A CNN investigation has uncovered migrants, who are trying to reach Europe via North Africa, being auctioned off for as little as US$400 for manual labour within Libya. Cellphone footage of an auction shows African men as “big, strong boys for farm work.” These migrants have left their own country to escape conflict or to find better economic opportunities. Crackdowns on smuggling in Libya have created overcrowding in smugglers’ camps, causing them to sell off migrants based on their physical attributes. Slave trading in Libya has become so normalized that it now occurs in public.
According to Newsweek, Libyan authorities say they are aware of smuggling operations but not slave auctions. Smugglers have earned hundreds of thousands of dollars transporting vulnerable people across the Mediterranean to Europe. A previous investigation by Newsweek found that smugglers drew people to Libya via social media from countries like Niger, Egypt, and Sudan. They then put them onto rickety, unseaworthy vessels that cross over to Europe. Former Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino has said, “These auctions are just a variation of the horror we know… Men, women, and children enslaved, raped, beaten, piled on top of one another (in centres). All this has been known for a long time.”
A lot of the dialogue on this issue is drenched in Islamophobia. People make arguments that Muslims are selling non-Muslim and Muslim Africans. Others argue that this is not the west’s problem, that the west has no responsibility to take on people from these dysfunctional countries. What they are missing is that western intervention, whether it be colonialism or more recent NATO or U.S. interventions, is the reason these countries are dysfunctional and have no proper rule of law. Therefore, people seek refuge in European countries that border the Mediterranean. Following the removal of Muammar Gaddafi from power by NATO intervention in 2011, no coherent government has taken control of Libya. In fact, it has created a power vacuum in which Islamists, affiliated with al Qaeda and ISIS, fight for power and territory. Is it still not apparent after numerous failed attempts by the west that removing governments and leaders from power, no matter how corrupt they are, is not the solution and in fact acerbates the problem?
The slave trade was abolished in Tripoli in 1853, but it continued in practice until the 1890s. After a NATO-led military intervention in 2011, which ousted then Libyan President Gaddafi, slavery returned to Libya and migrants from countries in Africa below Libya were, and continue to be, targeted on the smuggling route and transferred to Libyan slave markets. Libya has always been a destination for African migrants, even before Gaddafi’s fall. According to Time magazine, Gaddafi saw himself as a “munificent overseer of the continent below him.” He sent money and weaponry when states struggled for liberation from their colonial masters. He helped to fund the African Union and even pushed to establish the “United States of Africa.” Because Libya was, and still is, rich in oil, it has attracted migrants who hope to earn money to send home to their families. After Gaddafi’s fall, there was retaliation against these African migrants living in Libya, with angry crowds chanting “blacks must go.” All of this has set the stage for the situation that exists in Libya today.
The crackdown on the smuggling of migrants across the Mediterranean has been a strong factor in the increase in slave trading in Libya. It is a perfect example of how stopping a problem needs to go to the root cause, because the issue will continue if not addressed, but will merely take on a new face. Western populations must not ignore the impact they have had on countries like Libya, otherwise history is destined to repeat itself. Increasing Islamophobia is also unhelpful. Humans will commit atrocious crimes and take advantage of others no matter their religion. Therefore, saying that Muslims are evil because they sell Christians and Muslims into slavery is not only unhelpful but also untrue.
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