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Libyan refugee slave trade goes public

19 April 20171 comment

Refugees and migrants from West Africa are being bought and sold openly in modern-day slave markets in Libya, a UN agency has claimed.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says it has been told by survivors that the barbaric trade is taking place opening in Libyan market places.

The IOM says trafficked people passing through Libya have previously reported violence, extortion and slave labour but now stories are emerging that suggests the trade in human beings has become so normalised that people are being traded in public.

“The latest reports of ‘slave markets’ for migrants can be added to a long list of outrages in Libya,” said IOM’s head of operation and emergencies Mohammed Abdiker.

“The situation is dire. The more IOM engages inside Libya, the more we learn that it is a vale of tears for all too many migrants,” he said.

Libya is a major exit point for refugees from Africa trying to take boats to Europe but since the overthrow of Dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the vast, sparsely populated country has slid into violent chaos.

Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are easy prey for kidnappers and militias in Libya, making the Mediterranean crossing almost the least dangerous situation they face and migrants with little cash and usually no papers are particularly vulnerable.

One survivor from Senegal told IOM he was taken to a dusty lot in the south Libyan city of Sabha after crossing the desert from Niger in a bus organised by people smugglers.

He said the group had paid to be taken to the coast, where they planned to risk a boat trip to Europe, but their driver suddenly said middlemen had not passed on his fees and put his passengers up for sale.

“The men on the pick-up were brought to a square, or parking lot, where a kind of slave trade was happening. There were locals – he described them as Arabs – buying sub-Saharan migrants,” an IOM official said this week.

The IOM interviewed the survivor after he escaped from Libya earlier this month and said accounts of slave markets were confirmed by other migrants she spoke to in Niger and some who had been interviewed by colleagues in Europe

“Several other migrants confirmed his story, independently describing kinds of slave markets as well as kinds of private prisons all over in Libya,” the IOM official said.

“IOM Italy has confirmed that this story is similar to many stories reported by migrants and collected at landing points in southern Italy, including the slave market reports,” she said.

“This gives more evidence that the stories reported are true, as the stories of those who managed to cross-match those who are returning back to their countries,” the official said.

After his sale, the Senegalese migrant was taken to a makeshift prison of a kind that has been previously documented in Libya.

Those held inside are forced to work without pay, or on meagre rations, and their captors regularly call family at home demanding a ransom.

The Senegalese survivor told IOM his captors had asked for 300,000 West African francs (about $630), then sold him on to a larger jail where the demand doubled without explanation.

Men who lingered there too long without the ransom being paid were taken away and killed, the man said.

Some wasted away on meagre rations in unsanitary conditions, dying of hunger and disease, but overall numbers never fell.

“If the number of migrants goes down, because of death or someone is ransomed, the kidnappers just go to the market and buy one,” the IOM official said.

The man’s family began scraping together loans. As he spoke fluent English, French and some local languages, he translated for his jailers to win time for relatives to collect the money.

In another recent incident the bodies of dozens of people washed ashore in western Libya.

They were discovered on the coast near the city of Zawiya after the engine had been removed from their boat.

The IOM says they were migrants from West Africa trying to reach Europe.

The organisation has evidence that criminals are posing as aid workers purporting to help migrants to lure in people who have escaped or bought their freedom and want to return home.


Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist