Libya exposed as an epicenter for migrant child abuse

Libya exposed as an epicenter for migrant child abuse

The United Nations has warned that large numbers of children are still risking their lives to make the dangerous journey from Libya to Italy.

Unicef says approximately 26,000 children – most of them solitary – crossed the Mediterranean last year.

In its new report, Unicef says many children suffer from violence and sexual abuse at the hands of smugglers and traffickers.

But these children rarely report their abuse, due to of arrest and banishment.

The agency also says there is a shortage of food, water and medical care in Libya’s detention centres.

The plight of children, many of them unaccompanied by parents, has become a tragically familiar part of the wider story of mass migration over the past two years.

Unicef’s latest report, A Deadly Journey for Children, documents – in sometimes-horrific detail – stories of slavery, violence and sexual abuse experienced by huge numbers of vulnerable children making their perilous way to Italy.

“What really shocked Unicef staff and me… is what happens to them [children] on this route,” says Justin Forsyth, the organisation’s deputy executive director. “Many of these children have been brutalised, raped, killed on this route.”

Girls such as nine-year-old  Kamis, who set off with her mother from their home in Nigeria. After a desert crossing in which a man died, followed by a dramatic rescue at sea, they found themselves held at a detention centre in the Libyan town of Sabratha.

“They used to beat us every day,” Kamis told the researchers. “There was no water there either. That place was very sad. There’s nothing there.”

Much of the violence is unjustified, and much of it is sexual.

“Nearly half the women and children interviewed had experienced sexual abuse during migration,” the report says. “Often multiple times and in multiple locations.”

Borders, it seems, are particularly dangerous.

“Sexual violence was widespread and systemic at crossings and checkpoints,” says the report.

Many of the assaulters are in uniform. This is the reason why those who suffer abuse are unenthusiastic to report their experiences.

And Libya, as the funnel through which so many journeys pass, has earned itself a shocking reputation as the epicenter of abuse.

“Approximately one third (of those interviewed) indicated they had been abused in Libya,” the report says. “A large majority of these children did not answer when asked who had abused them.”

Migrants look out from behind bars in a Libyan detention centre

Migrants look out from behind bars in a Libyan detention centre

So ordinary are stories of rape and sexual enslavement that some women boarding on the journey take securities, such as getting contraceptive injections and carrying emergency protection with them.

The report maps 34 known detention centers in Libya, three of them deep in the country’s desert interior.Most are run by the government’s Department for Combating Illegal Migration. But Unicef says that armed groups also hold migrants in an unknown number of unofficial camps.

“The detention centres run by militias, we’re much more worried about,” says Mr Forsyth. “That’s where a lot of abuse is happening and we have very, very limited access.”

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. The number of unaccompanied children appears to be soaring.

“It’s a combination of factors,” says Mr Forsyth. “The situation in places like Eritrea and northern Nigeria is very bad. Also in the Gambia recently.”

Politics aside, poverty and the promise of a better life remain key drivers.The migrants are, of course, heavily dependent on smugglers to get them through the desert and across the sea.

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