African refugees and migrants seeking passage to Europe are at risk of being sold as cheap labour by smugglers in Libya, in what the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has described as a ‘slave trade’. In the last three years over 150,000 have made the journey from Libya, paying for a place in overcrowded boats that smugglers cast into the Mediterranean. While the migrant crisis has subsided since its 2015 peak, 27,000 have crossed in 2017. There have always been dangers for those seeking passage, but in recent months smugglers have become increasingly brazen and reports of abductions have skyrocketed.
Early this month, sightings emerged of open sales of abductees. The Head of the IOM Libya mission, Othman Belbeisis, said that ‘migrants are being sold in the market as a community… becoming a trend among smugglers as the smuggling networks in Libya are becoming stronger and stronger’. Young men, largely from Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia and Senegal, are being sold as labourers, whereas women are at risk of prostitution. The IOM has estimated that people are purchased for between $200 and $500 and held on average for 2 or 3 months. The IOM has arranged the repatriation of 1,500 individuals between January and March in 2017, the same number as all of 2015. This is indicative of the escalating crisis. Further reports describe how families have been ransomed for the safety of their captured relatives. Some abductees are sold to prisons and extorted to secure their release. Those who cannot pay are at risk of torture and death. Many have been buried without identification, with several mass graves discovered. This troubling news came after the United Nation’s report ‘A Deadly Journey for Children’ earlier this year found that 26,000 children have suffered abuse at the hands of smugglers when seeking to cross.
What can be done to undermine the smugglers and protect the human rights of refugees and migrants? Libya has been in a state of instability since the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011, which has weakened official capacity to prosecute smugglers. Recently the EU has provided 200 million Euros to Libya’s UN-back government to reinforce the coastguard and disrupt the smuggling network. While important for improving the country’s stability, this alone has limited reach. IOM Libya is currently implementing a community stabilization program in southern Libya. Funded by the EU and the German Cooperation, it aims at promoting peace and stability for IDPs and migrants (of which there are an estimated 1.5 million in Libya). It also works with and empowers local host communities. Furthermore, the IOM intends to map protection services available to vulnerable migrants such as victims of trafficking, Unaccompanied Migrant Children and migrants with serious illnesses.
A dual approach, which both supports government capacity to implement the law and improves conditions within local communities is certainly admirable and will aid the situation. However, given the continuing absence of a clear strategy for refugees and migrants within Europe, it will be difficult to break the power of the smugglers.