African refugees who were refused entry by Italy had been held by smugglers for up to two years in Libya and many had been beaten, tortured and raped, according to the UN migration agency.
The migrants were found stranded in the Mediterranean on 15 August and were subsequently rescued, but endured a 10-day-wait while Italy’s anti-immigrant government refused to let them disembark. They were allowed to leave after Ireland, Albania and the Vatican agreed to accept them.
At the time, Italy’s far-right interior minister threatened to send the refugees “back to Africa” if no European solution was found.
Staff of the UN International Organization for Migration (IOM) gathered testimonies from the 150 refugees, the majority of whom were Eritreans and Somalis.
All of the refugees suffered from malnourishment and exhaustion, saying they were held in Libya against their will for up to two years, IOM spokesman Joel Millman told a UN briefing in Geneva.
“In Libya they complained that many had been beaten and tortured by smugglers and traffickers seeking ransom money from their families in their countries of origin,” he said.
“Italian doctors who attended all the women … reported that many of them said they had been raped while in Libya.”
He added that IOM suspects thousands of other migrants are still being detained in Libya, being held in safehouses or warehouses. In spite of this, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get them to safety because of violence in the west of Libya.
Italy’s new government, formed by the League and the populist Five Star Movement after elections in March, has set a goal of zero migrant arrivals in Italian ports.
The increasingly hostile stance reflects hardening public opinion towards migrants in Italy and elsewhere in Europe following the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war or poverty in Africa and the Middle East.