The Italian coast guard on Tuesday rescued some 4,500 people who left Libya in rickety boats for Europe, as reports emerged of the horrific treatment migrants and refugees face at the hands of traffickers, militias and militants.
The coast guard said it had coordinated more than 30 rescue operations on Tuesday, which were carried out by its own ship Diciotti, Italian navy ships, vessels working for EU border agency Frontex and humanitarian organisations.
Nearly 70,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea so far this year, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said.
Arrivals are less than last year, but the number of deaths on the perilous route has increased. Over 2440 people have died in 2016, nearly 1000 more than the same period last year. Ten women were found dead in the bottom of a rubber boat last week.
It came as an Eritrean whistleblower and former people smuggler claimed in interviews with Italian police that African migrants who cannot pay the ticket for passage to Europe are being sold for $15,000 to Egyptians who harvest their organs.
The informant started collaborating with the police after 360 migrants drowned of Lampedusa in 2013 and provided information which led to 23 arrests on Tuesday. “I was told that the people who can’t pay are given to Egyptians who kill them to take their organs and sell them in Egypt for $15,000,” he said to investigators. “The Egyptians come equipped to remove the organ and transport it in insulated bags.”
Organ harvesting has been reported in the Sinai region of Egypt for years. Bedouin tribesmen allegedly kidnap sub-saharan African migrants for ransom, often torturing them until their families send money, or harvesting their organs to sell to wealthy Gulf Arabs.
Although the whistleblower’s reports could not be independently verified, his claims came just days after Amnesty International revealed horrific torture and abuse migrants travelling through Libya to reach Europe face, including torture, forced conversion, rape and sexual slavery.
The Amnesty report released 1 July, features interviews with 90 migrants, who had travelled across the Mediterranean in the past few months and are currently being held at reception centres in Puglia and Sicily.
“From being abducted, incarcerated underground for months and sexually abused by members of armed groups, to being beaten, exploited or shot at by people smugglers, traffickers or criminal gangs – refugees and migrants have described in harrowing detail the horrors they were forced to endure in Libya,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, Interim Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.
“Their experiences paint a terrifying picture of the conditions many of those who come to Europe are so desperate to escape.”
IOM estimates there are over 264,000 migrants and refugees currently in Libya. According to UNHCR, there are around 37,500 registered refugees and asylum-seekers, half of them Syrians.
Migrants pay smugglers hundreds of dollars to travel into Libya through dangerous desert roads into southern towns like Gatrun, Sebha and Kufra, where they are often kidnapped for ransom or tortured by traffickers. Many from countries like Eritrea, Nigeria and Somalia then travel north and pay even more get on rickety boats to Europe, where they risk perishing at sea.
During these difficult and dangerous journeys migrants suffer rape, torture and even death. Rape was so commonplace that they took contraceptive pills before travelling to avoid becoming pregnant as a result of it, Amnesty wrote.
Migrants that Amnesty spoke to talked about some groups being kidnapped by Islamic State militants, who killed the men and forced the women to convert to Islam, before turning them into sex slaves.
A 22-year-old Eritrean woman said she witnessed other women being sexually abused, including one who was gang-raped because the smuggler wrongly accused her of failing to pay his fee. “Her family couldn’t pay the money again. They took her away and she was raped by five Libyan men. They took her out late at night, no one opposed it, everyone was too afraid,” she said.
Another woman identified as Ramy, 22, from Eritrea said she was raped at gunpoint after she entered Libya in March 2015.
Amal, 21 also from Eritrea, described how the group of 71 people she was travelling with was abducted by an militants believed to be with IS near Benghazi, while they were on their way to Tripoli in July 2015.
“They asked the smuggler why he was helping Christians. He pretended that he didn’t know we were Christians so they let him go. They separated us into Christians and Muslims and then they separated the men and women. They took [the Christians] to Tripoli and kept us underground – we didn’t see the sun for nine months. We were 11 women from Eritrea,” she said.
When the women finally agreed to convert, she said they were treated as sexual slaves. She said she was raped by different men before being assigned to one man, who also raped her.
Traffickers also restrict access to food and water and often hold migrants underground for months, brutally torturing them in order to extract ransom from their families.
Ahmed, an 18-year-old from Somalia, said the smugglers refused to give them water as punishment and even shot at them when they begged for water for a group of Syrian men travelling with them.
“The first Syrian died, he was young, maybe 21 years old. After this they gave us water, but the other Syrian man also died…he was only 19,” he said, adding that the smugglers seized the belongings of the dead men and did not allow them time to bury them.
Paolos, a 24-year-old Eritrean man who travelled through Sudan and Chad and arrived in Libya in April 2016, told how the smugglers abandoned a disabled man in the desert along the way, as they crossed the Libyan border heading to the southern town of Sabha.
“We saw them throw one man [out of the pick-up truck] into the desert. He was still alive. He was a disabled man,” he said.
Amnesty called for the international community to protect vulnerable migrants in Libya and urged the UN-backed unity government to put a halt to the abuses.
“The international community should be doing their utmost to ensure refugees do not need to flee to Libya in the first place. The EU, and indeed governments around the world, should dramatically increase the number of resettlement places and humanitarian visas to vulnerable refugees,” said Mughrabi.
“The Government of National Accord must put a halt to abuses by its own forces and allied militias. And it must ensure that no one, including members of armed groups, can continue to commit serious abuses, including possible war crimes, with impunity,” she added.