After Italy signed a memorandum with the UN and U.S.-backed government of Libya, known as the Government of National Accord (GNA), in Tripoli to reduce sea migration in February 2017, migrant crossings to Italy from the North African coastline decreased by 87 percent. This seemingly positive result, however, has obscured the fact that refugees intercepted by the Libyan coastguard have been rerouted to detention centers in other parts of the country, where they have been subjected to deplorable conditions. Indeed, the number of migrants now detained in the country has more than doubled since mid-September. Worse still, an exclusive CNN report, published last week, found that many of these migrants, most of whom come to Libya from sub-Saharan Africa, are being auctioned off as slaves by smugglers.
Each year, tens of thousands of people cross Libya’s borders, heading for the sea, either as refugees fleeing conflict or economic migrants in search of better opportunities in Europe. As a result of the agreement between Italy and Libya, however, the Libyan coastguard has adopted added security measures that have made traversing the Mediterranean very risky. With fewer boats making it out to sea, smugglers who once ferried migrants to southern Europe have a backlog of would-be passengers. Looking to make money in other ways, these smugglers are now selling their victims as manual laborers, turning them into modern-day slaves.
Although the International Organization for Migration (IOM) had started gathering evidence of slavery in Libya in April of this year, this horrifying development was put into stark relief by footage, obtained by CNN, of a live auction. The footage, which has since been published online, appears to show youths from Niger and other sub-Saharan countries being sold to buyers for as little as $400, a little more than 500 Libyan dinars. Othman Belbeisi, chief of mission for the IOM in Libya, told the BBC that migrants are priced according to their abilities.
As reflected in their investigative report, CNN journalists witnessed about a dozen similar auctions outside of Tripoli, along the northwestern coast. They also heard about nine other auction locations across western Libya, which is under the GNA’s control.
After the CNN report’s publication, the African Union (AU) expressed outrage, with AU chairman, President Alpha Conde of Guinea, calling for an official probe by Libyan authorities into the “despicable trade,” according to a recent article for Voice of America. As reported by CNN, after receiving the video evidence, Anez Alazabi, an official with the GNA’s Anti-Illegal Immigration Agency, said that “a high-level committee has been convened…to oversee [an] investigation” into the slave auctions, prosecute the culpable parties, and repatriate the victims. The investigation has been endorsed by the IOM.
Because of the dangers facing them in Libya, many sub-Saharan migrants are now opting to return home instead of continuing onto Europe. So far, this year, more than 8,800 individuals voluntarily returned home from Libya, on repatriation flights organized by the IOM.
As these developments show, Europe’s decision to treat Libya as a dumping ground for displaced persons has left countless migrants and refugees vulnerable to smugglers. Without addressing the human trafficking networks in places across Libya, this situation will not end any time soon.