The Active Western Role in the Libyan Slave Trade

 /  Jan. 21, 2018, 10:35 p.m.


As twenty-first century Americans, we are guilty of assuming that slavery is an institution of the past. We applaud ourselves on progressivism and for making strides towards equality. But in reality, the slave trade is still alive and flourishing through illegal networks in Libya, and the West has turned a blind eye.

In the fall of 2017, footage of two men being sold in Tripoli was recorded on a camera phone and released to the public. What followed was an undercover investigation by CNN and the subsequent realization of a huge problem: migrants in Libya are being purchased as slaves during auctions. Organized gangs profiting off of migrants traveling through Libya to get to Europe are acting as the auctioneers. The treatment of these so-called slaves, both at the detention centers and at the auctions themselves, is nothing short of horrendous. They are abused, forced to live in terrible conditions, and deprived of food. After the video was released, there was an outcry from the global community—France condemned the action and the United Nations held a summit at the end of the year.

Where are these “slaves” coming from?

In the past three years alone, roughly half a million people have attempted to cross the Mediterranean via Libya as refugees fleeing their home countries. Why Libya? The country’s location is ideal; its long border and direct access to the Mediterranean make it a hotspot for migration. In addition, migrants are drawn to countries with dysfunctional governments and no coherent legal system. Without a functioning law, the odds of their being punished for trespassing are slimmer. In this way, Libya is attractive to migrants.

Despite Libya’s attractiveness, the journey across the Mediterranean is treacherous; the United Nations estimates that roughly three thousand migrants die each year while trying to cross. Though cry for humanitarian action has led to stricter enforcement of border patrol and more frequent coast guard searches, migrants have continued to travel to Libya in hopes of making it across and escaping whatever persecution they found at home. Only now, because of stricter patrolling, more are getting caught. The coast guard crackdowns have caused an accumulation of detainees stuck in Libya. Smugglers can then take advantage of these men, and this exploitation quickly devolved into a slave trader/slave relationship.

Why do smugglers have the power to exploit free men?

First and foremost, the Libyan government is not strong enough to fight off of the stream of refugees. After Muammar Gaddafi was thrown from power, rival governments formed and have been vying for power in different regions of the country. Since then, Libya has been dealing with the incoherence of their government, which has made it difficult to enforce the fair treatment of men who are not even citizens.

In addition, the migrants’ desperation to flee oppression in their own countries has fueled the  slave trade. Getting in trouble with Libyan authorities is often better than whatever persecution they faced back home, and as a result thousands make the trek. Because they are willing to risk their lives, the migrants are more susceptible to being exploited.

An active Western contribution

Unfortunately, though, it is not as though this trade has been thriving without any Western awareness. On the contrary, the West has known, or at least had proof, since at least last April. A statement was released by the Internal Organization for Migration (IOM) in April 2017 that reported the existence of slave markets across North Africa, and there was no global-scale response to these reports. A UN human rights report from September 2017 stated that “Returned migrants are being robbed, raped, and murdered in Libya,” and still there was no outcry. It took physical evidence in the form of digital auction footage to convince the public that an urgent solution was needed.

In addition, Italy, along with the European Union, inadvertently played a large role in the. After refugees began to enter Europe from the Mediterranean coast, Italy, with the backing of the European Union, allocated funds to the Libyan coast guard directly to enforce their borders and detain illegal migrants. Italy was likely trying to decrease the amount of migrants entering their border. However, the money they put into border control led to the backlog of passengers in detention centers, and the situation rapidly degenerated.

Yet this direct relationship between Europe and the slave trade is not the only issue. Europe has played a much larger role in fueling the general African migrant crisis.

A larger scale relationship between the West and Africa

In Libya’s case specifically, Western interference has been only mildly beneficial. After helping to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, the West was supposed to assist with a democratic transition of power. However, instead of providing Libya with the necessary infrastructure to start a new government in the right direction, the West largely pulled out of Libya. This caused the rival governments to form, which clearly has not benefited the Libyan people as the West intended.

As other African nations, such as Zimbabwe, can attest, giving temporary aid (either in the form of assistance in overthrowing authoritarian regimes or in funds) without supplying the necessary infrastructure can lead to serious problems, because it paves the way for corrupt regimes to take over.

Now, we have reached the point where international action is needed, because Libya is physically unable to fix their problem alone. The summit that met at the end of 2017 decided that fifteen thousand migrants would be flown back to their original countries. France has played a particularly large role, both in offering a temporary place of refuge for migrants and also in conveying the atrocities of the trade to the public. Yet this will not solve the problem. The origin of the slave trade were the issues plaguing the migrants’ home countries that caused them to leave in the first place.

A true solution would revolve around providing African nations with the infrastructural help they need to keep citizens content in their own nations as well as to prevent hotspot countries such as Libya from taking in their refugees. Instead of funneling resources and funding to Libya, who did not know what to do with with them, it would have been much more beneficial for the West to install a democratic government with a strong constitution after Gaddafi’s overthrow, setting the country up for economic success in the long run.

Of course, this is incredibly complicated, but the sooner that Western nations turn their focus to these aims, the sooner the refugee problem will come to a close and nations can promise not only safety, but prosperity, to their people.

Noa Levin is a Staff Writer for The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons. 

Noa Levin

Noa Levin is a third-year Political Science major and Human Rights minor from New York. On campus, Noa works as a research assistant for Professor Paul Staniland and as Communications Director of the Maroon Project on Security and Threats (MPOST). She has previously served as a Policy Research Lead for Neal Salés-Griffin’s campaign for Mayor of Chicago, and this past summer, she interned at the U.S. Department of State. In her free time, Noa enjoys watching Seinfeld and bullet journaling.


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