On November 14, CNN released a video of their investigation into Libya’s slave markets. For years, there have been reports and rumours about migrants and refugees being kidnapped and sold along the infamous smuggling route through the desert, and in recent months, aid workers and rights groups have tried to get the attention of authorities and the world about the forced labour, torture, and sexual exploitation taking place in the country.
But evidence is often hard to verify. In an attempt to authenticate footage from a Libyan slave auction, CNN set out to investigate. What they found is chilling.
So why is this happening? How has Libya become such a large and profitable hub for slavery? The answer has many moving parts.
Libya’s Political Instability
Every year, the U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report lists and ranks every country based on its effort to curb human trafficking. The 2017 report refers to Libya as a “special case,” along with Somalia and Yemen. The country has been in a violent state of limbo since its former dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, was killed in 2011, creating a power vacuum. The tribal groups that had been united only by their hatred for Gaddafi began jockeying for control. While there has been some movement toward peace, Libya’s political instability has caused all anti-trafficking efforts to be, in practice, non-existent.
“…after more than four decades of authoritarian rule, they had little understanding of democracy. So they were unable to forge compromises and build a new state based on the rule of law.”
Courts in major cities throughout the country have not been operational since 2014, and even if they were, Libyan law only prohibits sex trafficking, not forced labour. As migrants flood in from other African countries, there is nothing to protect them. In this chaotic environment, human trafficking doesn’t just occur. It thrives.
Push Factors in Other Countries
If Libya is so unstable, why are so many people flocking there in the first place? That’s because Libya is seen as the gateway to Europe. For those trying to cross the Mediterranean by sea, Libya is the most popular point of departure. Many of the people who reach the country are actually refugees, but because Libya has no refugee identification system, they’re all considered migrants. Common reasons for people leaving their homes include poverty, climate change, persecution, violence, and lack of opportunity.
Young Eritreans are fleeing a dictator who is running a country-wide forced labour operation. The livelihoods of Senegalese families are being undermined by rising sea levels on the coast and desertification inland. The South Sudanese are trying to escape a civil war. In Somalia, a drought has left more than half the country’s population facing food shortages.
Of course people are leaving. Desperate people do desperate things.
With the advent of the internet and cell phones, planning travel has never been easier. People can research routes, contact smugglers, and stay in touch with their families. But while technology often makes people more informed, it can also create an illusion of safety. There’s something comforting about being able to text a friend or family member if something goes wrong, but in the middle of a desert, it’s traffickers who benefit most from cell access.
There have been many reports of torturous traffickers telling their victims to call home and ask for a ransom for their release. Panicked families, who are often poor to begin with, will sell their homes or livestock to scrape together the ransom money. International banking systems are being used to transfer their money, so no physical contact is needed on the part of the trafficker.
“My mother even went to a couple villages, borrowing money from different couriers to save my life.”
On what’s known as the deadliest route in the world, technology can act as a cruel tool for exploitation.
Cheap Labour in Tough Times
The biggest contributor to Libya’s slave market – like any market – is demand. If no one is willing to spend $400 USD to purchase a slave, there would be no auction to sell him. Tragically, in an environment where rule of law is lax, it doesn’t take much to contribute to slavery.
Imagine you’re a Libyan family who runs an agricultural business. Political instability has made you tight on cash, but you need help with harvesting. You hear rumours of very cheap labour, so you contact someone who can make the arrangements, give them the money, and don’t ask any questions. Your frugality – or maybe even the survival of your business – has just robbed someone of their freedom. Humans can exploit other humans so easily in an unregulated and unaccountable legal environment.
Another troubling aspect is how the interim government and various armed groups detain migrants. Upon reaching Libya, many migrants are brought to detention centres. But because the legal system is not functional, they just sit there, with very little food, water, and sanitation, waiting for a court date that will never come. Sometimes when detention centres get too full, people are allegedly sold off like goods in an open market.
The Draw of Secondary Movement
I visited a refugee camp in Ethiopia recently, and one of the things I learned was how enticing “secondary movement” can be. Secondary movement is when a refugee leaves the camp and tries to reach a destination country on their own. This puts them at risk of dangers like human trafficking, abuse, and detainment. Sometimes traffickers will sell their organs on the black market.
The refugees I met were all from Eritrea. Many of them were teenagers or young adults, and had already risked their lives by fleeing Eritrea’s abusive dictatorship. They had their physical needs met at the camp, but being there was like being in a perpetual state of limbo. Humans long to establish roots, to build their lives, to pursue opportunities. A refugee camp can’t offer that. It stunts ambition. It limits potential. Tired of waiting, some start planning the trip to Libya.
I don’t blame them. I can’t imagine being stuck in a place for years on end, waiting for someone on the other side of the globe to sponsor me. But the aid agencies that work in the camp try to discourage secondary movement as much as possible, because once someone leaves the confines of the camp, they no longer have any kind of protection.
One of the agency staff told me about a man named David, who had been in the camp for six years. He had taken advantage of all the camp had to offer. He’d even been trained to be a social worker during his time there, and often helped with the sports program. But he got tired of waiting. He felt trapped. So he left. Not long after, his friends in the camp got word that he’d been shot in Libya.
This is why organizations are trying to find innovative ways to raise awareness among refugees. Sometimes they do it through billboards or ads. Sometimes they do it through theatrical dramas that are performed in the camp. But while this prevents some from taking the dangerous trek to Libya, the real solution lies in addressing the root causes in the origin countries: political instability, poverty, climate change, and – a daily reality we often forget – violence.
Gary Haugen puts it best:
May we strive to become people of active peace.