Refugee survivors of sexual abuse find help in Rwanda
Rescued from Libyan detention centres and evacuated to Rwanda, survivors of horrific torture and rape are receiving the help they need to start to heal.
Eritrean refugee Samrawit* braids her friend's hair at the UNHCR Emergency Transit Centre in Gashora, Rwanda. © UNHCR/Alissa Everett
Samrawit* gazes into the distance as a light breeze ruffles the shawl around her face. She hugs herself tightly as a gust of wind blows in from Lake Mirayi in eastern Rwanda.
The 20-year-old Eritrean refugee’s current surroundings are peaceful and relaxed – a far cry from the horrors she endured while in captivity in the hands of smugglers in Libya, where she was tortured, beaten and raped for almost two years.
“I can’t handle the memory of what I experienced in Libya,” she says softly. “I get very stressed sometimes because of what I went through.”
Samrawit was evacuated to Rwanda last October, alongside 123 other refugees who had been in Libya. Around 258 asylum seekers – mostly Eritreans, Somalis and Sudanese – are currently accomodated in Gashora transit centre, some 55 kilometres from the capital, Kigali.
Samrawit left Eritrea following the departure of a close relative who fled military conscription, afraid for his life. With no family left in the country, she felt threatened and, facing the likelihood of forced recruitment herself, she decided to flee. On her search for safety, she was abducted and taken by human traffickers to a town in Sudan, near the border with Libya.
“First they took us by force, and second they raped us,” she says, crying softly. “They threatened us with knives. How could I save myself?”
Samrawit was held for two months in a traffickers’ camp in Kufra, in south-east Libya, where her captors initially demanded US$6,000 for her freedom. She was bought and sold by different groups of traffickers and smugglers, before finally ending up in Bani Walid, in the north-west, where she was held for a further eight months.
Her eyes fill with tears as she recalls the dreadful conditions captives faced there.
“They did terrible things.”
“It was so crowded, you had to sleep on your side,” she says. “They fed us one plate of plain, undercooked macaroni a day. We were always hungry.”
She adds that they barely had enough water and the toilets were dismal.
“It was so dirty and so bad, especially for the women, because during our periods we could not wash up.”
She adds that the traffickers would demand money and then beat and torture them.
“They did terrible things. They would beat us with rubber pipes and rape the women in the open or under cars,” she says.
Samrawit wrings her hands as she recalls how they would torture the male captives.
“They would melt plastic and burn their hands and sometimes they would tie them and plunge their heads underwater.”
Samrawit holds a crucifix – her only remaining possession from home – at the UNHCR Emergency Transit Centre in Gashora, Rwanda. © UNHCR/Alissa Everett
Samrawit survived an attempt to cross the Mediterranean on a boat which sank before she was returned to Libya then finally evacuated by UNHCR to Rwanda’s Emergency Transit Centre. © UNHCR/Alissa Everett
In her search for safety, Samrawit was taken by traffickers, tortured and raped multiple times. Her family was forced to pay a ransom for her release. © UNHCR/Alissa Everett
Samrawit and other refugees at UNHCR’s Emergency Transit Centre in Gashora, Rwanda receive counselling and psychosocial support. © UNHCR/Alissa Everett
A report published by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the Mixed Migration Centre at the Danish Refugee Council, titled ‘On this journey, no one cares if you live or die,’ details how hundreds of refugees and migrants are dying each year on desperate journeys from West and East Africa towards and through Libya and Egypt.
Thousands more endure extreme human rights abuses and violations, including killings, torture, extortion, sexual violence and forced labour at the hands of smugglers, traffickers, militias and some State authorities.
In a list of recommendations, UNHCR and MMC are calling on states to do far more to identify and protect survivors of abuses on the routes and to hold the perpetrators of these acts accountable, including through criminal prosecutions and sanctions.
Samrawit was forced to reach out to her extended family, who in turn contacted her elder brother. Together, they raised a total of US$12,000 which covered her ransom and secured a space on a boat to Europe.
As she speaks, she tugs absentmindedly at a colourful bracelet on her wrist.
“I got this from a friend in Libya. He made it for me,” she says, adding that he remained in one of the detention centres. “I really worry about him because I know how bad the situation is back there.”
She recounts vividly how last July, the smugglers finally took 350 of them to the Mediterranean coast to attempt the crossing to Europe.
“We left at midnight and after a few hours the boat started to sink,” she says.
About 150 people died in the incident – one of the deadliest shipwrecks in recent years. Out of all the survivors, only four were women, including Samrawit.
“Luckily, I was able to swim but I can’t really say it’s because of this I survived. It’s God who saved me,” she says, adding that she swam for over eight hours, ending up back on the Libyan shore.
They were found there by the Libyan authorities and eventually held in an official detention centre to which UNHCR had access.
- See also: UNHCR stresses urgent need for States to end unlawful detention of refugees and asylum-seekers, amidst COVID-19 pandemic
Tired, scared, dirty and hungry, they were registered by UNHCR and given first aid. They were then taken through an assessment process to identify those most vulnerable. Due to the limited number of available evacuation and resettlement places, efforts are usually made to prioritise those most in need, often including unaccompanied children, survivors of torture and other abuses and people in need of urgent medical treatment.
“We identify their needs and link them with social workers for counselling.”
Samrawit was among those identified as highly vulnerable and evacuated to Rwanda where UNHCR and partner agencies provide life-saving assistance, including food, water, medical care, psychosocial support and accommodation.
Margaret Mahoro, an education and livelihoods coordinator with the American Refugee Committee, a UNHCR partner, outlines why this support is critical.
“We identify their needs and link them with social workers for counselling,” she explains. “Where they need special treatment, we refer them to doctors, including psychiatrists.”
The evacuees have been given asylum-seeker status in Rwanda as their cases are assessed and further solutions are pursued.
Since December 2018, UNHCR has evacuated nearly 2,000 refugees and asylum seekers from Libya. Some 2,500 refugees and migrants remain extremely vulnerable inside official detention centres.
Since her arrival, Samrawit has spoken to her brother twice and assured him of her safety.
“I am relieved because I didn’t get pregnant or get a sexually transmitted disease,” she says of her long ordeal. “There’s a big difference now. It’s like the distance between heaven and earth.”
While she hopes to be reunited with her brother, she is focusing on her healing and has taken up English classes and is considering a sewing course.
“I need to occupy my mind instead of worrying and remembering the bad things that happened,” she says.
Samrawit was resettled to Sweden, as part of UNHCR’s resettlement programme for highly vulnerable refugees.
*Name changed for protection reasons.