but human rights violations are continuing unabated," said Suki Nagra, representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Libya, who is following the reports of abuse at Shara al-Zawiya.
With Associated Press