Circa: Migrants traveling through Libya are suffering at the hands of smugglers

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July 24, 2017 01:44 PM EDT

Experts say Libya has a migration problem - and bigger than that, they have a smuggling and human trafficking problem.

“Refugees that are basically coming from the east, moving through the Sahara Desert, westward into Libya,” said Bill Frelick, Refugee Rights Program Director, Human Rights Watch. “We have from West Africa, including people fleeing Boko Haram in Nigeria, a conflict in Mali, another group of people coming up through Niger, sort of a west-to-east flow. And there is a mixed migration, people who don’t qualify as refugees here as well.”

A new report by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) says for decades migrants and refugees have traveled to Libya for employment and stability. However, since the fall of regime in 2011, the country has been “roiled by instability and insecurity.”

“People who meet the refugee definition, someone who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted in their country of origin, based on their race, religion, nationality, they have a particular protection under international law,” said Frelick. “And a place like Libya, they haven’t signed the refugee convention and doesn’t have any refugee law, you’ve got a problem right at the outset.”

Without local or international law on their side and with few agencies able to aid the increasing number of refugees traveling into Libya, many turn to smugglers in hopes of reaching their final destination.

Izza Leghtas, Senior Advocate for Europe at Refugees International visited Tunisia and Italy working with migrants and refugees, many who traveled through Libya. In June, she published a report called “Hell on Earth” detailing some of the struggles faced by those traveling out of Africa to reach Europe. 

Using numbers from the UNHCR, the report states, “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.”

Her report also details harsh abuse and mistreatment that both Leghtas and Frelick said plagues the journey across Libya.

“I was really struck by the level of brutality that people described on behalf of these smugglers,” said Leghtas. “People described to us the journey in the Sahara Desert to reach Libya or within Libya because they would be on these trucks that would be moving really fast and they said if someone fell of the truck or if you stopped because you needed to use the toilet they wouldn’t wait for you.” 

The International Organization for Migration has recognized more than 381,000 migrants across Libya, but estimates that number to be between 700,000 and 1 million.

“People would arrange for this, for the smuggler to take them where they need to be, but then what people told us is that the smugglers would keep them for weeks or months in warehouses and on farms in the desert and basically force them to pay money," said Leghtas. "In some cases more money than they had agreed upon and the asylum seekers would tell us that the smugglers would force them to call their families on the phone and then they would beat them up and torture them while they are on the phone and then they would force them to call their families on the phone and then they would beat them up and torture them while they are on the phone so they would cry and scream, and the family members would be under a lot of pressure to transfer them money."

Leghtas said the migrants would often pay smugglers thousands of dollars to transport them.

"I've actually interviewed people who have told me that for them, the most harrowing experience was crossing the Sahara Desert," said Frelick. "They were forced to drink water that the smugglers would put benzene, you know gasoline basically, into, to keep them from drinking too much and then that would make them sick."

Although smuggling and human trafficking are separate by definition, both Frelick and Leghtas say that in many cases people complicit in smuggling end up being trafficked when their fate is no longer in their control.

"People who started, having fled their homes often as refugees, went voluntarily to a smuggler to try and get out of the bad situation they were in, and then along the way, along the course of the journey they've been bought and sold and traded between these guys and the next thing they know they are in a situation that is completely out of their control and they are being subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence," said Frelick.

"We heard that there are women who get basically taken by some of these smugglers who are used for sex," said Leghtas. "There is a huge amount of exploitation, they don't have a choice."

Leghtas said people witnessed other migrants dying from sickness and hunger. She said, "It's hard to even distinguish between the human trafficking and the smuggling because people [can no longer control] their movements anymore.... they're tortured, they're beaten, they are fed whatever they are fed which is not enough. I spoke to a couple of Eritreans in Italy who said they weren't able to walk by the time they got there because they were so malnourished."

Reports from Refugees International, Human Rights Watch and various United Nations groups describe migrants are being detained throughout Libya in official and unofficial capacities. They say that if you enter Libya, even seeking asylum or refuge, it is illegal under their laws. Refugees, asylees, and migrants picked up by police and the coast guard are often taken to detention centers where they can remain for months.

And Leghtas says that abuse on behalf of Libyan officials is widespread. "People in detention centers are often involved with the smugglers, or are even smugglers themselves... One man said, the smuggler is a policeman, the policeman is a smuggler, basically they are all the same."

Since many migrants goal is to reach international waters or Europe, Leghtas says the European Union needs to do more in terms of search and rescue. "NGO's are very involved, the Italian authorities have stepped up and done a lot to save people's lives - this is a dangerous crossing." 

Reports say there have been more than 2,000 migrant deaths so far this year in the Mediterranean Sea.

"This is really a challenge for the EU because they desperately want to partner with somebody in Northern Africa to stem the flow of migrants and asylum seekers into Europe, and yet they don't have any legitimate partner that they can actually work with because many of the guys themselves that purport to be a coast guard may or may not have any authority to do that," said Frelick. "They may put on a uniform, but who are they really and what is the collusion between a state authority, a smuggler, or a trafficker, and they may be one in the same at the end of the day."