Black Africans are being sold like inanimate objects in slave auctions across Libya. Like so many modern horrors, there is video evidence of this atrocity.
Cellphone footage from August, captured in an unidentified Libyan town, documents an outdoor slave market during a sale in progress. In the video, below, an auctioneer describes two Nigerians as “big strong boys for farm work,” before he begins calling out increasingly larger bids to an audience off-camera. The price that is settled on for both men comes to 1,200 Libyan dinars, or roughly $800 American. Two young men—two human beings—have just been sold at a price of $400 apiece.
For refugees fleeing violence, poverty and oppression in parts of Africa to its east, south and west, Libya has become a temporary landing point; a gateway that ultimately leads to the shores of southern Europe. But Libya has been torn apart by tribal warring and violence since 2011, when U.S.-led forces overthrew Muammar Gaddafi while making little effort to stabilize the region. This leadership vacuum has left Libya in a state of chaos in which “modern forms of slavery prosper,” according to human rights organization Walk Free.
Libya currently ranks among the top six countries on the Global Slavery Index, a result of its rampant “conflict, corruption, displacement, discrimination and inequality.” Longstanding North African racism toward black Africans is a contributing factor to the mistreatment of migrants. Shokri Agmar, a Libyan lawyer and journalist, told the New Internationalist in 2016 that sub-Saharan refugees are disadvantaged at every turn.
“They’re in a state of complete and utter helplessness,” Agmar explained. “Us Libyans rely on our own militias to protect ourselves, but migrants lack a militia of their own so they are defenseless against the constant threats. Whatever happens to them, no one will lift a finger, and they cannot keep a low profile because of the color of their skin.”
Add to these conditions rising racism, xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments in countries like Italy, where hundreds of thousands of African migrants seek refuge. Early this year, Italy, with EU backing, agreed to pay the Libyan coast guard to stop migrant-filled vessels from reaching Europe. Once seized, those boats are redirected back to Libya, where their occupants are placed in detention centers and camps often run by corrupt entities. The migrants are often subject to physical attacks and sexual abuse, while others are sold as human chattel. Those abuses are so common that earlier this year, UNICEF designated the Libyan path to Europe “among the world’s deadliest and most dangerous migrant routes for children and women.”
CNN, which posted the slave auction video in October, verified the footage and launched its own investigation that turned up yet more evidence of how common this scene is in towns across Libya. At a nondescript private home outside the capital city of Tripoli, a team from the network secretly filmed a similar market where CNN reporters watched “a dozen people go ‘under the hammer’ in the space of six or seven minutes.”
“Does anybody need a digger? This is a digger, a big strong man, he’ll dig,” the salesman, dressed in camouflage gear, says. “What am I bid, what am I bid?”
Buyers raise their hands as the price rises, “500, 550, 600, 650…” Within minutes it is all over and the men, utterly resigned to their fate, are being handed over to their new “masters.”
The International Organization for Migrants, in a report released back in April, details the fate that awaits those sold into slavery. The group points to the example of a Senegalese man who “described being ‘bought’ and then being brought to his first ‘prison,” a private home where more than 100 migrants were held as hostages.” He and the other enslaved refugees faced “dreadful sanitary conditions, and food [was] offered only once per day.” Their captors frequently demanded they call their families in their home countries and subjected them to “beatings while on the phone so that their family members could hear them being tortured.” The prisoners were forced to beg relatives for money, in amounts that varied from roughly $500 to nearly $1,000, in order to be released. Those who were unable to collect the money were “reportedly killed, or left to starve to death.”
[The enslaved man] told IOM that when somebody died or was released, kidnappers returned to the market to “buy” more migrants to replace them. Women, too, were “bought” by private individuals—Libyans, according to this witness—and brought to homes where they were forced to be sex slaves.
This account matches that of a man named Victory whom CNNencountered in a Tripoli detention center, who described how his family in Nigeria had given their life savings for the promise of his new life in Europe. When he finally reached Libya, smugglers demanded more money until he ultimately had nothing left to give, and he was sold multiple times. “If you look at most of the people here, if you check your bodies, you see the marks,” Victory said. “They are beaten, mutilated.”
Monday, on the heels of the CNN report and others like it, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres declared he was “horrified at news reports and video footage showing African migrants in Libya reportedly being sold as slaves.”
“I abhor these appalling acts and call upon all competent authorities to investigate these activities without delay and to bring the perpetrators to justice,” the statement continues. “I have asked the relevant United Nations actors to actively pursue this matter.”
The U.N. Security Council echoed those sentiments in a meeting Tuesday, when the body again called for an investigation. “Those images on CNN shocked because they showed that this most degrading form of exploitation is tragically not a thing of the past,” Matthew Rycroft, the UK ambassador to the U.N., reportedly stated. “It is happening today, and it is happening on our watch.”
But this isn’t the first sign of these abuses. The world must keep its eyes on Libya and demand that international forces not only condemn but move to eradicate the slave markets.
“People are rightfully outraged,” Hanan Salah, senior Libya researcher in the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, told Reuters, “but don’t hold your breath that anything real is going to happen.”