African migrants sold in Libyan ‘slave markets’
Tunis - Harrowing accounts of African migrants being sold in open-air “slave markets” in Libya have surfaced, the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) said.
West African migrants told the UN migration agency of being publicly auctioned in squares and car parks before being subjected to torture, forced labour and sexual exploitation.
“The situation is dire,” Mohammed Abdiker, IOM’s director of operations and emergencies, said in a news release. “The more IOM engages inside Libya, the more we learn that it is a vale of tears for many migrants. Some reports are truly horrifying and the latest reports of ‘slave markets’ for migrants can be added to a long list of outrages.”
Experts said migrants from Nigeria, Chad, Senegal, Gambia and other African countries are being persuaded by international smuggling networks to trek towards Europe. Along the way, they are forced into captivity by kidnappers, who extort money from them or force them into labour. Some are traded in what amount to modern-day slave markets for $200-$500.
One Senegalese migrant interviewed by IOM described being “bought” at a slave market in Sabha, a hub for migrants in south-western Libya. The man said he was held hostage at a private residence, where more than 100 other migrants were beaten and tortured while family members sometimes listened on the phone as part of the captors’ efforts to extort money.
Migrants lived in abysmal conditions and were scarcely fed, the Senegalese survivor said. Those who could not obtain cash from their families for the captors were killed or left to starve. Women were routinely sold into sexual slavery.
“Migrants who go to Libya while trying to get to Europe have no idea of the torture archipelago that awaits them just over the border,” said Leonard Doyle, chief spokesman for the IOM in Geneva. “There they become commodities to be bought, sold and discarded when they have no more value.”
“We are hearing about mass graves in the desert,” added Abdiker.
Mustapha Abdelkebir, an expert in Libya-Tunisia relations at the Arab Institute for Human Rights, said the problem of trafficking is exacerbated by the conflict and instability in Libya.
“There are militias controlling ports there who work on sending these migrants to Europe for money on boats that often do not make it and sink,” Abdelkebir said.
“Once in Libya, (the migrants) find themselves working in construction sites or homes, anything to make the money needed to migrate to Europe. Many are from [Côte d’Ivoire], Niger, Chad and Senegal,” he added.
War-torn Libya has become a major transit point for African migrants heading to Europe. In 2016, more than 5,000 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean, most en route to Italy from Libya.
At least 664 migrants have died in the Mediterranean this year out of nearly 32,000 who are known to have made the trip, the IOM’s Missing Migrant Project said.
Abdelkebir stressed the importance of raising awareness among African migrants “that Europe is not heaven.”
“We need to support international organisations working on this problem and protect the borders. Finally, we need to control these networks,” he said.
“To get the message out across Africa about the dangers, we are recording the testimonies of migrants who have suffered and are spreading them across social media and on local FM radio,” Doyle said.
“Tragically the most credible messengers are migrants returning home with IOM help. Too often they are broken, brutalised and have been abused, often sexually. Their voices carry more weight than anyone else’s.”