Refugee child abuse rampant in Libya, UNICEF report warns

Thousands of refugee children experience abuse, exploitation and arbitrary detention in Libya, UNICEF reports

A child stands in a room where women and children sleep on old mattresses laid on the floor at a detention centre, in Libya (Photo: UNICEF)
A child stands in a room where women and children sleep on old mattresses laid on the floor at a detention centre, in Libya (Photo: UNICEF)

Refugee children and women making the dangerous journey to Europe to flee poverty and conflicts in Africa are being beaten, raped and starved in “living hellholes” in Libya, the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, has said.

Children are being sexually abused, coerced into prostitution and work, and held to ransom for months in squalid, overcrowded detention centres, as they make their way along the Central Mediterranean migration route, the agency warned in a new report.

In the report, titled "A Deadly Journey for Children," which was released on Tuesday, the UN children's agency said a total of 25,846 children - most of them unaccompanied - crossed from North Africa to Italy using the Mediterranean route in 2016. 

More than 181,000 refugees and migrants in total crossed through Libya, and thousands of people died on the way.

Unofficial detention centres controlled by militia serve as lucrative businesses that profit from trafficking, and are “no more than forced labour camps … and makeshift prisons,” UNICEF said. “For the thousands of migrant women and children incarcerated, [the centres] were living hellholes where people were held for months.”

For the report, researchers for the International Organisation for Cooperation and Emergency Aid (IOCEA), a UNICEF partner, interviewed a total of 122 refugees - 82 women and 40 children - who tried to complete the perilous journey.

Three-quarters of migrant children interviewed in Libya reported experiencing violence, harassment or aggression at the hands of adults during their journey to Italy. The “snapshot” survey also found a growing number of teenage girls forced by smugglers to have Depo-Provera contraceptive jabs, so they could be raped without becoming pregnant.

Sexual violence and abuse was widespread and systematic at crossings and checkpoints. A third of the women and children interviewed said their assailants wore uniforms or appeared to be associated with the military. Nearly half of the women and children reported sexual abuse during migration, often multiple times and in multiple locations, the report found.

Men were reportedly often threatened or killed if they intervened to prevent sexual violence, and women were often expected to provide sexual services or cash in exchange for crossing the Libyan border.

“The results of this rapid assessment demand action. We can’t have a situation where children and women disappear into a hellhole. They are being sexually assaulted, abused, exploited and killed,” Justin Forsyth, deputy executive director of UNICEF, said.

The report called on Libya, the EU and the international community to establish safe and legal pathways for children fleeing war or poverty along the route.

“The central Mediterranean from north Africa to Europe is among the world’s deadliest and most dangerous migrant routes for children and women,” UNICEF regional director and special coordinator for the refugee and response crises in Europe Afshan Khan said. “The route is mostly controlled by smugglers, traffickers and other people seeking to prey upon desperate children and women who are simply seeking refuge or a better life. We need safe and legal pathways and safeguards to protect migrating children that keep them safe and keep predators at bay.”

This month the EU backed an agreement between Italy and Libya to stem the arrival of migrants to Europe, which prompted condemnation by human rights groups.