Humanitarian Conditions in Libya

All the people we rescue during our Central Mediterranean missions depart from Libya, where the widespread abuse, violence and exploitation that migrants and refugees face is reflected in the stories of the people we rescue.  During our latest mission, the MOAS crews bore witness to the effects of this dire situation, with the people we assisted increasingly bearing the marks of physical and psychological trauma. Here, we explore the current humanitarian conditions migrants and refugees face in the country and share some case studies of people MOAS has met and assisted.

Since the overthrow of Gadaffi’s regime in 2011, Libya has experienced drawn-out political instability and conflict as rival governments and armed factions have sought to gain control over territory and resources. Since its formation in December 2015, a UN-backed Government of National Accord has struggled to establish control over the country, as rival governments and militias continue to clash. As a result of the continuing instability, the civilian population has limited access to healthcare, electricity and fuel.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that there are around  700,000  to 1 million migrants currently in Libya, mainly coming from Egypt, Niger, Sudan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Syria, and Mali. Many of these people have been established in Libya for years, travelling to the country to live and work before the conflict broke out. The UNHCR estimates that there are also around 100,000 refugees and asylum seekers present in the country. Continued instability has allowed human smuggling and trafficking networks to flourish, with the country becoming the main transit country and point of departure for irregular sea migration to Europe; the UNHCR has estimated that 90% of irregular maritime arrivals in Italy in 2016 departed from Libya.

The collapse of law and order hascreated the conditions for the mass exploitation of migrants and asylum seekers. In its 2016 report on conditions for migrants in Libya, the Office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) described the situation as a ‘human rights crisis’, with key abuses including detention, forced labour and sexual violence.


Human Rights Watch has found that many migrants and refugees face arbitrary arrest and detention in Libya, with no legal process or access to lawyers. Several thousand people are detained in centres operated by the Libyan Directorate for Combating Irregular Migration (DCIM), while militias and smugglers also control other unofficial detention centres. During a field visit in 2016, MOAS visited a centre that had DCIM authorisation but received no funding. Its directors reported that this lack of funding made it hard to make the centre secure and described how it had been raided by human smugglers. Hundreds of people had been taken from, their fate unknown.

Beyond issues of security, detention centres in Libya are severely overcrowded, with limited access to food, clean water and toilets. The 2016 OHCHR report found that unsuitable structures, such as warehouses, are often converted into detention facilities, while one young Nigerian woman rescued by MOAS had spent one and a half years in an underground prison. Dire conditions mean that respiratory tract infections and acute diarrhoea are common.  Detainees face regular beating and extortion at the hands of guards; one 17-year-old boy brought to safety by the MOAS crews described being forced to fight other detainees for food.

Forced Labour

Many people we rescue report having been forced to work for no pay, often as domestic servants, farm or construction workers, or rubbish collectors. Sometimes they are forced to work to pay their way out of detention; other times they are kept at their place of work for weeks or months at a time until a ransom is paid on their behalf. These periods of indentured labour can be unbearably long: one young Sudanese man MOAS rescued had been captured by a militia and was forced into heavy construction work for two long years before he could finally escape.

Sexual Violence

Women and girls transiting Libya face repeated sexual abuse – characterised by the OHCHR as being ‘extremely violent’ – with women and girls often being repeatedly raped during their time in Libya, particularly when being held in ‘connection houses’ while being moved place to place by smugglers and traffickers.  Many of the women and girls MOAS rescues are survivors of abuse and trafficking; we have told some of their stories in a recent blog on human trafficking. Such violence also extends to men and boys, with the OHCHR finding evidence of sexual exploitation and rape among male refugees and migrants.

It is against the backdrop of such dire conditions and 2016’s unprecedented death toll that MOAS is calling for the creation of safe and legal routes through the establishment of humanitarian corridors. As a humanitarian organisation, MOAS believes that human rights and the dignity and safety of all persons must be at the heart of any strategy to regularise the ongoing movement of people, and to tackle smuggling and exploitation.

Focus on: Syrian community in Libya

In September 2016, MOAS conducted a field visit to Libya, where they met members of the Syrian community. While the UNHCR has almost 27,000 Syrian refugees registered in Libya, the Syrian National Council estimates that the true figure is closer to 100,000.

MOAS found that the Syrian community was being specifically targeted for kidnappings and extortion, due to a perception that they are wealthier than many of the other migrant communities present in Libya. Male heads of households described being abducted multiple times in within a year, while many families reported no access to education and healthcare. Together with the constant threat of kidnapping, the lack of a safe future for their children has forced many families to consider attempting the deadly sea crossing to Europe.

Ahmed, a 67-year-old Syrian man who has been living in Libya for more than 20 years, had been kidnapped two months before MOAS researchers met him, having been carjacked and taken from a busy street in Tripoli. He was beaten heavily over several days, until his kidnappers were certain that he had no relatives able to pay ransom money for his release. They took his car and all the money he had on his person before freeing him. It took several weeks for Ahmed to recover from his injuries.

Saleh and his family had lived in Libya for 7 years, establishing a successful restaurant before escalating violence made him increasingly fearful for his family’s safety. When in September 2016 the MOAS crew pulled him and his family from an overcrowded dinghy, he told us that before deciding to attempt the sea crossing he had been so frightened that his wife and children would be kidnapped that they had not left the house in over 8 months.

For all the MOAS news and updates, sign up to our newsletter at the bottom of this page, and support our rescue missions by giving whatever you can to help us save lives at sea.