“Hell on Earth”: Abuses Against Refugees and Migrants Trying to Reach Europe from Libya

As Europe faces its largest movement of refugees and migrants since World War II, the majority of refugees and migrants are reaching its borders by crossing the Mediterranean Sea. While the majority of refugees and migrants arrived in Europe by crossing the sea between Turkey and Greece in 2015 and early 2016, the main route is currently between Libya and Italy.

Whether they went to Libya to work or just as a place of transit on their way to safety and protection in Europe, migrants and refugees who have spent weeks, months or years in Libya face abuses that include arbitrary detention, torture, unlawful killings, rape, forced labor, kidnapping, and even slavery. Many are held by smugglers for months or detained in official or semi-official detention centers in inhumane conditions where even their most basic rights as human beings are denied. Libya itself has been in turmoil since 2011, with three different governments competing for power and militias and criminal networks operating across the country. 

More than 60,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe between January 1 and May 24, 2017, with the vast majority landing in Italy. Eager to stem the flow of people using this route, the European Union (EU) and its member states have deployed measures which include training and equipping the Libyan coast guard and promoting returns to people’s countries of origin. As the violence and chaos in Libya continue, the EU must ensure that its actions do not result in refugees and migrants being returned to torture or other forms of ill-treatment in Libya. The EU must make rescue at sea a priority. The EU should also provide solutions for people in need of international protection, including safe and legal paths to protection in Europe while pushing Libya to fully ensure all human rights protections for refugees and migrants in that country.

Crossing from the Libyan coast to Italy is currently the major route for refugees and migrants seeking to reach Europe.

It is the deadliest migration route in the world, with more than 1,500 people recorded as dead or missing between January and May 2017.


Crossing from the Libyan coast to Italy is currently the major route for refugees and migrants seeking to reach Europe. As of May 24, 2017, more than 50,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Italy by sea since the beginning of the year, and almost all sea arrivals to Italy depart from Libya. In 2015, the majority of arrivals in Europe came from Turkey to Greece, but with tighter restrictions in Turkey following the EU-Turkey statement of March 2016 and the closure of the route through the Balkans, the Central Mediterranean is now the major route for migrants and refugees seeking to reach Europe. While the Turkey-Greece route was mostly used by Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans, the majority of refugees and migrants using the Libya-Italy route are from West and East Africa. 

As of the end of April 2017, the majority of people reaching Italy’s shores from Libya were from Nigeria, Bangladesh, Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Gambia. 

For years, Libya has been a country of destination for migrants seeking work in the oil-rich country, as well as a transit country for people hoping to reach Europe. But the general climate of political instability and insecurity in Libya since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 has made life in Libya increasingly difficult, and conditions have deteriorated further following an armed conflict which started in 2014. In addition to the existence of three competing governments, Libya hosts a multitude of militias, criminal gangs, and human trafficking networks which operate throughout the country.

The hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees living in Libya face additional difficulties due to widespread racism and, for many, a lack of legal status. In the absence of a formal registration system in Libya, there is no exact figure of the number of refugees and migrants currently in Libya. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has identified more than 381,000 migrants – including refugees and asylum-seekers – across the country, and as of April 2017, UNHCR registered just over 40,000 refugees and asylum-seekers in Libya. In reality, the number of refugees and migrants in Libya is likely to be much higher. IOM estimates the number to be between 700,000 and one million, of whom 7,100 are detained in detention centers managed by the Department for Combating Irregular Migration (DCIM). 

In March 2017, Refugees International (RI) spoke with dozens of refugees and migrants who had recently arrived in Italy from Libya. These individuals described a climate of insecurity, violence, and impunity. Many said they had been abused and held by smugglers for months.

In Libya, the policeman is a smuggler, and the smuggler is a policeman

Eritrean Refugee

The level of brutality is unbelievable

UN Official


The European Union and its member states should: 

  • Urge the Libyan authorities to end the criminalization of irregular entry or stay in Libya, amending the law making it an administrative offense as opposed to a criminal offense, which would be in line with international human rights standards.
  • Urge the Libyan authorities to end the detention of refugees and migrants in closed facilities, turning existing centers into open facilities where the conditions and the treatment of refugees and migrants comply with international standards, in line with Libya’s obligations under the international human rights conventions it has ratified. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) providing support, assistance, and services to refugees and migrants should have unhindered access to such facilities;
  • Efforts by the EU to provide training and equipment to the Libyan coast guard should be accompanied by measures to ensure that, once returned to Libyan soil, refugees and migrants intercepted by the Libyan coastguard are treated in accordance with international human rights law. To this end, the EU and its member states should:

    • Ensure that the Libyan coast guard register every person they rescue or intercept at sea;
    • Ensure that NGOs providing assistance to refugees and migrants have unhindered access to them at disembarkation points following returns by the Libyan coast guard;
    • Ensure that people returned to Libyan territory by the Libyan coast guard are not detained in closed centers, in accordance with the international law principle that no one should be detained solely on grounds of their immigration status;
    • Support the deployment of independent human rights monitors to the facilities in which refugees and migrants are placed following their return to Libyan soil by the Libyan coast guard; such experts should be required to produce regular reports on the conditions they observe, and those reports should be made public;
  • Urge Libya’s Department for Combating Irregular Migration (DCIM) to ensure that its staff registers every person placed in its facilities;
  • Urge the Libyan authorities to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol;
  • Provide safe and legal pathways for refugees to reach protection in Europe such as resettlement and relocation to EU countries where they can lodge asylum claims and facilitate family reunification for those with relatives in Europe;
  • Refrain from establishing centers designed as “safe harbors” inside Libya for people in need of international protection. In the current situation in Libya, conditions are not met for such centers to meet international human rights standards or to constitute an adequate solution for people in need of international protection;
  • Increase the capacity of the EU’s search and rescue operations, and make it a core part of the mandate of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency and EUNAVFOR MED operation Sophia.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) should: 

  • During disembarkation and in detention facilities, UNHCR officers should provide all people with information on international protection and how to lodge an application. UNHCR officers should register all those who wish to apply for such protection;
  • Ensure that when the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is carrying out its programs to offer migrants the option to return to their home country, UNHCR officers are also providing information on the right to asylum and information on how to apply for international protection;
  • Should UNHCR face obstacles or restrictions when carrying out its protection activities in Libya, it should make such obstacles or restrictions known to donor governments, to the Libyan authorities, and to the public if necessary.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) should: 

  • Deploy international human rights monitors to disembarkation points to ensure that people who are returned to Libyan soil by the Libyan coast guard are treated with dignity and respect, in compliance with Libya’s obligations under international human rights law. These human rights monitors should also be present in facilities run by DCIM in which refugees and migrants are held and should publish reports on the conditions they observe both at disembarkation and inside these facilities.

The UN Special Representative of the Secretary General for Sexual Violence in Conflict should: 

  • In light of reports of widespread sexual abuses against migrants and refugees in detention centers run by Libya’s DCIM, the UN Special Representative should promptly conduct an investigation into such abuses. The findings of the investigation should be made public.

Izza Leghtas and Alyssa Eisenstein traveled to Italy and Tunisia in March 2017. RI extends a special thanks to the refugees and migrants who shared their stories with us.