The Deadliest Journey

March 1, 2017

Thousands of women and children fleeing violence and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa are being abused, exploited and arbitrarily detained in Libya. 


Fleeing war and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, thousands of women and children set off each year on the perilous trek across the desert to the shores of Libya, where they hope to cross the Mediterranean into Europe for a chance at a brighter future.

Much has been made of the extreme dangers faced at sea. But for many, the journey stalls in a miserable Libyan detention center, where they are beaten, sexually abused, and indefinitely detained, sometimes for ransom. 

Detention center in Libya, where child migrants are detained.

Up to 720 people at a time are held in this detention center formerly used as a dining hall for weddings. © UNICEF/UN052825/Romenzi

The Central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Europe is "among the world's deadliest and most dangerous migrant routes for children and women," said Afshan Khan, UNICEF regional director and special coordinator for the refugee and response crises in Europe. "The route is mostly controlled by smugglers, traffickers and other people seeking to prey on desperate children and women who are simply seeking refuge or a better life."

Refugees face sexual violence, exploitation and abuse

Of the 256,000 migrants estimated in Libya, 23,000 are children. One-third of the children are believed to be unaccompanied. Three-quarters of the refugee and migrant children interviewed by UNICEF for a new report said they have experienced brutality or harassment at the hands of adults at some point during their journey, while nearly half the women interviewed reported sexual abuse along the way — often more than once, at multiple locations. 

Child migrants escaping sub-Saharan Africa are detained in Libya.

Migrants who are held in cells said they are rarely allowed out. "The government does not give us the money to pay salaries and to pay those who bring us food," said detention center manager Abdalhamad Altunisa. "So often we do not have enough food or drinking water. This winter was particularly cold and in recent weeks 15 migrants froze to death." © UNICEF/UN052608/Romenz

Security is precarious and violence is commonplace in Libya. Militia groups control border crossings and hold migrants for exploitation in unofficial detention centers that are "no more than forced labor camps... and makeshift prisons," according to the UNICEF report. "For the thousands of migrant women and children incarcerated, they were living hellholes where people were held for months at a time... in squalid, cramped conditions."

"They beat us ... Many are dying in this place." 

After his parents were murdered by Boko Haram militants, 15-year-old Jon fled Nigeria and headed north in search of safety. For the past seven months, he has lived in a crowded, dangerous Libyan detention facility.

"They beat us. They think of us as if we are slaves," said Jon. "They flog us with a pipe. We are always inside the room. We never come out. People are dying. Many are dying in this place." 

Watch Jon tell his story here:

Aza, jobless and unable to feed her children, left Nigeria in search of work and a brighter future for her family.  For five months, they lived in the Sabratha detention facility.

"In Sabratha, they used to beat us every day.... They beat babies, children and adults. There was no food and no water," Aza's 9-year-old daughter Kamis recalled. "Before we left Nigeria, I told my mother, 'I want to be a doctor.' My mother answered, 'Don't worry. When we reach Italy, you will be a doctor.'"

The family is still trapped in a Libyan detention center. 

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