Slavery and Human Trafficking in Libya

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SEATTLE, Washington — The significant power vacuum that resulted from the overthrow of Gaddafi plunged the country into an era of instability and lawlessness. The establishment of militias and gangs across the country developed a network of human trafficking and illegal migration flows from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe. Today, Libya extensively contributes to the migration crisis, serving as a migration hub towards Europe. It also fosters trade in human cargo, in other words, slavery. Slavery and human trafficking in Libya have become a serious threat.

The Migration Crisis

After overthrowing Gaddafi, Europe was occupied trying to confine the flux of migrants departing from Libya. It failed to oversee the undertaking of the reconstruction of the country or help fill the power vacuum. Ironically, this vacuum led to the development of armed militias and gangs that established Libyan ports as the main passing point for illegal migration towards Europe. In fact, 132,000 of sub-Saharan African migrants who arrived in Europe passed through Libya in 2017. As of 2019, there were at least 800,000 migrants in Libya who were hoping to cross to Europe.

The European Union passed a deal with Libya in 2017, providing boats, training and more than €300 million, to contain the flow of migrants passing through the Mediterranean route. Consequently, during the first three months of 2019, there was a 17 percent decrease of migrants crossing to Europe from Libya than in 2018. This deal was extremely controversial taking into account that migrants who were intercepted while crossing the Mediterranean sea were sent back to Libya and often put into overcrowded detention centers. This raised alarming concerns about their treatment and rights.

Moreover, Libya currently hosts 50,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers. However, it is not a part of the U.N. 1951 Refugee Convention, nor does it have a national refugee law. So, there is nothing to ensure the protection of these refugees. Many migrants, and now refugees, have reported being sexually abused, beaten and mistreated in detention centers. Other migrants reported being taken and forced to work for armed militias.

Slave Trade

The adoption of tighter measures from Libyan coastguards, in cooperation with the EU, means that fewer migrants are leaving Libya by sea. This has put migrants in the hands of smugglers who have become better established than the state in the past few years. Smugglers developed a slave trade, selling African migrants and refugees, which a CNN investigation exposed in 2017. This caused global outrage and reactions from the international community.

Antonio Guterres, the U.N. Secretary-General, stated these actions “are among the most egregious abuses of human rights and may amount to crimes against humanity.” This being said, since Gaddafi’s overthrow, Libya has been divided into two rival governments: the Government of National Accords (GNA), backed by the U.N., and the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar. Consequently, it is extremely difficult for the U.N. and its agencies to effectively address the migrant crisis and slave trade in Libya considering they are not even recognized by LNA.

Failing to Act

The slave trade in Libya was facilitated by the failure of international organizations and foreign countries. On the international level, NATO countries failed to fill the power vacuum created by the overthrow of Gaddafi while European countries still fail to address the root causes of migration from Libyan ports. By tightening measures to contain migration from Libya, European countries have fueled the slave trade without providing a viable solution for thousands of African migrants stuck in Libya. In addition, the U.N. has failed to provide sufficient aid and refuge in lawless Libya. A U.N. audit published in March 2019 disclosed mismanagement of funds and incorrect assessments of the amount of aid required from the UNHCR.

On the regional level, the African Union is failing to address the issue of migration and refugees in Libya. Detention facilities for migrants are full. The African Union is not assisting Libya in returning these migrants to their home countries. On the state level, the ruling lawlessness due to the country being divided between the LNA, the GNA and armed militias, is enabling the slave trade and human abuses to occur. It also prevents external aid. Without a united government ruling the country, chaos will persist in Libya.

Prospects for Peace

The on-going turmoil, migration crisis, slavery and human trafficking in Libya are all caught in an ‘infernal trap.’ They require joint actions from international, regional and state-level actors to address the deeply anchored issues that have built up over time. As long as Libya is trapped in a protracted conflict, chaos, lawlessness and inhumane acts will reign. This being said, there are prospects for peace.

A recent U.N. peace plan hopes to help countries that have an interest in Libya find solutions and go forward in the same direction. In September 2019, a meeting took place between Italy, Germany, Britain, China, France and the U.S. The aim of the meeting was to end the external support of military faction in Libya and ultimately end the existing proxy war.

Andrea Duleux
Photo: Flickr

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