More than 20,000 migrants, including pregnant women and babies, are being held either in detention centers or by traffickers in Libya's people-smuggling hub Sabratha, the United Nations said yesterday, warning of abuse "on a shocking scale".
The U.N. refugee agency said Libyan authorities were holding more than 14,500 migrants who had previously been kept captive by smugglers in and around Sabratha, to the west of Tripoli.
The migrants were discovered in farms, houses and warehouses in and around the coastal city after a force allied with Libya's U.N.-backed unity government drove out a rival militia earlier this month.
They have been taken to a hangar in the city and are gradually being transferred to official detention centers where aid organizations are providing assistance, UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic said.
Authorities also estimate that another 6,000 people are still being held by smugglers, bringing the total number held to around 20,500, Mahecic told reporters in Geneva.
Following the ouster and killing of strongman Muammar Qaddafi in a NATO-backed 2011 revolution, Sabratha became a major hub for migrants seeking a chance to head to Europe.
Taking advantage of a security vacuum, some local smugglers took control of whole sections of the city and even built their own landing piers, equipped to launch dozens of migrant boats a day.
Mahecic said UNHCR staff working on the ground with those previously held by the people smugglers had described a "picture of human suffering and abuse on a shocking scale."
"Amongst the refugees and migrants who suffered abuse at the hands of smugglers, there are pregnant women and new-born babies," he said, adding that hundreds of people were found without clothes or shoes while hundreds said they had not eaten for days when they were found.
Many of them require urgent medical care, Mahecic said, adding that some had suffered bullet wounds while most said they had been subject to abuse, including sexual violence and forced labor.
UNHCR also warned there was "a worrying number of unaccompanied and separated children, many under the age of six."
The agency said the official detention centers and assembly points were overflowing, and often lacked water tanks and sanitation facilities. Many people, including children, are being forced to sleep out in the open.
While smugglers had committed the worst abuse against the migrants, the UN has previously warned of "extremely bad" conditions in Libyan detention centers.
Until recently, Libya has been a major launching off point for migrants, most of them from African countries, trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. But the number of attempted crossings has dropped off dramatically, since Libya's coastguard received European Union funding and training to stop smugglers taking migrants to the water.