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The UK Is Accused of ‘Trapping’ Thousands of Refugees in Libya, Leaving Them Vulnerable to ‘Exploitation and Abuse’

Santi Palacios/AP

The British government has been accused by human rights leaders of “trapping” people in dangerous conditions in Libya, after encouraging the country’s coast guard to “secure their own borders.” 

Leaders of groups like Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders have spoken out, insisting that Libya sealing its borders to prevent people travelling to Europe is not the answer. 

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson visited Tripoli on Wednesday, in his second trip to the country in recent months.

Read more: France to Open Refugee ‘Hotspots’ in Libya to Process Asylum Requests

“Libya is the front line for many challenges which, left unchecked, can pose problems for us in the UK — particularly illegal migration and the threat from terrorism,” he said.

“That’s why it is so important that we work with the Libyan government and our partners to help bring stability to Libya, stopping it from becoming a fertile ground for terrorists, gun runners, and people traffickers in close proximity to Europe,” he said. 

Johnson vowed to support the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) to “reduce the number of illegal migrants heading for Europe.” 

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But critics say that in ramping up efforts to stop people crossing the Mediterranean, the UK is effectively sealing people into a country where they are vulnerable to “exploitation and abuse.”

A UN report from July found that around half of those people travelling to Libya — from across Africa, as well as Syria and Palestine, among other countries — do so believing they can find jobs there. 

But, the UN report states, they “end up fleeing onwards to Europe to escape life-threatening insecurity, instability, difficult economic conditions, plus widespread exploitation and abuse.” 

As the situation in Libya has grown more dangerous, and Europe has refused to accept all of the refugees trying to enter, many are stuck in threatening circumstances.

Global Citizen campaigns to stand with and support refugees, and to create a world that is open, equal, and fair, for all people. You can take action here .

Read more: Spain’s Coast Guard Just Rescued More Than 600 Migrants in 24 Hours

The UK has also announced a £9 million aid package this week, which has been welcomed by humanitarian organisations, to help improve conditions for refugees and migrants, and to help fight terrorism.

The £9 million aid package includes £4 million to remove improvised explosive devices from areas where ISIS have been pushed back; £1 million towards a fund for critical infrastructure; £2.75 million for supporting women’s participation in peacemaking and £1.3 million in support for food and healthcare for refugees, reported The Guardian .

But it is the attempt to stop people leaving Libya that charity bosses are concerned about, warning that simply securing borders is not a solution to the suffering of men, women, and children who have arrived there.

Read more: Up to 50 Young Migrants From Africa Were Purposefully Drowned by Smugglers, UN Says

Fionna Smyth, Oxfam’s head of humanitarian campaigns, said that while the aid package for people travelling through Libya is welcome, blocking people who are trying to flee is not an effective solution. 

“Aid for people travelling through Libya is welcome — but Britain should be helping them to find safety, not trapping them in a country where they face violence and abuse,” Smyth said in a statement.

The UN has made repeated warnings about the atrocious conditions that migrants and refugees face in Libya, which makes any attempt to forcibly return asylum-seekers to Libya from international waters a violation of international law, reported The Independent .

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An Oxfam report earlier this month found that refugees and migrants in Libya face kidnap, rape, torture, slave labour, and sexual violence.

Of the 31 women questioned in the report, all but one had suffered sexual violence, with men also speaking of experiences of rape. 

A shocking 75% of the people interviewed also said they had witnessed the murder and/or torture of a travelling companion. 

Read more: This Syrian Refugee Named Her Baby Girl After Angela Merkel

In their efforts to flee Libya and reach Europe, more than 2,400 men, women, and children have drowned so far this year while attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

Libya has faced widespread lawlessness since the British-backed removal of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, following which the country became divided between two main rival governments and countless warring militias.

In recent weeks, the topic of migrants and refugees making the journey from Libya into Europe has become highly controversial.

Read more: Doctors Without Borders Ceases Migrant Rescues as Italy Toughens Regulations

The Libyan coastguard has been reacting increasingly violently to the presence of NGOs operating sea rescue missions in the area.

NGOs, including Doctors Without Borders (MSF), have had to withdraw from the search and rescue missions for fear of their safety. 

“What Boris Johnson notably fails to mention is the multiple occasions — as recent as last week — on which the UK-trained Libyan coastguard has threatened, or even fired upon, NGO search and rescue vessels operating in international waters,” said the MSF UK head of programmes, Andre Heller-Perache, reported the Independent. 

“This shows that the British government is happy to sweep the appalling human cost of its deterrence policies on migration under the carpet — anything to make this someone else’s problem.”