Slavery is thriving in Libya, where thousands of black Africans hoping to get to Europe instead find themselves bought and sold, forced to work for nothing, and facing torture at the hands of their owners.
The story of Ikuenobe documented by BuzzFeed News shows the nature of this menace.
Ikuenobe was captured by men who brutally assaulted him, and called his sister to give them 600,000 naira ($1,650) for his "freedom". They wanted his mother's number but he gave them his sister's, so that his mother would not know what was actually happening. He had told his mother that he was working in a "shipyard" job and that they would soon drink to this new job.
Ikuenobe's family paid over 2 million naira ($5,500) before being set free. However, the person who Ikuenobe thought had come to rescue him had actually bought him.
Extortion is so widespread that captives even have a market value depending on which country they’re from. Eritreans, who have a large, well-organized diaspora, command the highest prices, while West Africans fetch the smallest ransoms and are the most likely to be ill-treated, Libya experts say.
EU officials, who have denounced the inhumane conditions in detention centers, nevertheless say that they have no alternatives. “Libya is a sovereign country and we need to be working in close partnership with the Libyan authorities,” an EU spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “We’re not turning a blind eye to the situation. We’re trying to do our best in the situation that is not easy.”
In 2017, the African Union began to take a bigger role, which has helped. “They started paying attention to the fact it’s their own people suffering,” an IOM (International Organization for Migration) official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. It became easier, for example, for trapped people to obtain papers to allow them to leave the country. That helped some 20,000 people return to their country of origin aboard IOM-run flights from Libya.
“Voluntary returns isn’t being presented as a solution to address the current situation,” Belbesi, head of the IOM Libya, told BuzzFeed News. “It’s just one of the solutions that are available for people that are stranded in the country.”
Many don’t want to go home. For those fleeing war or repressive governments, Libya is not much better or worse than going home. A handful of African countries are accepting “third-country resettlements,” but experts say it’s just a stopgap solution until those who really need asylum can be given viable routes to do so.
Slavery typically conjures up images of ships transporting black Africans across the Atlantic, or the death marches of the trans-Saharan slave trade. But this modern-day version has added a cruel twist this time, people from sub-Saharan Africa are often selling themselves into slavery, believing they are buying a ticket from a life of conflict, poverty, or repression to a glittering future in Europe. In a grim irony, the very policies of a European Union that is hardening itself against immigration are largely responsible not only for preventing people from reaching the continent, but their becoming enslaved and dying in their attempts to escape.
Libya has always been the stepping-off point for migrants, and Gaddafi controlled the numbers of migrants. For him to get cash-for-migration-control deals, he always threatened to unleash the migrants into Europe and turn mainland Europe into "black Europe." In 2008, Gaddafi received $5billion from Italy as reparations, and in turn he would control the flow of migrants into Italy. Asylum seekers were being captured and returned to Libya, until the European Court of Human Rights gave a ruling saying the deal broke human rights laws. He began demanding $5 billion euros from the EU annually.
However since Gaddafi's death, migrants routes have opened up again.
Panicked European governments turned to a familiar playbook. Through EU and UN security and funding agencies, they poured sophisticated surveillance equipment, warships, and billions of euros into countries across Africa — with Libya as the centerpiece — in an effort to push back, return, or contain would-be arrivals. With no strongman ally this time around, that money has been channeled toward training Libya’s coast guard and funding migrant-holding centers even when news emerged of coast guards firing on refugee boats or militia-run labor camps.
But critics fear that without dealing with the root triggers of migration, these kind of border controls are short-sighted at best. Sealing one route simply opens another one. The question is how long is it sustainable, and at what human cost?