HUNDREDS of thousands of people remain trapped in a life of hell.
Many have been raped, tortured and abused.
Others have fallen victim to extortion or are being used as slaves, a new report by human rights group Amnesty International has found.
The report, Libya’s Dark Web of Collusion, reveals how European governments are actively supporting a sophisticated system of abuse and exploitation of refugees and migrants by the Libyan Coast Guard, detention authorities and smugglers to prevent people from crossing the Mediterranean.
Amnesty has accused the EU of turning a blind eye to allegedly brutal tactics of the Libyan coast guard and dangerous detention facilities.
It said immigrants were routinely abused while in detention, and in some cases money was extorted from their families demanding their release.
One man from Gambia told the human rights group he was held for three months and was beaten and starved in detention.
“They beat me with a rubber hose, because they want money to release me,” he said.
“They call the family while beating [you] so the family send money.”
The man’s family paid the ransom and he was then taken to Tripoli by an assigned driver who demanded further payment.
“I had to stay with him until I pay the money back, otherwise he will sell me,” he told Amnesty.
In other cases, women reported being raped, some multiple times.
The report was based on interviews with dozens of migrants and officials.
According to Amnesty, up to 500,000 people remain stranded in Libya, many in a hellish situation after fleeing war and persecution or extreme poverty and hunger.
Since last year, EU member states — particularly Italy — have implemented a series of measures aimed at closing off the migratory route through Libya and across the central Mediterranean, leaving hundreds of thousands trapped within Libya’s lawless borders.
The human rights group also alleged that the Libyan coast guard accepted kickbacks from smugglers to let migrant boats leave for Europe.
Amnesty said it had video and other documentary evidence that a boat donated by Italy was involved in an interception operation in which up to 50 people drowned.
“European governments have not just been fully aware of these abuses,” Amnesty Europe Director John Dalhuisen said.
“By actively supporting the Libyan authorities in stopping sea crossings and containing people in Libya, they are complicit in these crimes.”
Amnesty said people who are stopped by the Libyan Coast Guard are so terrified to be sent back they jumped overboard trying to swim to a nearby Italian boat, many drowning in the process during one incident in May this year.
Overwhelmed by the arrival of more than one million migrants in 2015, the EU has worked with Libya and its neighbours to cut off the main migration route from Africa to Europe.
Its strategy has including training and equipping Libya’s coast guard to stop boats trying to make the dangerous Mediterranean Sea crossing.
However the moves have trapped an estimated 20,000 migrants in Libya, where detention facilities are overcrowded and unsanitary, according to Amnesty.
EU officials have rejected criticism of Europe’s approach to curbing immigration and say the bloc’s money has been channelled into Libya through United Nations agencies.
Only about 150 of Libya’s 3000 coast guard members have received training sponsored by the bloc, the EU said.
The EU’s border agency, Frontex, reported Monday that the number of migrants making it to Europe through the central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy dropped by one-third during the first 11 months of the year, to around 116,400, compared to the same period in 2016.
Most were Nigerians, Frontex said.
The group said it also reviewed video, photographs and documents showing that in at least one incident, the crew of a boat Italy donated to Libya’s coast guard failed to deploy lifeboats for migrants it encountered.
While trying to climb up the high sides of the vessel, the Ras Jadir, many passengers fell into the water and about 50 drowned, Amnesty said.
Recordings also showed rescued migrants being whipped on the coast guard ship, the rights group alleged.
It said some migrants on-board jumped into the water to try to reach rafts deployed by a non-governmental organisation’s rescue boat.
“European governments have shown where their true priorities lie: namely, the closure of the central Mediterranean route, with scant regard to the suffering caused,” Mr Dalhuisen said.
‘ALL TOO FAMILIAR’
Amnesty International Australia Director Claire Mallinson has recently returned from Italy and met researchers in Lampedusa and Sicily.
She also spoke with refugees themselves who have made the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean after suffering abuse in Libya, as well as members of the Italian coast guard and doctors.
She told news.com.au the report was “disturbing reading” and it seemed Europe had taken a leaf out of Australia’s book by allowing a poorer country to shoulder responsibility for the issue.
“Here’s another wealthy government outsourcing its responsibility to developing countries,” she said.
“Pushing back the boats is another example where Italy is copying Australia.”
Ms Mallinson said she has visited places and centres like this for decades and the situation she saw was simply horrific.
“It’s not for the faint hearted,” she said.
“The stories of rape, torture and how these people are treated is simply heartbreaking.
“Doctors we spoke to said every woman they saw had reported being raped.”
Ms Mallinson said European nations had literally shut their borders, taking away safe passage for those seeking persecution.
“Italy is providing assistance to Libyan authorities to run the detention centres,” she said.
“These detention centres lack, food, water, are overcrowded and people are tortured.
“It’s hard to believe at the end of 2017 people are still being sold.”
Ms Mallison said people are often beaten while talking to families on the phone back home so their screams are heard and money is paid for their release.
However once money is paid their nightmare is far from over.
“We have seen and heard stories that people are literally being sold for bonded labour,” she said.