The ship was reportedly carrying some 130 people, with rescue teams saying little hope of finding survivors.
A group of teenage migrant girls housed in a government-run detention centre in Libya have accused guards at the facility, funded by the European Union, of sexually assaulting them, according to a report by the Associated Press.
A 17-year-old Somali girl, whose identity has been kept anonymous, told AP that she was raped by a guard at the Shara al-Zawiya centre in the capital, Tripoli, in April. More girls from the centre have come out with similar allegations, with some sharing their ordeal with AP.
The teenager was rescued by Libyan security forces in February more than two years after she was captured by traffickers, who sexually abused her. Traffickers are notorious for extorting from, torturing and assaulting migrants and refugees like her trying to reach Europe.
But the 17-year-old said the sexual assaults against her have continued, only now by guards at the government-run centre where many of the migrants or refugees are being kept.
She and four other Somali teenagers undergoing similar abuses are pleading to be released from the Shara al-Zawiya centre.
It is one of a network of centres run by Libya’s Department for Combating Illegal Immigration, or DCIM, which is supported by the European Union in its campaign to build Libya into a bulwark against mainly African migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
“While it is not the first time I suffer from sexual attacks, this is more painful as it was by the people who should protect us,” the 17-year-old said, speaking to The Associated Press by a smuggled mobile phone.
“You have to offer something in return to go to the bathroom, to call family or to avoid beating,” she said. “It’s like we are being held by traffickers.”
The Associated Press does not identify victims of sexual assault, and the young woman also asked not to be named, fearing reprisals.
Smugglers and traffickers
Smugglers and traffickers in Libya – many of them members of militias – have long been notorious for brutalising migrants. But rights groups and United Nations agencies say abuse also takes place in the official DCIM-run facilities.
“Sexual violence and exploitation are rife in several detention centres (for migrants) across the country,” said Tarik Lamloum, a Libyan activist working with the Belaady Organization for Human Rights.
The UN refugee agency has also documented hundreds of cases of women raped while in either DCIM detention or traffickers’ prisons, with some even being impregnated by guards and giving birth during detention, said Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR’s special envoy for the Central Mediterranean.
The group of teens are the only migrants being kept at Shara al-Zawiya, a facility where usually migrants stay only short periods for processing. Human rights organisations say they have been trying to secure their release for weeks.
After their rescue from traffickers in February, the 17-year-old was brought along with eight other young female migrants to Shara al-Zawiya. Four of the others were later released under unclear circumstances.
One night in April, around midnight, she said she asked a guard to let her go to the toilet. When she finished, the guard attacked her and grabbed her forcefully, she recalled.
“I was petrified and didn’t know what to do,” she told AP. The guard assault her while she cried, struggled and pleaded for him to get off her.
“I was lucky that he was done quickly.”
The guard then ordered her to clean her clothes, she recalled, breaking down in tears.
Terrified, she returned to her cell and told one of the other girls what had happened. She soon learned she was not the only victim. All the girls, aged 16 to 18, had experienced similar or worse abuse by guards, she said.
A 16-year-old in the same cell told the AP she started being sexually harassed a few days after arriving at the centre. When she pleaded with a guard to call her family, he gave her a phone and let her out of her cell to call her mother. Once she hung up, he stood behind her and grabbed her, she said.
She removed his hands and started to cry. The guard only stopped after realising other employees were at the centre, she said.
“Every day they do this,” she said. “If you resist, you will be beaten or deprived of everything.”
The Libyan government has not responded to requests for comment by the AP.
At least two of the girls attempted to kill themselves in late May following alleged beatings and attempted rapes, according to local rights group Libyan Crime Watch and UN agencies.
One of them, a 15-year-old, was taken to hospital on May 28 and treated by the international aid group Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) only to be returned to the detention centre.
Maya Abu Ata, a spokeswoman for MSF Libya, confirmed that the group’s staff treated the two at its clinic.
The MSF teams “advocated for their release from detention and lobbied protection actors and different interlocutors, however, these attempts were unsuccessful,” she said.
Continued human rights violations
The UNHCR said it was working with Libyan authorities for the release of the five young women still held at Shara al-Zawiya and their subsequent evacuation from Libya.
The case of the teenagers in Shara al-Zawiya also renews questions about the EU’s role in the cycle of violence trapping migrants and asylum seekers in Libya.
The EU trains, equips and supports the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept people trying to cross the Central Mediterranean to Europe.
At least 677 people are known to have either died or gone missing taking this route on unseaworthy boats so far this year.
Nearly 13,000 men, women and children – a record number – have been intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard and returned to Libyan shores from the start of the year up to June 12. Most are then placed in DCIM-run centres.
At some of the 29 DCIM-run centres around the country, rights groups have documented a lack of basic hygiene, healthcare, food and water as well as beatings and torture. DCIM receives support, supplies and training, including on human rights, through the EU’s $5.1bn Trust Fund for Africa.
Libya has been applauded by the West for a ceasefire reached last year and the appointment of an interim government earlier this year, prompting visits by European leaders and the reopening of some embassies. Despite seemingly growing political stability, activists and human rights organisations say their access to migrants in detention centres is becoming more restricted.
“The guns are silent, a ceasefire is in place … but human rights violations are continuing unabated,” said Suki Nagra, representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Libya, who is following the reports of abuse at Shara al-Zawiya.
Even when cases are documented and alleged perpetrators arrested, they are often released due to the lack of witnesses willing to testify for fear of reprisals. For example, Abdel-Rahman Milad, who was under UN sanctions and was arrested last year on charges of human trafficking and fuel smuggling, walked free in April without trial.