Violence and extortion in Libya forces refugees and migrants to risk the arduous sea journey to Europe.
On board the Ocean Viking in the Mediterranean Sea – Kelly was eight months pregnant with twins when she climbed onto a fragile rubber boat on the shores of Libya in complete darkness.
It was past 9pm. All she could hear were the waves and the smugglers forcing 94 people, including other women and children, onto a boat that was unfit for the sea.
Nobody knew how long the journey would be. They only heard stories of those who had taken the same route before them.
“I didn’t want to get into the water. It was too risky. I thought the journey wouldn’t finish and I’d die,” Kelly told Al Jazeera after being rescued by an NGO vessel. But despite experiencing the perilous journey at sea, she said she would do it again if she had to because living in Libya was “hell” and this was the only way out.
Almost 10 percent of the more than 636,000 refugees and migrants in Libya are women, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The United Nations says these people are subjected to “unimaginable horrors” from the moment they enter Libya. But the travesties of life for them start the moment they leave home.
The journey is “marred by considerable risk of serious human rights violations and abuses every step of the way”, the UN said, adding that being gang-raped by smugglers has been reported by an “overwhelming majority of women and older teenage girls”.
“These women told me about the terrifying and cruel journey they made to Libya,” Mali Ebrahimi, a midwife with medical charity Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) on board the Ocean Viking, told Al Jazeera.
“They were exposed to physical violence at the hands of smugglers and the military. They were raped or sexually abused. Some were beaten up. In detention centres, they were repeatedly kicked in the abdomen. Some were burned in the genital area.”
About 4,500 people are currently held in “official” detention centres across Libya. Thousands more are held in “prisons” run by armed groups.
— Ana-Maria Murphy-Teixidor (@amurphyteixidor) January 7, 2020
“One of the women we rescued was not taking care of herself and didn’t wash her private areas to avoid being a target of sexual violence,” Juan Pablo Sanchez, an MSF medic, told Al Jazeera. “She left hygiene behind to kind of protect herself.”
UN staff at detention centres documented torture, ill-treatment, forced labour, and rape by the guards. It also reported that women are often held in facilities without female guards, “exacerbating the risk of sexual abuse and exploitation, and often subjected to strip searches carried out, or watched, by male guards”.
“Some reported being subjected to intrusive cavity searches and having their breast and buttock fondled during searches. Male guards also routinely enter women’s cells and washing and sanitation facilities without warning,” a UN report said.
Gender has been identified as a significant factor behind the extent of vulnerability faced by migrants and refugees.
Research and interviews done by the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC) revealed that sexual and physical abuse appeared to be the most common protection risk, and women are nearly three times more likely than their male counterparts to experience or witness sexual abuse.
Many of the female migrants said they had to enter the prostitution business to repay debts to smugglers who remained the main perpetrators of sexual assaults in Libya, accounting for 45 percent of the incidents.
“Migrants smuggled into Libya reported severe human rights violations and risks that included rape and amounted to deaths during these journeys,” an IOM spokesperson Safa Msehli told Al Jazeera. “These journeys are very difficult and challenging and awareness raising is key so that migrants are aware of the risks and dangers of being exploited by such smuggling gangs.”
Women have reported being “raped several times with the shaft of a Kalashnikov”, according to a report by the charity SOS Mediterranee. Some have been “abused so badly they no longer know the difference between having sexual intercourse and being raped”.
The MMC quoted a 22-year-old woman from Nigeria saying that “women were forcefully raped to the threat of abandonment in the desert”, before adding she and some other women were sold and forced into prostitution.
“To be sold and forced to have sex with Arab or African men either to pay [for] the journey or to extract your money is a common thing to happen to you as a woman or a girl, all over the journey from day one in the desert until you depart Libya,” a Nigerian migrant was quoted as saying by the UN.
Another woman said: “When I was in the toilet, a guard entered. I told him to leave immediately. He refused and kept staring at me. Even animals are left alone to do their business.”
Aderonke was one of the thousands to have been exploited and abused on the way to and in Libya.
She fled her home in Nigeria without telling her family, including her two young daughters. She left behind what she called “problems in my country”, hoping to find work in Libya where those she had known had gone before her.
They did warn her of problems along the way and in Libya but Aderonke did not realise how bad things were until she embarked on a solo journey.
“I came to Libya to make money but all I got were beatings and violence,” Aderonke told Al Jazeera. “I was routinely kidnapped, locked and beaten up and they kept asking me to contact my family for ransom.
“All I wanted was a better life. I wanted to get out of Nigeria and earn some money. I planned on going back home one day with enough to help my family and my daughters. I didn’t even tell them I was …”
At that moment, Aderonke broke down. She was unable to finish off the sentence.
“Sorry, I’ve dealt with a lot. I don’t want to think about all that any more.”
Names changed to protect the identity