Libya’s Modern Slavery and the Politics of Denial

Slavery—complete with auctions and auctioneers—appears to have returned to Libya in 2017. Its comeback and the severity of related human trafficking abuses were exposed in a CNN investigative report, aired in November 2017, which showcases what seems to be the tip of the iceberg of the systematic abuse endured by migrants and refugees across the country. These also are victims of frequent acts of robbery, rape, and murder in Libya, as characterized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR). William Swing, the Director General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), says that “the abuse of migrants in Libya is a blot on the world’s conscience.”

Factors Aiding the Phenomenon

This cruel treatment of refugees and migrants raises new questions about three major political, socioeconomic, and moral dilemmas for the Libyan government as well as for the European Union and international community.

First is the structural and ethical failure of a fragile government that has ignored several personal and institutional accounts about the growing pattern of exchanging human beings, as “merchandise,” for money in the 21st century. Swing explains how “the worst abuse happens at the hands of people looking to make a profit from the lucrative business of people smuggling. They show no mercy in enslaving migrants or torturing them for extortion.”

Second is the undetected ordeal of an estimated 20,000 refugees and migrants who are currently held in detention centers run by the General Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM), a division established in 2012 under the jurisdiction of Libya’s Ministry of Interior. They are kept in custody arbitrarily for indefinite periods in about two dozen detention centers “in inhuman conditions and subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment, including sexual violence.” This extralegal system of indefinite detention, which is the government’s response to “illegal” entry to the country, raises questions about the authorizing entity, the source of finance, and the strategy behind controlling African migration to Europe. Some human rights activists say that “EU countries should not feign shock or outrage when the human cost of these deals is laid bare.” Furthermore, Amnesty International (AI) points to some European complicity in perpetuating those abuses in Libya.

The third dilemma is the lack of an effective strategy by the international community to address human trafficking and subsequent human rights abuses in the southern shores of the Mediterranean. According to AI, “Nearly half a million migrants have made the crossing in the last three years, and over 10,000 have died in the attempt.” Since October 2013, Italy has deployed a proactive patrolling force, known as the Mare Nostrum mission, to save refugees and migrants from drowning in the sea. In the first year of its mandate, the mission managed to rescue 166,000 individuals. In October, the Italian government allocated an additional €6 million for humanitarian assistance to the UNHCR and the IOM. However, in the last two years, the European response has shifted from rescuing boat wrecks to letting other states deal with the problem. Indeed, Europe’s decision to outsource border control to Libyans, whose strategy of combating African migration has turned into a political and moral liability, has serious ramifications.

Contemporary Slavery: Libya’s Deliberate Ignorance

Prior to CNN’s investigative report, there were several wake-up calls that were pushed aside by a government splintered between two centers of power in Tripoli and Benghazi. In April 2017, scores of West African migrants briefed IOM’s employees about their experiences in Libya where they were subjected to “violence, extortion and slave labor” and how “trade in human beings has become so normalized that people are being traded in public.” In addition, a live video circulated on Facebook showing some 75 migrants being held and tortured in a dungeon. Similar accounts were confirmed by IOM Italy during interviews conducted with a number of migrants who had returned to their home countries. IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle had a first-hand experience of their plight, saying that, “Tragically, the most credible messengers are migrants returning home with IOM help. Too often they are broken, brutalized and have been abused. Their voices carry more weight than anyone else’s.”

Libya’s activities in slavery have triggered reactions of shock and condemnation worldwide. The foreign minister of Chad and chairman of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, called the auctions “despicable.” In Paris, hundreds of demonstrators and activists protested in front of the Libyan embassy, some carrying a banner that read, “Put an end to the slavery and concentration camps in Libya,” and chanting, “Free our brothers!” However, one of the ironies of Libya’s slavery story in Washington was its apparent denial by president Donald Trump, who decided to discredit CNN and ignore the real story. On November 25 he tweeted, “…CNN International is still a major source of (Fake) news, and they represent our Nation to the WORLD very poorly. The outside world does not see the truth from them!”

In New York, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said those incidents may amount to crimes against humanity: “I abhor these appalling acts and call upon all competent authorities to investigate these activities without delay and to bring the perpetrators to justice. I have asked the relevant United Nations actors to actively pursue this matter.” France called for a special session of the Security Council and threatened sanctions on the Libyan authorities if they did not investigate the practice of slavery in their country. Consequently, the Security Council called upon “all relevant authorities to investigate such activities without delay to bring the perpetrators to justice and hold those responsible to account.” It also underscored “the need for coordination of efforts to tackle the root causes of large movements of people, including forced displacement, unmanaged migration and trafficking in persons, in a comprehensive and holistic manner, to prevent exploitation of refugees and migrants by smugglers and human traffickers, as well as for implementation of the 2030 agenda.”

The reaction of the Libyan Government of National Accord, GNA, formed by the Libyan Political Agreement and backed by the United Nations, was apologetic and fell below expectations. It did not acknowledge political and ethical responsibility in preventing the slave trade, or at least pursuing seriously its eradication. The GNA statement pointed to keen interest in addressing violations against illegal immigrants, but called upon regional and global partners to provide assistance. It implied global responsibility of the migration challenge and asserted dependence on international finance. As the statement explained, Libya “is going through difficult times which affected its own citizens as well. It is, therefore, not fair to assume responsibility for the consequences of this immigration, which everyone unanimously agreed that addressing this phenomenon exceeds the national capacities.” With a similar laid-back approach, the Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided to form a committee to launch a probe into slave auctions. Still, it urged “the international community to intensify in a spirit of responsibility and joint cooperation to assist Libya.”

International human rights organizations remain skeptical of the Libyan announcements. For instance, Hanan Salah, senior Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), points out that “Libyan interim authorities have been dragging their feet on virtually all investigations they supposedly started, yet never concluded, since the 2011 uprising.” HRW also urged Libyan officials to “make good on their pledge to investigate such allegations by conducting a speedy and transparent inquiry into alleged ‘slave auctions’.” Paradoxically, the hope of making public any of the findings remains slim. By the end of 2017, the Libyan government did not indicate the completion of the investigation, nor did it express any intent to publish any findings.

From the Chains of Poverty to Mass Incarceration

Since the collapse of the Qadhafi regime in 2011, the number of migrants embracing the dream of reaching Europe has increased with an unprecedented rate. IOM estimates that between 700,000 and one million migrants are arriving in the country with the hope of crossing the Mediterranean, and more than 2,000 have died at sea this year. Quoting IOM, an Amnesty International report notes that “over 60% of migrants are from sub-Saharan Africa, 32% from other North African countries, and around 7% from Asian and Middle Eastern countries.” The geographic position of Libya has become a de facto transit route. One of these migrants, known as “Edward” from Cameroon, was interviewed by AI; he summarized the risks of using Libya as a transit country: “In Libya, it’s either death, prison, or Italy. You cannot go back, you cannot turn around.”

On the northern front, Italy and to some extent, Malta have made significant efforts in providing humanitarian assistance to migrants who were risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean. However, the sea rescue efforts became burdensome on their governments in the last three years. These dynamics have resulted in the decision of EU member states, including Italy, to restrict migration from the south. Their investment in outsourcing border control has given European governments positive indicators of efficacy. Between July and November 2017, the sea crossings to Italian shores dropped by 67 percent in comparison with the same period in 2016, with a noticeable decrease in deaths in the Mediterranean.

Paradoxically, the outcome of this European-Libyan cooperation has led to politically motivated denials of widespread incidents of torture, rape, slavery, and other human rights violations. John Dalhuisen, director of AI’s Europe and Central Asia program, explains that Europeans have chosen to overlook Libya’s violations and initiated “a string of cooperation agreements with Libyan authorities responsible for grave human rights violations, in particular, the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG) and the General Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM).”

There is also a mixed bag of aggravating factors that have deepened the crisis of migration in Libya. The country’s southern borders are open, and trafficking networks remain active in northern port cities as well. From a legal perspective, there is the criminalization of the status of those hundreds of thousands of African “illegals” to aspire to cross to Europe, in addition to the lack of practical legal, financial, and structural capabilities to process and identify asylum seekers and trafficking victims from economic migrants. These shortcomings have resulted in “mass, arbitrary and indefinite detention becoming the primary migration management system in the country.” A recent report published by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya describes how migrants “are brought to the centres where there is no formal registration, no legal process, and no access to lawyers or judicial authorities … Migrants are also held in farms, warehouses, houses, and apartments secured by smugglers, traffickers and armed groups.” The paradox is that these detention centers have shifted into a de facto system of abuse, torture, and extortion under the radar of the Libyan government and its international backers.

In lawless Libya, there is less emphasis on securing the borders with no tangible process for accountability of the officials in charge of overseeing those detention centers. Reports have indicated occurrences of violence, torture, and rape inside these detention centers, which are run by some influential figures and DCIM. The authorities in Tripoli have not shown serious commitment to tracking down active smuggling networks and criminal gangs in the country. John Dalhuisen of AI asserts that “EU and Italian officials cannot plausibly claim to be unaware of the grave violations being committed by some of the detention officials and LCG agents with whom they are so assiduously cooperating. Nor can they credibly claim to have insisted on key rights protection mechanisms and guarantees from their Libyan counterparts. They are, as a result, complicit in these abuses and in breach of their own human rights obligations.”

The migration control bestowed on the Libyan authorities has also turned into a tool of demanding more financial support from European as well as African governments. Mohammed Bisher, head of Libya’s Anti-Illegal Immigration Authority, said detention facilities are overwhelmed and urged other countries to take more responsibility, saying that, “We are 278 million Libyan dinars (nearly $210 million) in debt. We have to provide food, medicine, transportation … If the African Union wants to help, they can help.”

Is This an Anti-Migration Conspiracy?

With the exception of Italy and Malta, European governments have opposed the entry of refugees and economic migrants into the continent and toughened their anti-migration policies. The violent attacks in Paris, Nice, Brussels, and other cities have stigmatized the perception of refugees as possible “terrorist threats.” The European attachment to humanitarianism and morality seems to have lost the argument to fear politics. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was heavily criticized by her political rivals for welcoming nearly one million refugees and migrants from Syria and other conflict zones in the Middle East. Several reports indicate that senior European officials suggested that “refugees and asylum seekers should be held in camps in Libya or elsewhere in North Africa.” For instance, in September 2016, Hungary’s prime minister proposed to the European Union the establishment of a “giant refugee city” in Libya to process asylum seekers. The following October, the British foreign secretary said that “boats should be turned back as close to Libya as possible.”

On the flip side, the EU’s strategy of outsourcing border control seems to be a double-edged sword. The Libyan implementation on the ground has been alarming, if not counterproductive, in the context of serious human rights abuses. In a well-researched report, AI contested Europe’s cooperation with Libyan authorizes, in particular the Libyan Coast Guard and DCIM. It also pointed to a double collusion when “hundreds of thousands of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers are trapped by a web of complicities in which collusion between Libyan authorities and traffickers or smugglers, on the one hand, and between European governments and Libyan authorities and other actors, on the other, expose them to an array of human rights violations and abuses.”

Beyond Denial Politics

IOM has been persistent in urging Libyan authorities “to do all in their power to stop rounding up migrants and confining them to detention centers….” However, IOM Director General Swing remains less hopeful about the possibility of effective Libyan policies, saying that “the closure of all the centers is still not a reality, so to save lives we must be pragmatic. We need to provide an escape from the grinding nightmare of detention by helping migrants get home, and simultaneously protect them in detention.”

The media’s depiction of a new slavery could push for monitoring Libya’s implementation of international agreements as well as evaluating Europe’s strategy vis-à-vis the challenge of political asylum and migration. The following five points propose a mid-term strategy to help address the complexity of African migration:

  1. The international community needs to secure the closure of all detention centers in Libya with an effective and transparent monitoring system. It can establish alternative camps to host the 20,000 imprisoned individuals in safe zones under the protection of a UN peacekeeping force.
  2. The United Nations can allocate adequate funds and human resources to help those individuals stranded in Libya to return to their home countries. Large numbers of them have given up the European dream and are desperate to flee Libya.
  3. The criminalization of refugees and migrants, as “illegal” immigrants, should be abolished immediately in the Libyan legal system. Libyan legislators can ratify an alternative law that protects these migrants from the abuse and extortion of certain security agents and armed groups.
  4. The EU can deploy migration experts to work with the Libyan Coast Guard and the General Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration in the field, and to develop a pragmatic partnership with a humane and civilized vision of African migration.
  5. The focus should shift from a reactive position of seeking to defeat the business model of human trafficking networks into a proactive approach that addresses the deep-rooted causes of poverty and hopelessness in the countries of origin. Long-term international investment and cooperation can be promising in easing the underdevelopment trap in Africa.

Dr. Mohammed Cherkaoui is professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University and former member of the United Nations’ Panel of Experts. He sits on the Academic Advisory Board, and is a Guest Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC