The Cycle of Slavery in Libya

“Does anyone need a digger? This is a digger, a big strong man, he’ll dig”

When asked about slavery, the majority of people’s minds drift back to their history lessons on the slave trade, whereby around 12 million Africans were shipped to various parts of the world in order to become slaves. However, the dissolution of the trade in the 19th century was not the end of slavery. When Walk Free, the International Labour Organisation, and dozens of other state and non state actors came together in 2016 to form Alliance 8.7, there was an estimation of 40 million people enslaved. 16 million of these were said to be enslaved through forced labour in the private sector, whilst a further 15 million were said to be enslaved through forced marriage. Yet, the world is silent.

When footage appeared from CNN in 2017, the world became outraged. The video appeared to show several African migrants being sold at an auction at a property outside Tripoli, Libya. The UN Security Council condemned the video as “heinous human rights abuses which may also amount to crimes against humanity.” In addition to this, they encouraged cooperation between the European Union and African Union so that they could protect the lives of migrants and refugees along migration routes. Whilst the EU demanded swift action to occur, they didn’t take it much further. In fact, it is the EU who adds to the problem. After the migration crisis in 2015, the EU, particularly Italy, implemented a series of measures aimed at closing off the migration route through the Mediterranean. Instead of thinking about the consequences this may have on the migrants, they only cared about restricting migration into Europe. 

Primarily, the EU committed to providing technical support and assistance to the Libyan Department for Combating Illegal Migration. By doing this, they are supporting the detention centres where refugees and migrants are arbitrarily and indefinitely held. Within these camps, individuals are exposed to a poor standard of life, with cramped rooms and poor sanitation. To add to this, they are routinely exposed to serious human rights violations including torture. One migrant told his story about being in a detention centre. He said that the rooms were cramped and he was sometimes given as little as one piece of bread a day. In order to get out of the camps, individuals would have to pay extreme amounts of money. If they were unable to pay, they would get routinely tortured. Not only this, but within the camps, women and men would be kept separate. This made it easier for guards to sexually abuse the women. 

Secondly, through training and equipment, the EU has enabled the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept people at sea. By giving them the assistance they need, and turning migrants away, they have facilitated their exposure to abuse. Those who get intercepted at sea are then taken back to Libya to be put into centres like the ones described above. This creates a cycle of abuse which is facilitated by the EU.

Finally, the EU has created deals with Libyan local authorities and the leaders of tribes and armed groups. These deals encourage them to stop the smuggling of people and to increase border controls. However, these deals do not mean that these groups stop giving hope to migrants. They continue to sell the dream of a better life in Europe to these vulnerable individuals, in exchange for money. However, instead of helping them get to Europe, these groups take these vulnerable people and exploit them. They keep them trapped in detention centres unless they are able to pay their way out. For the majority of migrants, they do not have enough money to be able to do this which leaves them trapped, in the hands of these corrupt groups. Many of whom go on to sell them as slaves.

Whilst the EU may condemn slavery in Libya, they are not actually doing anything to stop it. Instead of spending millions to prevent migrants coming to Europe, which leaves them in the hands of corrupt groups in Libya, they could be utilising their money to improve the standard of living within Africa. The reason that so many migrants flee to Europe each year is because they are looking for a better life, a life where they can provide for their family. They want to escape countries filled with poverty, war and corruption. Libya happens to be the main transit point for refugees and migrants trying to reach Europe by sea. By travelling to Libya, a country that has been in a state of civil war since the death of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, individuals are driven into the hands of these corrupt groups who can go on to sell them as commodities. Even if they make it into the Mediterranean, the majority of migrants either die during the journey or are caught by the Libyan coast guard. 

This cycle will not stop until powerful organisations like the UN or the EU do something to address the problem. Whilst they may condemn the act of slavery, this is not enough. They need to be actively doing things to stop it. Whether this be, addressing the problem of migration and funding projects in Africa, or communicating better with Libya and holding these groups accountable. These organisations are the only ones who have the power to do so yet when the trend dies, they no longer address the problem as they themselves, are not being held accountable.

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