Human Rights Watch warned on Wednesday that European Union measures on curbing the flow of migrants from Libya to the bloc risk condemning asylum-seekers to "violent abuse'' by armed groups in the North African nation.
In a new report, the New York-based rights group said the migrants had faced abuses, including "torture, rape and killings in squalid detention centers'' before setting off on their perilous journey. The migrants told HRW they faced abuse at the hands of Libyan government officials, smugglers, militiamen and criminal gangs.
The violence and lawlessness of Libya has pushed many who had initially planned to work in the oil-rich nation to attempt the dangerous sea crossings to Europe. The report said some migrants had been detained after being intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guards at sea.
Last month, the EU expanded its anti-smuggling operation in the central Mediterranean to include training Libyan coastal and naval forces, which are intercepting boats and returning migrants to Libya.
The EU is also asking NATO to help in the operation — a topic that will likely be on the agenda at the military alliance's summit in Warsaw that starts on Friday.
"The EU isn't sending people back to Libya, knowing that's unlawful, so it wants to outsource the dirty work to Libyan forces,'' said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The EU — soon perhaps with NATO's help — is basically deputizing Libyan forces to help seal Europe's border.''
The HRW report is based on interviews conducted with 47 migrants in June on the Italian island of Sicily. While men reported being beaten and tortured at various stages of the journey, women shared stories of sexual violence at formal detention centers in Libya or while held by smugglers.
The report quotes a 31-year-old Gambian who said criminals had raped his wife: "In Libya, they do whatever they like because there's no law, no nothing,'' he told HRW.
Since the 2011 ouster and killing of longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the country has sunk into lawlessness and chaos, facing a myriad of militias vying for influence and an emerging Islamic State affiliate.
On the political front, the North African country became split between two different parliaments, each with their own government. A new, U.N.-brokered unity government established this year in the capital, Tripoli, is trying to overcome those divisions.
Rights groups and experts estimate that there are about 3,500 migrants held in roughly 20 official detention facilities across Libya. Others are held in informal detention centers controlled by criminal gangs or armed groups.