“Big, strong boys for farm work,” says the auctioneer. “400. 700? 700.” Last August CNN obtained this footage of a slave market in Libya where men are sold for only a few hundred dollars. Since last April the International Organization for Migration, the UN’s migration agency, has reported slave markets in Libya where human traffickers exploit vulnerable refugees and migrants. The issue garnered international attention in November when the video emerged alongside an exclusive CNN investigation into the system of slave trade inside the Libya.
The 2011 US military intervention in Libya that toppled Muammar al-Qaddafi left the country highly unstable, and arms proliferation among rival factions in 2014 resulted in the outbreak of an ongoing second civil war. Libya is widely considered a failed state. The internationally recognized interim government, the Government for National Accord, still fights for control of the region. As a result, the territory is predominantly lawless. Nonetheless, Libya is a crucial stop on the long journey across the Mediterranean for migrants seeking better prospects and refugees fleeing ongoing droughts, conflict, and instability.
Refugees and migrants frequently sell most if not all of their possessions to pay smugglers to assist them on their journey to Europe. Social media enables migrants to see the lives of friends who have managed to reach Europe and display better living conditions, which further drives flight. Estimates place over 150,000 people crossing through Libya for Europe over each of the past three years. Countries on the Mediterranean coast are struggling to keep up with the influx of refugees. Italy recently began assisting Libya with capturing boats carrying migrants across and turning them back.
With fewer boats able to make the journey across, smugglers have a reserve of migrants inside Libya waiting to make the journey. Smugglers mights sell migrants into slavery or hold them for ransom if they run out of money – or simply because it is profitable. The Director General of NAPTIP (a Nigerian government agency designed to tackle human trafficking) revealed that more than 25 thousand Nigerians have been trapped in Libyan slave and sex camps. In total, an estimated 400 thousand to 1 million people might be trapped there.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights published an op-ed in September about reports pouring in of migrants being “robbed, raped, and murdered in Libya.” Migrants are dying of “thirst, hunger or easily-treated illnesses, some are tortured or beaten to death while working as slave labour, others are just casually murdered.” She criticized the Libyan coast guard for firing at NGO’s attempting to rescue migrants and inconsistent protection of drowning refugees. The President of Médecins Sans Frontières published a similar letter in which she targeted supporters of returning migrants to Libya for their “cynical complicity in the organised business of reducing human beings to merchandise in human traffickers’ hands.”
Despite the horrendous conditions faced by refugees, it’s not clear whether such policies meaningfully deter migration. The Commissioner for Human Rights wrote in September that individuals picked up by the Libyan Coast Guard were not dissuaded from reaching Europe, but instead made more desperate by human rights abuses at the hands of officials in detention facilities. Nonetheless, since the video of slave markets came to light, several countries have increased efforts to repatriate migrants. About 250 migrants were returned to Nigeria towards the end of November. However, it’s unclear how effective these attempts will be in the long term – particularly with the central reasons for migration left unaddressed.
Who is to blame?
The causes of slave markets in Libya are clearly complex and convoluted. However, the issue ultimately boils down to the international community’s inability to solve the issues that spur mass exodus alongside Europe’s fear of African migration.
Years of drought, conflict, terror, and poverty across much of sub-saharan Africa have caused people to flee for their lives. Eritrea, Somalia, and Nigeria are among the most prominent drivers of migration. Eritrea is one of the most secretive nations in the world, but an authoritarian regime, forced labor, and other alleged human rights abuses have made it “one of the fastest-emptying nations in the world.” The terrorist group Boko Haram poses a threat across large swaths of Somalia and Nigeria, and drought across both countries has fueled poverty and food insecurity. Such issues come amidst instability and government corruption that have riddled the region for years. Increasing aid and developing long-term plans to tackle these issues could help stem the flow of migrants, but the United Nations and African Union have struggled to form lasting solutions.
Europe has also forced Libya to be the gatekeeper for their migrant problem. Before Qaddafi’s fall, he used European funds for his regime in exchange for stemming the flow of migrants and did not bother to mask racial motivations, declaring “Europe runs the risk of turning black from illegal immigration.” And that migration could turn Europe “into Africa.” It is this racist and xenophobic rhetoric that drives the EU to endorse policies which turn back migrants and support Libya’s Coast Guard all while condemning the conditions that migrants must endure.