Amid the waves

Mi­grant women and chil­dren are deal­ing with sex­ual vi­o­lence and de­ten­tion cen­ters that fail to meet ba­sic needs, re­port says

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN sudarsan.raghavan@wash­post.com Heba Mah­fouz con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Refugees and mi­grants who were in­ter­cepted off the coast of Libya pre­pare for trans­fer to an Ital­ian mil­i­tary ves­sel. A res­cue team from Proac­tiva Open Arms, a Span­ish or­ga­ni­za­tion, helped the trav­el­ers off the boats in which they had be­gun their ocean jour­ney.

cairo — The num­ber of bod­ies wash­ing up on Libyan shores is es­ca­lat­ing as the refugee cri­sis wors­ens. But mi­grants also are fac­ing per­ils even be­fore they step into a boat.

On Thurs­day alone, Italy’s coast guard re­ported that about 970 peo­ple were res­cued off the Libyan coast. Since Jan­uary, more than 13,400 have landed on Italy’s shores, roughly a 50 per­cent in­crease over the same pe­riod last year.

“Judg­ing by the in­crease in the num­ber of trips made by mi­grants, we can af­firm that the cri­sis has wors­ened this year,” said Mo­hammed al-Mos­rati, a spokesman for the Libyan Red Cres­cent. “This is all be­cause of the in­tol­er­a­ble eco­nomic, se­cu­rity and po­lit­i­cal con­di­tions faced by those mi­grants in their coun­tries.”

An es­ti­mated 487 mi­grants have died cross­ing the Mediter­ranean, most of whom de­parted from Libya, ac­cord­ing to the Miss­ing Mi­grants Pro­ject run by the In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Mi­gra­tion. That is a 13 per­cent in­crease from last year, when an es­ti­mated 425 deaths oc­curred over the same pe­riod.

The deaths this year in­clude at least 74 mi­grants whose bod­ies washed ashore last month on a beach near the city of Zawiyah in western Libya. More than 4,500 peo­ple drowned last year on the smug­gling routes be­tween Libya and Italy — a record num­ber, ac­cord­ing to the Euro­pean bor­der-man­age­ment agency Fron­tex. The United Na­tions Chil­dren’s Fund es­ti­mates that 700 of the vic­tims were chil­dren.

“The Cen­tral Mediter­ranean from North Africa to Europe is among the world’s dead­li­est and most dan­ger­ous mi­grant routes for chil­dren and women,” Af­shan Khan, a se­nior UNICEF of­fi­cial work­ing on mi­grant and refugee is­sues, said in a state­ment this week. “The route is mostly con­trolled by smug­glers, traf­fick­ers and other peo­ple seek­ing to prey upon des­per­ate chil­dren and women who are sim­ply seek­ing refuge or a bet­ter life.”

Ef­forts by Euro­pean na­tions to close the mi­grant sea routes be­tween Greece and Turkey are thought to have played a role in the grow­ing flows to Italy from Libya, par­tic­u­larly from its western shore­lines, which are less than 200 miles from the Ital­ian coast.

Smug­glers are in­creas­ingly pack­ing mi­grants into smaller, weaker boats to make more money, ac­cord­ing to Fron­tex, adding that it ex­pects drown­ings to in­crease this year as a re­sult.

Mean­while, chil­dren and women are rou­tinely be­com­ing tar­gets of sex­ual vi­o­lence and other abuses along the route from north­ern Africa to Italy, UNICEF warned in a re­cent re­port. Dur­ing the jour­ney, many end up in crowded de­ten­tion cen­ters in Libya, where they of­ten also are de­nied ac­cess to med­i­cal care and le­gal as­sis­tance, and en­dure poor san­i­ta­tion and a lack of nu­tri­tious food.

Some de­ten­tion cen­ters are run by Libya’s U.N.-backed gov­ern­ment, while oth­ers are con­trolled by armed mili­tias.

Three-quar­ters of chil­dren in­ter­viewed said that adults had beaten or ha­rassed them. Nearly half the women sur­veyed said they had been raped or sex­u­ally abused. The abuses were oc­cur­ring in part be­cause many chil­dren and women were un­der “pay as you go” ar­range­ments with smug­glers, leav­ing them in their debt and vul­ner­a­ble to “abuse, abduction and traf­fick­ing,” the re­port said.

“Chil­dren should not be forced to put their lives in the hands of smug­glers be­cause there are sim­ply no al­ter­na­tives,” Khan said.

But any hope for al­ter­na­tives is slim. The multi­bil­lion-dol­lar smug­gling net­works thrive on the chaos that has fol­lowed the ouster and death of Libyan dic­ta­tor Moam­mar Gaddafi dur­ing the 2011 pop­ulist up­ris­ing, a chap­ter of the Arab Spring rev­o­lu­tions that swept across the Mid­dle East and north­ern Africa.

That chaos shows no sign of dis­ap­pear­ing. The oil-pro­duc­ing na­tion is riven by mili­tias com­pet­ing for oil, ter­ri­tory and in­flu­ence. There are three com­pet­ing gov­ern­ments, all of which say they are the le­git­i­mate au­thor­ity in the coun­try. Dif­fer­ent re­gions are con­trolled by ri­val mili­tias who make their own laws and reg­u­la­tions, con­trol bor­der cross­ings and ex­ploit mi­grants at will.

That has brought ob­sta­cles for the Libyan Red Cres­cent and other hu­man­i­tar­ian aid agen­cies. “The fact that there are mul­ti­ple au­thor­i­ties in Libya re­quires that we get per­mis­sions from dif­fer­ent ones to even be able to per­form our jobs,” Mos­rati said. “It is crip­pling us.”

The Libyan Red Cres­cent is al­ready hard-pressed for fund­ing and re­sources, and it runs it­self largely with a vol­un­teer force to as­sist mi­grants, Mos­rati said. Although a few in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions pro­vide some fund­ing and aid, “We do not get any sup­port from the Libyan au­thor­i­ties,” he said.

“Add this to the in­creas­ing num­ber of mi­grants, and you will un­der­stand how the sit­u­a­tion has wors­ened,” Mos­rati said. “Num­bers are in­creas­ing, and we can­not as­sist the new im­mi­grants. We fail to give them food, shel­ter or even the med­i­cal care they need.

“The cri­sis will keep on wors­en­ing so long as there is no aid to hu­man­i­tar­ian groups to face th­ese chal­lenges and pro­vide the needed help to the mi­grants,” he said.

“Chil­dren should not be forced to put their lives in the hands of smug­glers.” Af­shan Khan, a se­nior UNICEF of­fi­cial

SANTI PALA­CIOS/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

PHO­TOS BY SANTI PALA­CIOS/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

ABOVE: Refugees and mi­grants wait for help off the coast of Libya last week. BE­LOW: Peo­ple rest aboard a Span­ish res­cue ves­sel on Satur­day af­ter they were re­moved from the over­crowded rub­ber boats they had used to leave Libya.

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