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Libyan slavery: Don't be fooled by the 'shock', we've known about this for a while now

European leaders have prioritised halting the flow of migrants to Europe and have pushed thousands into the hands of slave traffickers. The outrage now expressed is hollow. Now action is needed

Last month, an undercover investigation by CNN revealed that black African migrants were being sold into slavery in Libya. Since the report broke, news on it has gone viral and world leaders have expressed outrage.

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But people shouldn't be fooled by this shock and urgent drive toward action. The international community have known about slavery in Libya for some time now. So the question is, why weren't world leaders expressing this outrage before?

Deaf ears

Where were these condemnations when the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) reported on victims of slavery in April 2017? The IOM is a UN-related body that were told by victims of how smugglers and militias had detained them and sold them in town squares and car parks.

Why wasn't the world shaking its head in disgust when Amnesty International wrote about a migrant from Burkino Faso who, while trying to reach Italy, was stopped, detained and then sold to traffickers in Libya? And this is something the organisation has been documenting for over two years and calling for the world to act.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation wrote in March 2016 that "Libya has become a trafficking market where people are bought and sold on a daily basis". As did Middle East Eye which reported that traffickers are moving thousands of people a week from Niger into Libya.

Giving individuals safe passage out of danger whether that is back to their country of origin or somewhere like Europe, is the best way of removing them from harm

All this information however landed on deaf ears. International organisations have, therefore, charged the UN, African Union and the French president with hypocrisy after they expressed their incredulity.

In fact Amnesty International have called out the EU for prioritising the prevention of refugees and migrants from reaching Europe, "in the full knowledge that doing so is facilitating the abuse of hundreds of thousands of women, men and children who are trapped en route".

The EU have pulled out all the stops to prevent refugees and migrants from crossing into European waters, even training the Libyan authorities to intercept boats. This makes them complicit.

The time for words is long over and leaders need to come together and act now. In fact it’s their responsibility. Their actions have created this horrific situation.

Migrants are transported to detention center in coastal city of Sabratha, Libya in October (Reuters)

Dark history

Their involvement stems from long before the refugee crisis. Slavery today, just like pre-abolition slavery and anti-black racism that is at its root, comes directly from Africa's colonial past, when imperial forces drew up borders with no regard for the people who lived there.

In Libya, it brought a black minority into the country and the idea of black inferiority has stuck. Some have noted that black people are often referred to as "abid", which literally means slave.

Under late Libyan leader Muammer Gaddaffi, there was relative protection for black Africans (although you could argue that immigrants from sub-sharan Africa were also exploited then). However, after the 2011 NATO invasion, this anti-black sentiment took hold again.

The town of Tawergha and its Berber population is an example that has been cited several times. The rebels claimed they were Gaddaffi mercenaries, even though this claim was unfounded, and drove out the town's inhabitants. The remaining tribe is strewn across refugee camps in the country.

A worrying report by the Wall Street Journal shows how blatant this racism can be, as one of the rebel slogans seen in Misrata at the time of fighting hailed "the brigade for purging slaves, black skin". Since the NATO invasion, black Africans, whether Libyan or migrants, have been relatively unprotected.

And consequences have included mass detention, beatings as well as slavery.

Safe passage

Despite the history, if the new report can shake leaders into action then good. But what do they propose?

The recent African EU summit focused on the news of slave markets in Libya. France's president Emmanuel Macron wants military action to rescue African migrants enslaved in Libya through a Marshall Plan for Africa of $52bn.

While this plan does not propose sending foreign troops, it does create a sense of apprehension. Boosting border controls through both land and sea has so far been the only effort made by international actors and the results have been deadly.

As well as the disastrous EU policies of turning around boats, European governments are already investing tens of millions of euros in anti-migration measures in Niger, including support for Nigerien police operations.

And as Middle East Eye also reported in March 2016, French troops at borders had been a problem and had not stopped smugglers and traffickers entering Libya.

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Other suggestions coming out of the summit have included physical and financial sanctions against human-trafficking networks. And there may be outcomes which will see thousands of migrants being flown out of Libya as the government has agreed for them to be evacuated.

But this is far from the happy ending we need. Some of those in detention may have been fleeing dangerous situations in their country of origin to begin with, and those without documentation will be held until their case is resolved.

Giving individuals safe passage out of danger, whether that is back to their country of origin or somewhere like Europe, is the best way of removing them from harm.

The moment for apparent shock has passed. If leaders want to get in a room together and utter words of condemnation and half-baked solutions, they should start by looking across at each other and reflect on how they have been part of the problem.

- Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East and Asia.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo: Migrants walk towards a detention centre near the Libyan coastal town of Garabulli in July 2017 (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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