“What Libya’s become today, that was already well-known…”. Then there’s also this: “Terrible things are happening, but after all they were already known.”. And so on and so forth. These are the types of statements that various representatives of the Italian Government and Parliament used in reaction to the strong position taken by Zeid Raad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Commissioner had underscored the horror of Libyan detention centers, contested the European Union’s migration policy and particularly condemned the agreement between Rome and Tripoli aimed at stopping boats from crossing the Mediterranean to Italy. “It’s inhuman – Zeid Raad said – this choice of the EU to assist Libyan authorities in intercepting migrants in the Mediterranean and bring them back to terrifying prisons in Libya. The suffering of migrants detained in Libya is an outrage to the conscience of humanity.” In the very same hours, confirmation of this living hell came from a CNN report which documented an auction of refugees for sale as slaves, as numerous asylum seekers in Italy had recounted to NGOs and humanitarian workers in recent months. Many Italian politicians, however, reacted to the disturbing images on CNN in mostly the same way: “Already well-known…”. In other words, there was no backing away, rather a near self-absolution and further support of Libya. Indeed, it is no coincidence that major Libyan newspapers – such as Libya Herald and Libyan Express – ran headlines like this: “Italy defends Libya against UN Accusations of Inhumane Agreement of Migrants”.

So, it was “already known”. Of course the situation was already well-known. In addition to the reports and press statements that have come out for years from NGOs like Doctors Without Borders, Amnesty, Doctors for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch, there have also been numerous reports issued by international institutions. Here are some examples from just the last twelve months.

– Mid-December 2016. Following long and in-depth field investigations, the UN Mission report leaves no room for doubts. The majority of the 34 detention centers are concentration camps in which abuse, torture, forced work and all sorts of violence are everyday occurrences. Smugglers are often free to do as they please with complicity of government and police officials at all levels. This living hell is even more hellish for women. The risk of women being captured and raped is so high that many women and girls, who are fleeing from terrible conditions in their home countries, take massive doses of birth control for months before entering Libya so that they can at least try to avoid getting pregnant. However, this can often cause irreversible injuries, as many doctors in Italy have confirmed.

– March 2017. The International Criminal Court opens an investigation into the horrors migrants endure in Libya. Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensousa, a Gambian magistrate, announced the news officially during an audience at the UN Security Council. “My office – she stated – is gathering evidence on crimes perpetrated against migrants in Libya, which has become a market for human trafficking. Rape, homicide and acts of torture are daily occurrences, according to credible sources. I am completely shocked by this information. Thousands of migrants, including women and children, are being detained in inhuman conditions all over the country.”

– May 2017. A few days after Fatou Bensousa’s audition at the UN, Italian spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Flavio Di Giacomo, remarked on the same horrors in an interview given to the La Stampa newspaper: “We have news of unspeakable violence: rape and torture, migrants forced to bury injured migrants alive… And this is racial violence because all of the victims are people of color.” Physical confirmation of these and other similar denouncements comes as the signs of torture, scars and painful lesions on the bodies of many refugees that manage to land it to Europe. In addition, there is the high percentage of young women who get pregnant after being raped during their long travels towards Europe, generally raped by guards in detention camps.

– April-May 2017. Two IOM reports denounce an actual slave market fed by human traffickers who can count on a nearly infinite number of migrants. Auctions are carried out in clear daylight, in one of the main squares of Sabha, the capital of Fezzan. This is where many of the roads and routes from Sudan, Chad and Niger meet, and where roads start heading north to the Mediterranean. In the city’s suburbs – as other sources report – there is an enormous detention center that acts as a base camp for a major human smuggler. It is a sort of fortress with high walls and barbed wire, and it is watched over day and night by armed militants. The first report dates to the beginning of April. The city council of Sabha tried to contest the report by saying that it was based only on the testimony of “irregular African migrants” who told these horrors of being sold into slavery to gain the pity of IOM workers and obtain international protection. Not only did IOM maintain their point, but they published an even more detailed second report in mid-May that was substantiated by the testimony of many migrants from Nigeria, Ghana and Gambia who entered Libya through Niger. “According to what those who were able to save themselves reported to the IOM– the Libyan Express reports – hundreds of migrants who were captured along the routes to North Africa are easily bought and sold in a modern-day slave market.”

The story told by a young Senegalese man, who was able to reconstruct facts with extreme precision, is particularly striking. He bought a 320-dollar ticket from a “pass through” who took him across the desert from Agadez to Libya. He arrived in Sabha packed onto a pick-up overloaded with young men like him. He was then taken directly to an open area where an auction of human beings was already going on: “Sub-Saharan migrants – he recounted – were bought and sold by Libyans, with the help of Ghanaians and Nigerians who work for them.”

May 2017. After visiting some of the detention centers in Tripoli, Filippo Grandi, UN Commissar for Refugees, is shocked by the harsh conditions thousands of refugees and migrants are forced into: “Children, women and men who have already suffered so much should not be forced to still bear such grave suffering.” They revealed what “such grave suffering” was more explicitly in the following weeks and months in long, detailed and precise reports published by Doctors without Borders on September 7, with the addition of a direct “summarizing” letter to Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni; and then by Doctors for Human Rights on October 2, the result of an investigation focusing particularly on centers in Tripoli, Sabha, Gharyan, Beni Walid, Zawiya and Sabratha.

September 2017. The Council of Europe, through Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muiznieks, asks Minister Marco Minniti for clarification on the agreement with Libya, observing that “even when a country has difficulty dealing with migrant flows, it has the duty to protect and respect their human rights.” Moreover, referring to the numerous reports on the situation in Libya, it is noted that, “delivering people to the Libyan authorities and other groups in Libya would expose them to the real risk of torture or inhuman and degrading treatment”. And it is no coincidence that the European Court of Human Rights had already been sentenced Italy in 2012 for delivering a large number of migrants to the Libyans. The Interior Ministry’s answer is that “Neither Italian ships nor ships collaborating with the Italian Coast Guard have ever sent migrants rescued at sea back to Libya”. That is true. But that’s not the point. The point is that the essence of the agreement between Rome and Tripoli reveals, in fact, a sort of “contract” with the Libyan Coast Guard to do “delivery work”. That is, an “indirect delivery” of refugees to Libya, where they often become slaves subjected to all kinds of violence and sold as every commodity.

October 2017. The Assembly Court of Milan acknowledges that detention centers in Libya are places where every right, even the most basic, is violated: they are places of torture and constant violation of human dignity. This is the profound discovery from the conviction of a Somali trafficker “operating” in the Beni Walid camp who arrived in Italy disguised a refugee and was arrested after some of his victims recognized him: an accusation against the agreements between Rome and Tripoli. The trial revealed, in fact, the reality of torture, rape and murder in Libyan detention centers, compared to the Nazi regime by the public prosecutor. The reality is that migrants are trapped by the policies of closure and deportation implemented by Italy with the collaboration of Libya.

But it’s not only about the centers. Just like the suffering in detention centers, the behavior of the Libyan Navy is also well known. It is no coincidence that in July 2017 the International Criminal Court’s investigation into human rights violations in Libyan prisons extended to the Tripoli Coast Guard, the most direct “collaborator” with Italian foreign border policy. The reason for widening the investigation is the fact that what happens on the ground and at sea are closely linked. “It is increasingly evident – the Corriere della Sera says – that what is happening on the mainland is a direct consequence of what is happening at sea, where the Coast Guard intercepts the migrants and brings them back to end up, precisely, in the infamous detention centers”, using methods of unimaginable violence. The list of examples is infinite. Here are some of the most significant:

October 2013. The shootout and subsequent sinking, a few hours later, of a boat loaded with Syrian refugees 60 miles from Lampedusa. Over 260 victims.

August 2013. Boarding on and shooting the Bourbon Argos ship, set up by Doctors Without Borders, which was heading to Africa to help the migrant boats.

October 21, 2016. Boarding on a dinghy loaded with refugees, violence, beatings, threats, and gunshots fired by the crew of a motorboat while a rescue operation is underway by SeaWatch2. 30 dead.

February 2017. Migrants swindled by men from the Libyan Coast Guard to take them from an inflatable boat in international waters. The scene is documented by Doctors Without Borders by video.

May 17, 2017. A patrol boat rams into a Sea Watch ship, in an attempt to cut them off and prevent them from providing assistance to a boatload of refugees in need.

May 24, 2017. Shots fired into in the air and threats made against the Doctors Without Borders Aquarius ship that was in the process of assisting sinking boats.

May 26, 2017. Libyan navy unit shoots at Italian Coast Guard patrol boat, and then moves away quickly. That evening, Tripoli’s command “apologizes”, asserting that it was a mistake: the Italian ship was thought to be a trafficker’s boat. There are no noted official protests from Rome. And yet, the episode demonstrates the “rules of engagement ” that have been granted to the Libyan navy, including their “easy” use of assault rifles.

August 8 and 15, 2017. The Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms charges that their unit suffered threats accompanied by gunshots in the air by a Libyan motorboat during a rescue operation.

November 6, 2017. A Libyan motorboat crew forcefully obstructs the intervention of Sea Watch 3, which had received an emergency call from the Italian Coast Guard to rescue an inflatable boat with nearly 150 migrants on board, about to sink 30 miles from the African coast, in international waters. In the end there are at least 40 victims.

The Italian government and politicians have settled for all of this with a shrug of their shoulders, accepting the “well-known” as seen in the CNN documentary and in the arguments cited by High Commissioner Onu Zeid Raad Al Hussein when he defined EU decisions on migrants, particularly the Rome-Tripoli agreement, as “inhumane”. “Well-known” and, therefore, no need to rethink the choices made: the agreement with Libya remains in place and continues on. “Well-known”. Of course, these things are already known. And that’s the point. If the government knows – and they can’t pretend they don’t – that locking down the Mediterranean would trap thousands of migrants in Libya condemning them to a never-ending hell, yet they still don’t choose an alternative and even continue to provide Tripoli with the means and funding to make the walls of Fortress Europe more and more insurmountable, then “well-known” becomes not an excuse but an admission of responsibility. An admission to be brought before a court of law.

Emilio Drudi

From Tempi Moderni


Translation from Italian by Peter Luntz and Liane Arter