Since the outbreak of armed conflict in 2011, Libya shifted from a destination country for migrants and refugees from Arab and African countries to a transit state towards Europe. In 2014 alone, experts reported approximately 170,000 sea arrivals in Italy from Libya, compared to the yearly average of 19,500 sea arrivals prior to the conflict. The conflict created the conditions for individuals, as well as armed groups and militias, to generate income by smuggling and trafficking migrants and refugees into Libya and through the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.
Taking advantage of the vulnerability of migrants and refugees, and their impossibility to return to their countries of origin, these actors regularly detain and torture migrants with the purpose of obtaining ransom payments in exchange for their freedom and/or transport towards Europe. The detention often occurs by official authorities, such as the Department for Combating Illegal Immigration (DCIM), which runs official detention centers; in several centers, the DCIM control is only nominal, as militias have de facto control of these facilities. But non-state actors, including smugglers, traffickers, and armed groups, also effectively detain migrants in other makeshift places of detention.
Regardless of who is detaining migrants and refugees, they are put into inhumane living conditions, in overcrowded spaces and with little to no access to food, water, sunlight, medical services, or sanitary facilities. Moreover, migrants and refugees are also physically exploited: while able-bodied men and boys are often targeted for forced labor, including in war-fighting activities, women and girls are frequently forced into prostitution and sexual slavery. Often, migrants and refugees are treated as slaves – bought, sold, auctioned off in the streets – and face persecution for their migrant or refugee status, as well as race, gender, and religion. Torture is also prevalent against migrants and refugees in Libya, as reported by 85% of the over 3,000 migrants and refugees surveyed by the Italian organization Medici per Diritti Umani.
When migrants and refugees manage to reach the Libyan coast, often after great suffering, many embark on a highly risky and often deadly attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. This path has come to be called Central Mediterranean Route, which Médecins Sans Frontières has called “the world’s deadliest migration route.” According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), at least 489 people have died and 736 gone missing on this route between January and early November 2021. Since 2016, migrants and refugees have also been increasingly at risk of violent interceptions at sea by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard (scLCG), a state authority with known ties to militias. Once intercepted, they are returned to Libya, where they face indefinite detention, and the cycle of abuse continues.