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New report highlights tragedy of Libya slave markets

Siham Ouchtou
April 18, 2017

A shocking report from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) tells of migrants who were sold in "slave markets" in Libya. DW spoke with a Mexican photographer who has seen these horrors with his own eyes.

Sklavenhandel mit Migranten in Libyen
Image: Narciso Contreras, courtesy by Fondation Carmignac

International organizations and media have highlighted the struggle of African refugees in Libya before, but an IOM report released last week gives testimonies of migrants held in "slave markets" in Libya where they are held for ransom, forced to do hard labor without pay and are even sexually exploited.    

Mexican photographer Narciso Contreras was one of the first to capture the situations of refugees in Libya and won an award from the Carmignac Foundation for his work on the topic of slavery there.

Contreras told DW that the report is important but yet incomplete. It overlooks some vital aspects such as the involvement of government-linked militias in the smuggling and enslavement of migrants.

Some observers say the phenomenon of selling migrants as slaves is new in Libya. "This the result of the continued chaos in the country and the lack of a centralized authority that fights such crimes," Rachid Khechana, the director of Libyan studies at the Maghreb research center in Tunis told DW. On the other hand there are more and more calls for European countries to intervene to end the tragedy of these migrants.

Exploited for a price

According to the IOM, Libya has "slave markets where migrants are sold at a price ranging from $200 to 500 dollars." They are forced to work and are often unpaid, while some face sexual abuse.  Khechana said the main reason for the spread of such phenomena in Libya is the lack of accountability the smugglers face.

Sklavenhandel mit Migranten in Libyen
African migrants in a Libyan detention centerImage: Narciso Contreras, courtesy by Fondation Carmignac

"Members of tribes in the south of Libya are often involved the smuggling and enslavement of the migrants," Khechana continued. The migrants are forced into isolation, where they are detained, robbed of all their possessions and starved to the point where they do not receive more than one meal every 24 hours. "They are mistreated by the guards where they are being kept and face beatings, insults and sexual abuse. The most fortunate among them are those who have the money to pay for their escape or are able to get ransom money from their families. Those who cannot face all sorts of consequences, including murder," he said.

"I think those involved in enslaving the migrants want to exploit them purely for monetary reasons. If the migrants are unable to pay money to free themselves, they are then sold on a market," Khechana explained.

Authorities involved in smuggling 

The Mexican photographer Contreras said that the Libyan authorities themselves were involved in the smuggling of the migrants. He told DW that during his work in Libya he met two "slaves" who were forced into labor, and their "owners" were the Libyan authorities. One of the owners, according to Contreras, was the director of an immigration detention center in Sorman and the second was a militia leader there. Sorman is on the Mediterranean coast about 60 kilometers west of Tripoli. 

Although Contreras viewed the report as not being comprehensive, he thought its importance stemmed from the fact that it focuses exclusively on slavery of migrants in Libya. Generally, coverage has been of other aspects of the migrant crisis in Libya. "It is important to reckon with the fact that Libya has become a trafficking market," he said.  Many of the warring militias in Libya are involved in smuggling of migrants between Africa and Europe.

Rachid Khechana tunesischer Expert
Rachid Khechana, director of the Maghreb center for Libyan studies in TunisiaImage: privat

He pointed out that a large number of migrants used Libya as transit country to reach Europe.

The EU border agency "Frontex" says that in the first three months of 2017 the number of migrants using Libya as a transit country was more than 24,000. This was an increase of 30 percent over the same period in the previous year. A study by Antonio Moroni, an Italian researcher in Libya, indicated that less than 15 percent of immigrants to Libya were seeking to move to Europe, with many of them coming from Eritrea, Somalia and Syria. The vast majority of migrants coming to Libya wanted to improve their living conditions - the oil-exporting country being perceived as relatively stable compared to sub-Saharan Africa.

What role for EU countries?

Due to the increasing criticism and pressure due to issue of migrants in Libya, the EU has introduced a new 90-million-euro program to end the migration of Africans to Europe via the Mediterranean. This includes efforts to repatriate 15,000 African migrants stranded in Libya voluntarily. The European Commission is also seeking to improve the tragic living conditions of in the camps for migrants in Libya. The new program is implemented by the German Commission for International Cooperation.

The weekly German newspaper "Welt am Sonntag" also reported that the European Commission was considering sending a European police mission to help guard the border of southern Libya, an essential point for African migrants to sneak into the country.

Khechana recommended that  Europeans deal more firmly with the conflicting governments in Libya to fight slavery: "These governments have authority on the ground to deal with the cells of militias exploiting these migrants and are therefore capable of fighting this phenomenon. If they do not comply, the Europeans should impose sanctions on them as they have done with those who have violated human rights."