By Soyeon Park
“Does anybody need a digger? This is a digger, a big strong man, he’ll dig,” said an auctioneer in Libya, according to the video released by CNN. This auction is not an ordinary auction that sells goods. The ‘merchandise’ of this auction is two human beings, traumatized by all the events they went through until they were sold as a piece of property to a complete stranger.
The issue of modern slavery emerged as a global interest since CNN released a video of a modern slave trade in Libya in 15 November, 2017. In the video, two young men are being sold in a slave trade as a farm laborer in only $400. People who are sold as slaves in Libya are mostly refugees and migrants coming from other North African countries to find a better life in Europe. They try to sail through Libya’s borders and cross the Mediterranean Sea, since it is the main transit point to reach Europe. However, a recent crackdown by the Libyan Coast Guard funded by the EU has made the smuggling boats harder to make their way to Europe. Refugees and migrants that failed to make the journey are susceptible to going in the hands of the smugglers, where a new nightmare begins.
Once in the hands of the smugglers, migrants are viciously tortured before getting sold in the slave auctions. There has been multiple witnesses of beating, rape, people starving to death and getting shot. According to Emmanuel John, one of the migrants who tried to get through Libya to Europe, the smugglers beat from the moment he crossed the Libyan borders. “The smugglers that brought us to Libya handed us to others, from the same network,” he said. “There are stops along the way until you arrive in the city. At every stop you have to pay money. And if you don’t, there will be beatings.”
Arriving at the city, the smugglers begin to arrange slave auctions where they become auctioneers and migrants become slaves. The slave auctions take place in normal villages and towns in Libya, where people live their ordinary lives; adults going to work and children playing with their neighbors like everyone else in the modern days. It is only the slave trades that make the Libyan villages different from modern villages in other countries. Migrants and refugees whose funds have run out are repetitively sold off in those slave auctions as a day laborer by smugglers.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) of the UN has recorded countless slave trades along the migration routes in North Africa in April 2017. According to the reports, the migrants are priced according to their abilities, and the smugglers sell and discard them just like commodities until they have no value. “Apparently they don’t have money and their families cannot pay the ransom, so they are being sold to get at least a minimum benefit from that,” said Othman Belbeisi, the IOM’s chief of mission for Libya. “The price is definitely different depending on your qualifications, for example if you can do painting or tiles or some specialised work then the price gets higher.”
The smugglers also demand ransom payments from the migrants’ families before they release them and send them to the government-run detention center where they wait to be sent back to the countries where they originally came from. However, waiting to go back to their countries is not as simple as it seems to be. The migrants held in detention centers cannot go back to their countries unless they go through a legal process, and without them, their sentence behind the bars of the detention centers can be indefinite. They suffer inhumane conditions, crammed in a small warehouse without food and light. When they make noises or rush for food, they get beaten by the guards with a water pipe. Some jailors urge the prisoners to call home while getting hit, to force money from their families. “When we call, we are crying. They beat you on the head. There are some people who don’t want to obey-they burn their body,” said Osman Abdel Salam, a migrant from Sudan caught in the Triq al-Sika detention center in Tripoli, Libya, “I just want to leave this place and go to my country.”
According to William Lacy Swing, the director general of the UN migration agency, the IOM has been requesting the Libyan authorities to close the detention centers that take away freedom from the migrants and replace them with open centers, where basic human rights are guaranteed. Fortunately, Libyan authorities have replied and seven of the 30 official detention centers in Libya has closed. In addition, the IOM has managed to repatriate 13,000 migrants captured in Libyan detention centers since 2015. However, there are still about 15,000 stuck in the center, and many of them have a high chance of spending months and years there.
One of the primary causes which drives migrants to start the perilous journey is social media. Photos of migrants doing well in Europe appear on social media and messaging apps provide secret connections between the smugglers and migrants. Migrants that suffer from their home countries’ dire situations such as poverty and government dictatorship get easily enticed by them and pick up vague optimism and temptation that they will live a much better life in Europe. “They’re being completely misled into thinking that’s a happy future for them and being misled through social media.” commented Leonard Doyle, the IOM spokesperson.
Not only the smugglers use social media to get migrants involved in the dangerous journey, they also use them to extort money from the captured migrants’ family members. IOM has reported in August, 2017 that smugglers broadcasted a video of 75 migrants held in a concrete room and getting tortured in Facebook. The video clips were sent to their families via the encrypted messenger platform, WhatsApp, forcing thousands of dollars from them. In order to prevent those abuses, the IOM has been asking social media firms to prevent migrant exploitation through their platforms, according to Swing.
Unfortunately, Libyan authorities had failed to implement law in their country due to the sudden transition of the government, and lawless Libya is considered hopeless to eradicate the domestic practice of slave trades and migrant smuggling. The country requires international help, and currently the IOM staffs in Libya are working to implement conditions that meet minimum human rights such as sanitation, hygiene and safety. In addition, their voluntary humanitarian return assistance allows migrants to go back to their home country in an informed and safe process, accompanying safeguards. The whole international community is also working to save the captured migrants from the detention centers. On 29 November, 2017, leaders of African and European countries met a conference in Ivory Coast for an evacuation plan to repatriate 15,000 migrants held in Libya. As a result of this plan, most of the migrants will be sent back to where they came from.
The word ‘slavery’ is normally thought to be a practice that was abolished long time ago. However, there are thousands of migrants in this world who end up as slaves due to those who seek to make profit from enslaving them and tormenting them for extortion. “To hear the auctioneer describe the migrants as ‘big strong boys for farm work’ should shock the conscience of us all,” criticized Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, “There are few greater violations of human rights and human dignity than this.”