A survey by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) found that almost 60 per cent of migrants in Libya intended the oil-rich country to be their final destination, with less than a third of almost 2,000 interviewed wanting to travel onwards to Italy, France and Germany.
Chaos and violence reigns in Libya, more than five years after Britain and allies mounted a military intervention against Muammar Gaddafi, leaving the country divided between a fragile government, Isis and more than 1,700 separate armed groups all locked a bloody contest for control.
Migrants and refugees are frequently kidnapped by gangs in exchange for ransoms, being beaten and tortured in squalid makeshift prisons, while others are detained in labour camps or forced into prostitution until they pay their way out.
With routes out of Libya controlled by militias and many borders closed, the only escape is flimsy rubber boats sent into the Mediterranean Sea by smugglers who threaten to shoot anyone attempting to resist being packed into the overcrowded dinghies.
Flavio di Giacomo, an IOM spokesman in Italy, said the proportion of migrants arriving in Europe who say they never intended to reach the continent has increased dramatically since last year.
“Growing numbers of migrants are telling us that they didn’t want to come to Europe when they left their home countries but got caught up in the violence and fighting and torture in Libya,” he told The Independent.
“They don’t have any choice to save their lives other than to get a boat to Europe.
“Some left their homes because they were fleeing conflict, the regime or persecution, but even economic migrants in Libya become vulnerable because they are all victims of human rights abuses.”
Now the dominant route to Europe, the passage between Libya and Italy has become the deadliest in the world, claiming the vast majority of almost 4,700 lives lost in attempted sea crossings so far this year.
The death rate in the Mediterranean Sea is the highest ever recorded, with hundreds of migrants drowning in a succession of disasters last week alone, as boats continue to be launched in worsening winter weather.
“Some of the migrants arriving [last week] told us they didn’t want to leave because of the conditions and they were forced by the smugglers,” Mr di Giacomo added.
“It’s clear that they don’t really care if the migrants survive or not but launching the boats in these conditions, it is likely they will die, so it’s very cruel.
“Rescuers are carrying out an outstanding job but it’s impossible to save them all in these conditions.”
Earlier this month, The Independent joined the largest humanitarian ship in the Mediterranean to observe its search and rescue operations as hundreds of flimsy dinghies continue to be launched from the Libyan coast.
Of the 868 migrants and refugees taken aboard the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Bourbon Argos in just 10 hours of rescues, many said they had not set out to start a new life in Europe.
The majority of asylum seekers The Independent met did not know or care where they were going, overcome by relief over escaping Libya. Not one person interviewed intended to come to the UK.
“Not everyone wants to go to Europe,” said Didi, a 33-year-old Nigerian woman. “Some of them want to go home, but there’s no way back.”
Refugees who have survived labour camps have given horrific accounts of beatings and torture including gang rape, as well as disease and starvation killing detainees who face death if they attempt to escape.
One of the men taken aboard the Bourbon Argos had a bullet wound in his leg that had fractured the bone in two places. He was shot just six days before the rescue while trying to flee a detention centre, narrowly escaping with his life.
Leaving Libya via land is not considered an option, with widespread reports of border guards and militias shooting those trying to get out, and gangs stealing passports and documents to make legal travel impossible.
A Nigerian woman told researchers from the Unravelling the Mediterranean Migration Crisis (Medmig) project she saw a border guard pour petrol on a migrant and set him on fire, adding: “You cannot get out of Libya alive. You have to give your money to someone and hope they will take you. They tell you, you must take the boat.”
Analysts say the desperate situation is making attempts to separate “economic migrants” from “refugees” increasingly obsolete as those who originally have set out for work become victims of violence and persecution.
Marta Foresti, interim executive director of the Overseas Development Institute, said the situation was further complicated by changing decisions on routes to Europe that can take months or even years.
“The idea that migrants and refugees leave their homes to journey to Europe is not the majority,” she told The Independent.
“People who gain vulnerability because of the journey itself get trapped by this increasingly negative label of ‘economic migrants’.
“The whole idea about these two categories of refugees and migrants is becoming increasingly unhelpful – most people arriving are something of a mix between the two.”
Those being pushed out of Libya are mainly from African countries including Nigeria, Eritrea and Guinea, but a similar pattern has been seen with asylum seekers crossing from Greece, who say they remain at risk from persecution in the world’s largest refugee-hosting countries including Turkey and Lebanon.
But with the route over the Aegean Sea virtually closed by the controversial EU-Turkey deal struck in March, the dominant route is now the Central Mediterranean, and through Libya.
Tim Eaton, a research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, said the situation was unlikely to get better in the short term and could soon get worse.
Libya’s new Government of National Accord is still not recognised by some of the country’s most powerful forces who still control swathes of territory, he said, as sporadic battles continue between an estimated 1,700 different armed groups.
Major pro and anti-government militias are due to come into contact when Isis is driven out of its stronghold of Sirte, potentially triggering a new phase of the civil war within weeks.
“Each of the blocs feels that they can continue to fight and win, so while that continues there’s no chance of a deal,” Mr Eaton said, saying a lack of planning by a Nato-led coalition that launched air strikes in support of Libyan rebels in 2011 contributed to the ensuing chaos.
A Parliamentary report released earlier this year blamed David Cameron for the breakdown in order, described by Barack Obama as a “s***show”, but the UK has refused to resettle refugees fleeing to Italy according to a quota system and is expected to turn down asylum claims for many African migrants detained and tortured in Libya.
Steve Symonds, the refugee and migrant rights programme director at Amnesty UK, said that with no authority able to police the abuses and Libyan security services frequently accused themselves, an estimated 250,000 trapped migrants remain at risk from all sides.
“What governments in Europe, including ours, need to realise is that the idea of increased efforts to stop people getting out of that place, or returning people to that place, is an appallingly inhumane response,” he added.
“Part of what’s fuelling of that internal conflict is the exploitation of these people, is the money made by exploiting them, by ransoming them, by extorting them.
“Pushing people back into that situation – what is it doing? It’s just providing more human fodder to be exploited and continue the horror that is Libya.”
A spokesperson for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said it has allocated £10m for the new Libyan government this year to rebuild the economy and defeat Isis and criminal gangs, as well as deploying the Royal Navy on anti-smuggling missions.
“After four decades of Gaddafi misrule, Libya undoubtedly faces huge challenges and the UK continues to play a leading role within the international community to support the internationally recognised Libyan Government of National Accord,” he said.
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