‘Women, child migrants raped, beaten in Libyan hellholes’

Brussels, Feb 28 (IANS) Women and children making the dangerous journey to Europe to flee poverty and conflicts in Africa are being beaten, raped and starved in Libya, the United Nations childrens agency Unicef has said.

In the report titled “A Deadly Journey for Children: The Central Mediterranean Migrant Route”, Unicef said that children are being sexually abused, coerced into prostitution and work, and held to ransom for months in squalid, overcrowded detention centres, as they flee war and poverty in Africa.

In 2016, more than 180,000 migrants crossed from Libya to Italy. According to the UN, almost 26,000 of these were children, most of them unaccompanied.

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”, the Guardian cited Unicef’s report on Tuesday.

Three-quarters of migrant children interviewed in Libya by the International Organisation for Cooperation and Emergency Aid, (IOCEA) a Unicef partner, reported experiencing violence, harassment or aggression at the hands of adults during their journey to Italy.

The survey of 122 women and child migrants 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, according to the report.

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.

“The central Mediterranean from north Africa to Europe is among the world’s deadliest and most dangerous migrant routes for children and women,” said Afshan Khan, Unicef regional director and special coordinator for the refugee and response crises in Europe.

The Unicef study found most women and children had paid smugglers at the beginning of their journey, under “pay as you go” schemes, leaving many of them in debt and vulnerable to abuse, abduction and trafficking.

The study found that children whose parents have not paid enough money to smugglers were held to ransom for thousands of dollars.

One Nigerian boy, aged 15, who was held in a Libyan detention centre, said: “Here they treat us like chickens. They beat us, they do not give us good water and good food. They harass us. So many people are dying here, dying from disease, freezing to death.”

Some 34 detention centres have been identified in Libya, holding between 4,000 and 7,000 detainees, of which 24 are run by the Libyan government department for combating illegal migration (DCIM).

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.