A CNN report about the smugglers in Libya auctioning migrants off as slaves has incited outrage in recent days. African men, women, and children who are on the road to Europe, in search of a better life, are being held in Libya under critical conditions or, even worse, turned into slaves. CNN was told of auctions at nine locations across Libya. Many more are believed to take place each month.
“Eight hundred,” says the auctioneer. “900, 1000, 1100,…” Sold! The smugglers referred to the migrants in Arabic as “merchandise”.
The images in the video footage seem to come from previous centuries but this is reality and the fate of many African migrants who sold everything they own to finance the journey through Libya to the coast and the gateway to the Mediterranean.
The video prompted a wave of condemnation all over the world. However, the European Union has also been criticised for cooperating with the Libyan coastguard; Italy and the EU have been financing and training Libya’s border coastguard to prevent the flow of people crossing the Mediterranean. Subsequently, the African migrants arriving in Libya are sent to detention centres or simply left in the hands of the human traffickers.
Moreover, refugees who survived and have crossed the Mediterranean, shared stories about kidnapping, sexual exploitation and enslavement. “We were slaves,” said Moussa Sanogo, a migrant who went back to Ivory Coast from Libya; he spent several months in Libya trying to get to Italy by boat. “For the Arabs (Libyan jailers), black-skinned men are nothing but animals – animals were treated better,” he added.
Global hypocrisy by political leaders
“I am horrified,” the UN secretary-general António Guterres said.
World leaders are condemning the Libyan slave auctions after the CNN video footage, yet activists have been shouting about rape, torture and forced work for thousands of black Africans in Libya months ago – their warnings fell on deaf ears. NGO’s, aid workers, rights groups and analysts have charged leaders with hypocrisy.
Alioune Tine, Amnesty International’s West Africa director, said, “hostage-takings, violence, torture and rape were well documented in Libya. And we’ve been talking about slavery for a long time”.
Similarly, Hamidu Anne, Senegalese analyst at think-tank L’Afrique Des Idées, commented, “a passive response from African leaders was in part to blame for the unfolding disaster, along with systematic racism in the Maghreb countries. (…) Ordinary people aside, everyone knew about this: governments, international organisations and political leaders. Faced with a crime against humanity you don’t condemn it, you act”.
On April 2017, the International Organization for Migration had reported the existence of markets where refugees could be “bought”.
Several months later, Joanne Liu, head of medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières, wrote an open letter to European governments warning of the thriving “kidnapping, torture and extortion business in Libya”.
Libya and its current complex situation
Libya was during the reign of Moammar Gaddafi, one of the wealthiest and most stable nations in Africa. Its economy was heavily dependent on its crude oil industry. But things got a whole more complicated when Gaddafi was executed during the Arab Spring. After his death, armed groups competed for land and anarchy has created the perfect conditions for people smuggling to thrive.
Today, the country is splintered between three ruling powers, all of whom make some claim to be in “government”.
Ex-US President Barack Obama, in an interview published in April 2016, said that the “worst mistake” of his presidency was the misstep to prepare for the outcome of Gaddafi’s overthrow. Obama somewhat blamed then UK Prime Minister David Cameron for “the mess”, saying he had not done enough to support Libya, whose instability was threatening its neighbours and was a significant cause in Europe’s migrant crisis.
A humiliation for Africa and a humanitarian disaster for the world
It’s a humanitarian disaster with barely any humanitarian organisations there to help. For tens of thousands of migrants in the country at the moment, they have no means of escape.
Ross Kemp, investigation journalist, has also witnessed the modern-day slave trade in Libya, long before the CNN made their recent video report. “Thousands of migrants and refugees fleeing poverty and violence are dying in Libya, but you don’t hear much about it. Compassion fatigue has set in. The numbers have become too big to comprehend. It’s an old story; we feel numbed by the now familiar news images of men huddled together on boats. Maybe it’s because they’re African and have been written off as “undeserving economic migrants”. These are the people some of our political leaders have in mind when they talk of plagues and marauders. The understandable focus on Syrian refugees has taken the spotlight away from the more dangerous route to Europe through Libya,” Kemp said.
Meanwhile, the Libyan government has launched an investigation in the country. UN said the slavery auctions should be investigated as possible crimes against humanity, and the issue will be on agenda at an African Union-EU summit on November 29th in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.