Words aren’t enough, UN must act to end slave trade in Libya

Sunilchandra Dal
Saturday, 30 December 2017

The slave trade in Libya has been in headlines all over the world ever since CNN aired a video clip of a slave auction in Tripoli, the capital of Libya, in November. Once banished to history books, slavery has made a comeback. Young Africans are openly auctioned for $200 to 400 each. The slave trade in Libya has been condemned by human rights experts, the UN and presidents of various countries. But we cannot call the world civilised unless we move beyond words and take concrete action to stop the slave trade. 

The slave trade in Libya has been in headlines all over the world ever since CNN aired a video clip of a slave auction in Tripoli, the capital of Libya, in November. Once banished to history books, slavery has made a comeback. Young Africans are openly auctioned for $200 to 400 each. The slave trade in Libya has been condemned by human rights experts, the UN and presidents of various countries. But we cannot call the world civilised unless we move beyond words and take concrete action to stop the slave trade. 

The condemnation of slavery by world leaders and UN officials does not cut much ice as incidents of slavery were reported earlier by researchers as well as the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), but these leaders and officials preferred to look the other way. They could not afford to keep silent after the CNN report created public outrage. May be, this demonstrates the power of the media, or rather television. 

The victims are migrants, mostly from Nigeria, Senegal and Gambia, numbering around 7 lakh. They were trying to flee the poor living conditions and strife in their countries and paid huge amounts to human smugglers for a journey to Europe. For these migrants, the gateway to Europe lies across the Mediterranean Sea in Libya. 

In Libya, after Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown, there was a civil war between two governments. A unified interim UN-backed Government of National Accord was established in 2015. But parts of Libya are controlled by Islamists, rebel and tribal militias. Talks are underway to unify the country. 

Libya, of course, has rejected the allegations of slave auctions, saying the case appears more of ‘human smuggling’. Libya’s Charge d’ Affaires to India Khalid IA Azwai told PTI that a probe has been ordered into the case. He tried to explain the bargaining recorded in the video clip, saying it was the cost of transportation and not a slave auction. However, this is hard to believe as the slave trade and interviews of those who managed to escape have been reported by many sources, including the Premium Times of Nigeria. A human trafficker told Al-Jazeera that hundreds of migrants are bought and sold across the country every week.

These migrants are caught by local militias or the Libyan Coast Guard and put up in detention camps. This is where the horror begins. Beatings, torture, rape, starvation and slavery are rampant. The migrants may then be held for ransom by the smugglers till their family pays up. If no ransom is paid, the smugglers may auction the migrants as slaves.

Karen Attiah writes in the Washington Post that Europe has a large role to play in the horrific conditions that led to the slave trade in Libya. She quotes a report by Amnesty International that European governments have been ‘knowingly complicit in the torture and abuses of tens of thousands of refugees and migrants detained by Libyan immigration authorities by actively supporting the Libyan authorities in stopping sea crossings and containing people in Libya’. According to Time, the Libyan Coast Guard was supported with funds from the European Union, and more specifically Italy, to crack down on boats smuggling refugees to Europe.

Recently, Libya reached a deal with the EU and African leaders to allow emergency repatriation of migrants facing abuse in its detention centres. The government also agreed to open a transit centre for vulnerable refugees, according to Reuters.

If we look at the root of the problem, we see that action is needed at ground zero i.e. the detention camps in Libya. The full responsibility to ensure an end to the slave trade lies on the Libyan government. Libya must open up its detention centres to observers and put their camps under UN supervision. However, this is unlikely to happen as it will expose the wrongs done so far. It is necessary for countries to negotiate with and pressurise Libya until all detention centres are open to supervision by the UN and human rights experts. But this would be only the first step. It is also necessary to rehabilitate those refugees, which will need action on a large scale by the United Nations.

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