MENA • On the roads of horror: forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking to Libya

Slavery is often regarded as a past act referring to the transatlantic slave trade. Unfortunately, slavery still exists in various modern forms. From the very beginning of the European migrant crisis of 2015, the dangers of maritime routes have been highlighted by the international community. However, the danger of land roads remains poorly known. Thus facing the gates of Europe, a country, Libya represents a great danger for migrants or refugees fleeing poverty or persecution in West Africa. Before facing the deadly crossing of the Mediterranean Sea, hundreds of migrants cope with the horrors on the roads across the Sahara to Libya.

One of the main African starting points towards the “European dream”

Libya is one of the main starting points of North Africa for both the migrants and refugees that try to regain coastal countries of Europe by boat (Spain, Italy, and Greece).  According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in 2015, of the 3,771 people who died in the Mediterranean, 2892 came from Libya. Since then, these figures are constantly increasing. In addition to being trapped between two hostile geographical areas, the sea, and the worldwide largest hot desert, men on the roads of the Saharan zone must also face human dangers.

The main areas of departure for migrants in West Africa are Ghana, Guinea, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Mali, Nigeria, Niger, and Senegal. The people movement is attributable to numerous reasons but the most decisive ones are the famine, the political instability, the lack of economic opportunity and finally the climate change. Inevitably, the exit route is the one crossing the Sahara. Before leaving their country, the vast majority of migrants pay for their journey and security to North Africa but they are ultimately sold against their will. Others promise to repay their travel on credit while working in Libya. On both sides, migrants and refugees find themselves in situations of extreme vulnerability.

A highly organized human trafficking and exploitation network  

This year, the OIM has reported in its migration monitoring that more than 70% of migrants moving from North Africa to Europe had been exploited, mainly in Libya. Indeed, six years after the fall of Dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan political instability has transformed the country into a grey zone conducive to human exploitation [1]. Human being traffickers prospered in the city, militias took control of the roads. Violence, extortion and forced labor were already the daily life of migrants in Libya, but today the creation of the public slave markets is even more concerning.

Sabha, a locality in southern Libya, is located at the intersection of migratory routes in sub-Saharan Africa deep in the Libyan Desert. Formerly a cosmopolitan city, the city is now the prey of armed groups. During their crossing of the Sahara, smuggling networks try to extort money from migrants and demand ransoms from their families in exchange for their freedom.

According to the testimony of one migrant rescued by Doctors without Borders (MSF), the traffickers “just keep people there, torture them and beat them to make their family send the money”. Many times, they beat and tortured him, but he didn’t have any family to call. The 23-year-old Eritrean man who fled torture and conscription in his home country was kidnapped and held for four months in Libya, with his captors demanding 2,000 dollars for his release [2]. Sometimes, the smugglers demand up to 8,000 or 10,000 dollars from the families of the migrants. These families often end up abandoning valuable properties (houses, agricultural lands) and sending immediate payments for the release of their relatives.

The mafias and the militia of about 200,000 men who control all roads and human trafficking networks organize the exploitation network. As a result, the organized crime and terrorism are correlated: the exploitation of human beings provides direct and indirect funds to terrorist groups.

A new scale exceeded in modern slavery

The stories of migrants who have arrived in Europe tell two types of journeys in Libya. Some of the migrants are subjected to forced labor and sexual exploitation in detention centers until they have paid a ransom for them to go to Europe. The vast majority of them are sold on public markets.

The public slave markets take place in the border region known as the grey zone. There, cities of the Sahara (e.g. Sabha in Libya) are chosen strategically for their possible customers’ attendance but also for their geographical location. Some of these cities are part of the zone of free movement of persons of the Economic Community of West African States (e.g. Agadez in Niger). In this way, the militia can more easily target and attract many volunteers for exile. In Sabha, these slave markets have been normalized and are carried out in known garages and car parks. Libyan society does not seem to be sensitive to this well-known trafficking and migrants face the additional difficulty of racism.

Not surprisingly, the fate of the displaced in Libya depends on their gender. Indeed, men are sold as forced laborers (merchants, electricians, plumbers, farmers, builders). Women are sold into sexual slavery, which is far more lucrative than men’s trade. Generally, all are subjected to the worst forms of mutilation, burning, torture, sexual violence, starvation, and even execution.

The right way to reinvent solutions to the European migrant crisis

Human slavery or forced labor refers to situations in which persons are coerced to work under the menace of any penalty and is a serious crime. Human slavery is a profitable business for criminals. From a global perspective, the ILO estimated in 2014 US $150 billion annual profits from hard labor in the world [3]. Trafficking in human beings and modern slavery are now crimes more to be prevented than punished, since the perpetrators of these crimes are often not convicted, particularly in countries where the legal system is disorganized and in which the militia make the law.

Today, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is working to put in place campaigns to alert against the dangers of roads to Libya and to countries like Algeria. Indeed, few who venture on the roads of Europe realize that they can face even more serious human dangers in Libya even before they reach the European coast [1]. A better understanding of the suffering associated with migration routes would help to protect these vulnerable populations from the risk of backflow once they arrive in Europe.

In Libya, the situation of normalization of forced labor practices and trafficking multiplies tenfold the horrors that migrants may experience on roads to Europe. Tragically, these horrors push migrants more to risk their lives in the Mediterranean Sea. Consequently, some migrants consider that “it is better to die at sea than to remain in Libya” [4]. The solutions to the European migratory crisis must, therefore, be rethought ahead of the arrival of migrants in Europe.

Article written by Fiona NOUDJENOUME









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