The shocking images of a new form of slavery involving migrant Africans seems to have finally brought the atrocious plight of Africans trapped in Libya to international, and national African attention. But the CNN images show only a small part of the whole story about the conditions that young Africans have to endure on their often fruitless attempts to reach Europe, where even more hardships await them. New African has raised this issue on several occasions and in this month’s Cover Story (found in full in NA’s February print edition) we undertake a deeper investigation into why the situation has become so diabolical, the role of various players, including the EU, and what solutions are possible. Report on EU policy by Tom Collins.
As three African migrants are lined up in a dark room near Triopli, Libya, the words “does anybody need a digger? This is a digger, a big strong man, he’ll dig” are clearly captured by a hand held camera. Next a man in the background is heard bartering a price in Arabic, and the three migrants are sold for a total of $1200. These were the shocking scenes that a CNN video broadcast to the world late last year, documenting how migrants are being sold as slaves in Libya for as little as $400 each. As the situation in Libya grows worse, so too does the rising phenomenon of slavery, and the abuse of African migrants passing through the north-African country in search of a perceived better life.
The world was swift to condemn the footage. Moussi Faki Mahamat, Chairman of the African Union Commission, called the auctions “despicable”. Nigerian President Mohammed Buhari said it was appalling that “some Nigerians were being sold like goats for a few dollars in Libya.” French President Emmanuel Macron called it “a crime against humanity”. Yet after the media hype has subsided sobering questions remain unanswered.
Rather than provide safe, legal passage for migrants and asylum seekers wishing to enter Europe – to escape Libya – the European Union has opted for a strategy of securing its borders and actively working to keep migrants in North Africa or to repatriate them.
The stark reality is that this leaves many stuck in the most appalling conditions and drastically increases dangerous illegal migration routes and smuggling activity.
As anti-immigration sentiment continues to grow in Europe, the European Commission looks unlikely to change its policies any time soon, and instead attempts to help by offering cosmetic aid.
Efforts are being made to improve the conditions of detention centres and increase the capacity of the UN-backed Tripoli government, but meanwhile, severe human rights abuses linger and African migrants are left stranded in Libya as a direct result of European policy.
“There’s a dichotomy in the EU response. On the one hand, they are working to improve detention centres in Libya and they’ve also increased their efforts to help the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, but at the same time, they work with the Libya coast guard to prevent boats [of people] from leaving Libya, and that includes many trying to flee these conditions,” said Raphael Shilhav, EU Migration Policy Advisor for Oxfam.
Indeed, in February 2017, Italy signed an MOU with the UN-backed government, offering economic provisions in exchange for a significant reduction in migration flows. The EU quickly endorsed the agreement in what is known as ‘the Malta Declaration’.
In April, the EU Trust Fund for Africa earmarked $90m to implement the declaration and began building Libyan institutional capacities, setting up programmes to improve detention centres and increasing the capacity of the Libyan coast guard, which has taken the lion’s share of assistance. The coast guard now acts to block smuggling routes, enforce a UN embargo on Libya and return migrants to Libya. The initiative has been incredibly successful and European media outlets were happy to report that migrant arrivals to Italy by sea fell by a third in 2017 compared to one year earlier.
Ultimately, however, this means more migrants are trapped in Libya, as the number of migrants has not fallen, only security has tightened.
In reality, most of the $90m has been spent on blocking migrants from leaving Libya, as there has been little improvement to detention centres, says Salah. “In some detention centres there’s more food, there’s a bit more medical treatment but we haven’t seen any improvement to the situation of migrants and refugees as a whole.”
Security is big business
Security is also big business for European firms. The externalisation of European borders has meant lucrative contracts for the arms, security and IT industries and companies like BAE Systems, Leonardo and Thales have been lobbying for its continuation. The market is estimated to be worth $56bn by 2022.
The smuggling industry has also benefitted incredibly from European border strengthening policies, as many look to ever-more dangerous and illicit routes of migration. Conversely, humanitarian organisations operating in Libyan waters are becoming increasingly monitored and blocked by European intent. These organisations have been offering support and safety nets for migrants who undertake illegal crossings and often end up in danger. More than 20,000 have died at sea trying to reach Italy from Libya, according to the IOM, making it the deadliest border for migrants in the world.
Yet humanitarian organisations are being accused of malpractice by EU agencies and are being increasingly closed down. The Italian government made NGOs sign ‘a code of conduct’ not to enter Libyan territorial waters and not to obstruct the Libyan coast guard’s operations.
“The environment seems to focus on stopping people arriving to Europe rather than putting the emphasis on saving lives and ensuring people can escape the Libyan hell they are in,” explained Shilhav.
The flow of European capital and services into Libya in exchange for increased security – with an added blind eye to human rights abuses – is nothing new. Gaddafi was a master of exploiting European insecurities and once claimed that Europe would turn into “another Africa” as a result of unfettered migration.
In 2008, Italy agreed to pay the controversial dictator $5bn over 25 years to stem the flow of refugees coming to Europe. Later, Gaddafi persuaded the EU to pay Libya $6.3bn a year to tackle migration to Europe.
All the while European officials were aware of migrant and refugee “concentration camps” in the desert, used to house those who were turned back by Gaddafi’s security network.
The CNN video was met with shock from world officials but evidence suggests they have turned a blind eye to the situation for quite some time. “Granted, the allegation of auctions is a new one but everything else with regards to the slave-like conditions people are held in and the forced labour people are subjected to is not new,” said Salah.
The African elephant in the room
Contradictory European policy also extends more generally to Africa-EU relations, not just Libya. Nominally, at least, the EU is committed to encouraging greater regional integration in Africa and increasing the movement of goods and people.
It is common knowledge that a major obstacle to Africa’s development is its inability to trade within itself, as so much of the continent’s wealth is quickly exported. Undoubtedly, greater integration would do wonders to boost African successes. The EU recognises this logic yet in reality allocates much of its funds to calcifying borders and shutting down migration routes.
The EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa was created in 2015 to “fund projects addressing the root causes of instability, forced displacement and irregular migration.” $3.3bn was put at the fund’s disposal.
An Oxfam report found that while the fund does provide support to displaced people and creates opportunities for economic development, a “considerable portion of funding is invested in security measures and border management.”
These objectives are motivated purely from European intent to stop migrants reaching the Mediterranean, and may be contrary to African ideas of economic development and contrary to the safety of those fleeing persecution or simply looking for a better life.
“The EU is much more willing to fund projects which restrict migration along what is perceived as migratory routes towards Europe, yet there is not enough funding for projects which would make migration safer and beneficial for Africans and African markets,” said Shilhav.
The elephant in the room, however, is that the ultimate and root cause of the existence of slavery in Libya is the inability of African governments to satisfy their citizens and encourage them to stay.
While life and opportunities in Europe are over-romanticised by many in Africa – the situation inside Europe being somewhat different – African nations are falling behind in their ability to provide opportunities and basic services for their citizens. Only when this situation is rectified will migration flows which put people at risk of abuse, extortion and slavery begin to diminish.