At the al-Hamra migrant detention center in Libya, hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers are held in metal-barred, overcrowded shipping containers — they wait for months, sometimes years in these conditions.
In November 2013, a 33-year-old Eritrean man being held at al-Hamra witnessed what happens when these migrants try to escape. “They caught them,” he told interviewers. “Then they punished all of the detainees in one of the [shipping] containers. I saw it all happen. They took them out, stripped off their shirts, threw water all over them, and then whipped them with rubber on their backs and heads for about half an hour. They were all vomiting because they were in so much pain.”
According to a new Human Rights Watch report released on Sunday, his story isn’t an outlier.
In its April 2014 investigation, HRW visited nine detention centers in Libya and found repeated incidences of guard brutality from suspending detainees upside down from trees and whipping them to beating them with iron rods, sticks and rifle butts. Some report having been burned with cigarettes, kicked and punched in the head and torso, and having to endure electric shocks. One woman revealed guards “told us to take off our clothes, and then put their fingers inside our vaginas.”
On top of the abuse, migrants and asylum seekers are subjected to “massive overcrowding, dire sanitation overcrowding, dire sanitation conditions, and lack of access to adequate medical care,” yet none have been able to challenge the decisions to keep them detained.
When HRW asked migration department officials in Libya about its findings, they said no other organization had ever raised concerns before, despite Amnesty International releasing a report in 2013 detailing similar abuses and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ repeated talks with authorities about the conditions in the centers.
There are an estimated three million undocumented migrants in Libya, many of whom come from surrounding areas of conflict, including Syria, Somalia, and Eritrea hoping to travel by boat to Italy. In recent years, Libya has become a hub for migrants attempting to make the dangerous trek across the Mediterranean Sea. Of the 42,000 people who arrived on Italian soil in the first four months of this year more than half came from Libya. Thousands more die trying.
In October 2013, a ship carrying over 500 migrants from the Libyan coast sank a quarter of a mile from Italian shore, only 155 survived. Just last month, a ship traveling the same route sank, killing 17.
The Italy Navy launched a large-scale rescue operation following the October 2013 shipwreck and has saved thousands of migrants traveling in unsafe conditions to find refuge in its borders, and the European Union has began to provide training and resources to the Libyan coast guard who was previously ill-equipped to rescue migrants who take off from its coasts.
According to HRW, both the E.U. and Italy have supported Libya’s migration centers by providing funding to the international and nongovernmental organizations who help run the facilities. Over the next four years, the EU and Italy plan to spend at least €12 million in Libya to continue these efforts. Following the release of its report, the Human Rights Watch called on the E.U. and Italy to suspend its funding until conditions in the detention centers improve.
Shannon Greenwood is an intern at ThinkProgress.