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Slavery in the 21st century | The World Weekly

When African and European leaders met in Abidjan last week, slavery came high on the agenda. The practice of slavery, announced Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, “belongs to another age”. Yet, substantial evidence has emerged that slave auction markets are operating in Libya. Migrants in pursuit of a new life in Europe are entrapped, exploited and enslaved, sold to the highest bidder. 

The transatlantic slave trade was officially abolished in 1888. However, in 2016 it was estimated that 40.3 million people were enslaved at any given time. A recent study showed that migrants tend to be most vulnerable to human trafficking and exploitation. 

Situated across from Europe on the Mediterranean Sea, Libya has in recent years served as a gateway for many migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. However, as one of the few countries not bound by the 1951 Refugee Convention, “Libya’s legal framework is wholly inadequate and unable to deal with the current situation”, Thomas Ebbs, deputy director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya, told The World Weekly. 

European leaders have faced increasing internal pressure to curb the arrivals of economic migrants and refugees amidst a rise in right-wing nationalist parties and growing fears of terrorism. 

“Rather than seek to help refugees and migrants within Europe,” says Rhiannon Smith, managing director of the consultancy Libya-Analysis, “[the EU] closed its borders and effectively attempted to push the problem back towards Libya and Africa.”

As a result, more and more migrants have found themselves stranded in Libya where they run the risk of exploitation, abuse and enslavement. 

Human commodities

An auctioneer shouts prices to buyers in a small yard as a group of young men, the merchandise, stand by. Potential owners bid for those they wish to buy. These are not scenes from a bygone era, but part of a CNN investigation in Libya earlier this year during which a team secretly filmed a slave auction. The journalists learned that 12 Nigeriens were sold that night. Migrants in a detention centre in Tripoli also shared stories of enslavement, forced labour and general maltreatment. 

The footage sparked protests across Africa and Europe. The UN has since urged Libyan officials to take urgent action and demanded the EU addresses the issue. 

Yet, the existence of slave auctions in Libya “is not news to anyone”, explains Nima Elbagir, one of the journalists investigating the auction in October. Authorities around the world, she said, were already aware of the situation in Libya. 

In April, the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) released a report which documented the existence of slave auctions on Libyan migration routes. The revelations caused international outcry but the reaction was short-lived. The issue soon became subsumed into broader narratives of the global migration crisis. 

“We really needed to have irrefutable evidence, to see it for ourselves,” Ms. Elbagir, a senior international correspondent at CNN, told TWW. 

In the face of this new evidence, African and European leaders have vowed concrete action to combat the exploitation of African migrants in Libya.

Lawless Libya

The current situation in Libya cannot be viewed in isolation from the country’s recent political history. “The appalling conditions endured by some migrants will not be solved until Libya has a unified political solution in place and the country can begin to establish rule of law once more,” Ms. Smith told TWW.

The North African country has undergone a turbulent political transition period since a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Mr. Gaddafi’s ousting led to mass instability, with countless armed militias vying for power and no single authority in complete control. 

In addition, a sharp decrease in oil production has negatively impacted the country’s economy, once one of the strongest in the region. This socio-political climate has given new opportunities to human smuggling networks which have expanded to operate on a more transnational scale.

“These networks are at once systematic and opportunistic,” says Ms. Elbagir. Individuals involved in the process are interchangeable, making networks difficult to dismantle and their actions complicated to predict. 

Human trafficking operations over the years have become more efficient. Separate sets of traffickers are responsible for specific parts of each route. Migrants are stored in a sequence of connection houses along the way until the next group moves them on. Once in Libya, they stay in warehouses before the supposed departure to Europe. This is often where auctions take place.

“From the moment you are picked up, you are essentially at the mercy of the smugglers,” says Ms. Elbagir. The problem is deep-rooted and the system well-established, but “there has to be a way forward.” 

Connective tissues

Investment in youth development was among top priorities at the AU-EU summit. An EU external investment plan aims to spend $52 billion in Africa by 2020, creating new job opportunities for young people across the continent. 

Higher rates of employment are intended to dissuade migrants from leaving their home countries, but socio-economic improvements may not be enough to deter many. Misinformation surrounding the migration process continues to encourage young people to make the trip. To combat this, “a strong campaign of communication about the dangers of the journey should be established in origin countries,” says Ms. Smith. 

A revised European approach could limit the supply of exploitable migrants available to traffickers. African leaders have urged the EU to create programmes which would allow more migrants to enter Europe lawfully, offering an alternative to illegal routes.  

However, European leaders remain reluctant to open their borders. Observers have criticised the Italian government for providing the Libyan coastguard with money, training and equipment in an attempt to prevent African migrants from reaching Italy. Many suspect the coastguard of involvement with smuggling circles. 

African and EU leaders are preparing a safe pathway home for migrants stranded in Libya. The evacuation plan will see migrants airlifted from detention centres and issued with emergency documentation. 

For Ms. Elbagir, it is crucial to keep the issue in the spotlight. “This is slavery. You have to call it by its name.”  

Modern-day slavery

Whereas the latest revelations about slave auctions in Libya have proved particularly shocking, slavery is not limited to the North African country or to other war-torn nations. Modern-day slavery exists in almost every country in the world, with debt bondage, forced labour and sex slavery, including forced marriage, constituting its most predominant forms.  

In 2016, for every 1,000 people in the world, 5.4 were victims of modern slavery. The highest concentration of enslaved people are found in the Asia-Pacific region and sub-Saharan Africa. Women and girls account for 71% of modern slavery victims; one in four victims are children. 

The population explosion of the mid twentieth-century “glutted the world with potentially enslavable people”, Kevin Bales, a professor of Contemporary Slavery at the University of Nottingham, said at the Trust Conference earlier this year. 

According to Professor Bales, slaves used to fetch on average $40,000 each. Nowadays, they can cost as little as $90. This rapid devaluation has converted enslaved humans into entirely disposable commodity items.    

In the UK, it is estimated that 11,700 people live in modern slavery, a figure that Professor Bales deems too modest. The largest proportion of victims come from Albania whereas British nationals are the sixth country group at most risk of enslavement in the UK.

Slavery overall continues to be more pervasive in countries with high levels of instability. Armed conflicts often correspond with a weakening of rule of law, allowing traffickers to profit from impunity. Slowed economic growth and a lack of employment opportunities forces individuals to embark on dangerous migratory paths, increasing the risk of exploitation. 

Within Libya, virtual lawlessness, large populations of vulnerable migrant workers wanting to travel on to Europe willing to work to earn their passage, and xenophobia towards sub-Saharan migrants allowed trafficking networks to operate without fear of prosecution.” - Walk Free Foundation and International Labour Organisation, The Global Slavery Index 2016

“Slavery has no place in our world,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres in response to news of the slave auctions in Libya. Yet, those being enslaved in Libya join millions more worldwide. The revelations stand as a stark reminder to leaders in Africa, the EU and elsewhere that the battle against slavery is far from over.

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