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The shame of Africa’s new slave trade

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The shame of Africa’s new slave trade

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. Report by Tom Collins

Three African migrants are lined up in a dark room near Tripoli, Libya. A voice rings out: “Does anybody need a digger? This is a digger, a big strong man, he’ll dig.”

Someone shouts out a bid in Arabic. There are counter-bids. This is an auction – a slave auction, taking place in 2017, on African soil.

Eventually the three migrants are sold off for a total of $1,200, $400 per person. A bargain.

The auction was filmed by a secretly held hand-camera and broadcast worldwide by CNN. There had been persistent rumours that a new form of slavery was thriving on the shores of Tripoli, where tens of thousands of hopeful migrants from Africa found themselves marooned in a hell-hole as they tried, most in vain, to get a passage on one of the rickety boats across the water to the ‘promised land’ of Europe.

How do migrants end up in such a predicament?

They set off from their villages with high hopes in their eyes, convinced by unscrupulous but very skilful recruiters that once they manage to get to Europe, they will find the streets paved with gold and bask in lands of milk and honey.

For the vast majority, the dreams quickly turn into a waking nightmare as people smugglers systematically strip them of all their painfully accumulated ‘capital’ and pass them on, like so much chattel, from one group to the other.

By the time they reach Libya, few have anything of worth left with which to buy a passage on one of the overcrowded, condemned sea-crafts which are as likely to sink or capsize in the treacherous waters as make it across.

Even when the boats somehow make it across, or if survivors are rescued from the sea by European-nation patrols, there is no warm welcome awaiting them as they are bundled into festering camps and left to fend for themselves. 

But for thousands, Libya is the end of the line. Depleted of all their resources, they become trapped in a strange, hostile place – unable to buy a passage across the water to Europe and unable to make the long trek across the desert back to their homes in sub-Saharan Africa.

Frightened, hungry, miserable, alone, hopeless, cut off from their families and friends back home, seemingly forgotten by their own countries and ignored and despised by the rest of the world, they are prepared to do anything to keep body and soul together.

Many of the younger women turn to prostitution while the men are prepared to carry out any work, often only in exchange for food. It is hardly surprising that in this desperate environment, a new form of slavery should arise. CNN, alongside several anti-slavery organisations, has been carrying out a campaign to expose this vile development but actual graphic evidence had been hard to come by until the film of the auction was released to the world.

The images shocked even the most hard-hearted of people across the world and seemed to wake up African governments and organisations which, by and large, had chosen to ignore one of the most catastrophic events taking place in the world.

Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission, called the auctions “despicable”. Nigerian President Muhammadu 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. What concrete and coordinated steps have been taken to ensure African migrants are no longer subjected to unspeakable injustices?

What are the realities for African migrants in Libya? What, if anything, can be done in a country torn between various warring militias and competing governments? And what are the root causes?

The back passage

Although sub-Saharan Africa is punching growth rates well above much of the rest of the world, many feel unsatisfied by the economic and political realities of their home countries. Europe is mythologised through the media and globalised culture as an ‘El Dorado’ and many of Africa’s young men take it upon themselves to make the long and hazardous journey up through the Saharan desert towards northern shores, in what is known as the ‘back passage’.

Since Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011, and the country was plunged into civil war in 2014, the country’s unmanned borders have made Libya the main route through which migrants try and enter Europe. Those undertaking the journey are subjected to intense hardship, and when arriving in Libya must navigate a mix of militias, armed groups and criminal gangs in order to reach the sea, where they will most likely end up in a detention centre.

As the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli, is unable to provide even basic services, the space in between is left wide open for those wishing to profit from vulnerable travellers.

“In Libya you have the lack of rule of law and so armed groups and criminal gangs take advantage of the situation and use violence to force people into slavery and to make money,” said Jakub Sobik, Communications Manager for Anti-Slavery International.

As of November 2017, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the UN’s migration agency, recorded over 161,010 arrivals to Europe by sea from Libya, since January that year.

The numbers did not include those who had drowned. The IOM also reported that 348,372 migrants and asylum seekers were present in Libya in November. That leaves a huge number of migrants quite simply stuck in Libya and defenceless against Libya’s numerous heavily armed factions, who have quickly started profiteering from the situation, as the video shows.

As European policy works to stem migrant flows and borders become increasingly ossified, the numbers stuck in Libya will increase, and the chance of enslavement and human rights abuses follows suit.

On the ground

An important clarification must be made about the extent and scope of slavery in Libya. There is no all-encompassing definition of ‘slavery’ and the word can encompass many different forms, ranging from forced labour to human trafficking.

What is represented in the CNN video – a public slave auction – is thankfully not that commonplace in the country. CNN was informed of nine other auctions, mainly in the northeast of Libya, and there are believed to be more, but slave auctions are not popping up haphazardly on street corners.

“That people are regularly shackled and sold at auction is simply not the case,” said Hanan Salah, Libya researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Not everybody is subjected to forced labour, slavery or slave-like conditions, but we have documented sufficient cases to make us concerned.”

In fact, little is known about these slave auctions, other than that they are run by militias and smugglers and sometimes under the nose of the authorities.

A more visible issue connected with slavery is the appalling conditions of detention centres in Libya, used to house migrants awaiting repatriation or deportation.

Since the country fell into crisis in 2014 after a dispute and eventual split between rival governing groups – which has now resulted in two separate seats of power, one in Tobruk in the east, and one in Tripoli in the west – the criminal justice system has all but collapsed. As a result, migrants are arbitrarily arrested and placed in detention centres with no charge or due diligence. These centres are being run by the militias and the two separate governments and are hotbeds for exploitation, abuse and slavery. Indeed, the line between official detention centre and smuggling ring has become increasingly blurred.

The GNA Justice Ministry, the legislative arm of the Tripoli government, revealed that in 2017, 6,400 detainees were being held, of whom only 25% had been sentenced for a crime. Often detainees will stay there until they can raise enough money to bribe a guard or a pay a ransom, or until they are sold as slaves.

Salah prefers to call these centres prisons: “They’re not just migrant detention centres. People are detained and do not have the freedom to leave and what I have witnessed in some of these places is simply horrific. The abuses are egregious.”

A chilling picture

An Oxfam report in August 2017 paints a chilling picture of the kind of conditions migrants are subject to in these detention camps.

In the 258 testimonies gathered, all but one woman had suffered sexual violence. 74% said they had witnessed the murder and/or torture of a travelling companion.

Eighteen-year-old Peter from Nigeria, whose name has been changed for protection, was imprisoned in a house with 300 others. “Once we had arrived at Sabah in Libya, I was taken to the ‘Ghetto’, which was a huge house without any windows and with more than 300 Africans held inside. It was terrible: someone died every day, there wasn’t enough room to sleep, there wasn’t any drinking water and the food was all off. They gave us a phone to call our families and told us to ask them for money. If you couldn’t pay the 1,500 Libyan dinars ($1,000), they kept you inside and beat you,” he said.

As African migrants continue to travel north in search of a better life, Europe continues to close its borders and Libya struggles under the weight of a civil war, the situation for those stranded in Libya is dire.

Somehow, this vicious cycle must be broken. NA

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