The Tipping Point? Slave auction video finally triggers action

[Please note for ease of reading and avoiding repetition the term ‘migrant’ in this feature refers to migrants and refugees, throughout. It is fully understood that there are large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers in the mixed migration flows into Libya]

To what extent can the recent outrage following revelations of active slave auctions in Libya ignite a new resolve and force a change concerning the appalling record of human rights violations against migrants? Judging from the outcome of yesterday’s EU/AU summit in Abidjan CNN’s slave auction footage caused a tipping point of real significance.

The grim context

Earlier this year, Libya was described as the ‘epicentre’ for migrant child abuse in a UNICEF report. The details made grim reading. UNICEF claimed almost 26,000 child migrants passed through Libya in 2016, mostly unaccompanied, and the numbers continued to soar in 2017. Many of these children were found to have been “brutalised, raped, [and] killed” and nearly half the women and children interviewed had experienced sexual abuse during migration, “often multiple times and in multiple locations.”

But this is just part of the story. In addition to children, men and women on the move through Libya or coming to Libya face high and serious protection risks. The catalogue of crimes against migrants and their extreme vulnerabilities occur in the deserts along the route to Libya, inside Libya (remote areas and urban centres) and in Libya territorial waters and beyond.

The crimes, including murder, human trafficking, kidnapping, rape, sexual and physical abuse, torture, slavery including forced labour, exploitation, extortion, illegal detention in inhuman conditions, abandonment at sea and in the desert during the journey, have been increasingly documented in reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights WatchMédecins Sans Frontières (MSF), RMMS, IOM, UNHCR and other UN bodies as well as in an increasing number of media features. MSF’s international president recently claimed Libya is “…manufacturing suffering at industrial levels” for migrants.

CNN’s slave auction footage

Last week the African Union added their voice to the widespread condemnation of migrants’ treatment, sparked by the CNN exposure of ‘slave auctions’ in numerous locations in Libya. Youths from Nigeria and other sub-Saharan countries were filmed being sold to buyers for about $400 at an undisclosed location in Libya. Yet another testament to the power of on-line and social media the footage circulated widely and rapidly, causing immediate outrage.

But the sale of migrants as slaves has been common knowledge for months. In April 2017, IOM published an article about slave markets in Libya. In December 2016, UNSMIL[1] and OHCHR issued a joint report detailing the violations and abuses faced by migrants in official and unofficial detention centres, including migrants being sold for forced labour. One migrant out of ten who reported human rights violations during their journey to 4Mi indicated having experienced slavery conditions, including forced labour. These serious human-right violations are part of a general hostile environment toward migrants and more generally sub-Saharan Africans. Anti-sub Saharan racism in Libya is widespread and commonly reported by migrants: the word in Arabic for ‘slave’ is still often used pejoratively for black Africans. Hostility has been linked to the perceptions that migrants might be criminals and spread diseases. Women in particular, face additional stigmatization on the suspicion of prostitution.

CNN was told of slave operations at nine locations across Libya, but many more auctions are believed to take place each month with key informants reporting auctions happening in Tripoli itself as well. 4Mi received multiple testimonies of migrants who had witnessed or been the victim of slave operations.

“One of my family members financed my journey to Libya with the hope of helping me. When I arrived here I found that I had to repay the double of the amount to my smuggler for all the expenses spent on the journey. I was forced into labour to repay this debt. I urge your organisation to do anything you can to stop this modern day slavery so that the next generation will not live what me and other victims out there are going through.”– 26 years old, Nigerian woman interviewed in Tripoli (4Mi interview)

Some of the auction sites are in territory controlled by the GNA, but others are in areas outside the GNA’s control. Access restrictions for journalists and international organisations to the Eastern part of Libya makes information and data gathering in that region difficult.

As repeated reports of violence and abuse against migrants in Libya become commonplace, and when authorities (including militia forces in non-GNA areas), the country of origins and the international community appear unwilling or unable to take action, the reaction to the CNN slavery auctions raises hope that at last the situation will be addressed.

The reaction

In the days following the CNN’s November 15th exposé, Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairman of African Union Commission called the auctions “despicable” while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated that he was horrified by the auction footage and these crimes should be investigated as possible crimes against humanity. The governments of Burkina Faso and the Democratic Republic of the Congo recalled their ambassadors from Libya and rarely seen protests mobilised hundreds of people in front of the Libyan Embassy in Paris, with French police firing tear gas to disperse them. Protests also took place outside Libyan Embassies in Bamako, Conakry, Yaounde and Brussels.

President of Niger Mahamadou Issoufou summoned the Libyan Ambassador and demanded the International Court of Justice to investigate Libya for slave trade. Foreign minister of Burkina Faso Alpha Barry also stated he had summoned the Libyan ambassador for consultations. Rwanda offered to resettle approximately 30,000 migrants from Rwanda and assist others escape Libya.

More recently, France sought an emergency meeting of UN Security Council while President Emmanuel Macron called the footage “scandalous” and “unacceptable.” He called the auctions as a crime against humanity and vowed to press for sanctions. Additionally, France has requested an “urgent” meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss this treatment of migrants in Libya, and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said France will advocate for international sanctions against Libya if its justice system fails to act.

Meanwhile, the Libyan Government of National Accord, or GNA has hurriedly opened an investigation into the slave markets. The probe is being overseen by the government’s Anti-Illegal Immigration Agency.

After the two-day EU/AU Summit in Abidjan (28-29 November) ended, new statements followed: the French president Emmanuel Macron announced that the EU and AU will launch “concrete military and policing action” to rescue African migrants enslaved in Libya. He indicated that there was a need for reinforced police action as well as “individual, financial and physical sanctions” to dismantle slavery and human trafficking networks. The announcement came as the EU pledged a ‘Marshall Plan’ for Africa of €44 billion at a summit dominated by outrage over slave auctions in Libya of migrants sold “like goats” according to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari.

But, the position and messaging from Europe is mixed. In recent months Europe has actively financed, trained and enabled the Libyan coastguard to intercept smuggler boats and return migrants to Libya where they face an uncertain but likely abusive future. Numerous human rights agencies have criticised the EU for ‘inhumane’ policies. Somewhat ironically, pressure from Europe to stem the flow of migrants to Europe may be inadvertently fuelling alternative money-making enterprises, or ‘cost-recovery’ efforts for smugglers and militias holding migrants and making money by selling them off as farm hands and slaves.

The International Organization for Migration estimates there are currently between 700,000 and one million migrants stuck in the country which is for many a place of inescapable, high risk limbo. It is likely more will continue to arrive. Despite the international focus on mixed migration flows to and from Libya and the Libyan crisis, the country is still perceived as a work migration destination for many Bangladesh, sub-Saharan and North African nationals. Of all migrants interviewed in Libya in 2017 by both 4Mi, the data collection programme of MMC, and the IOM’s DTM initiative, 52 per cent on average reported Libya as a destination country.

So far, only 10,000 migrants have been assisted by the IOM to return home this year from Libya. Under the plan following the AU/EU Summit source countries will reportedly have to come to a holding centre in Tripoli and take back their citizens. Migrants without documentation would be held until their case is resolved. The plan could see up to 15,000 people flown out of Libya. The Libyan government on Wednesday night agreed to allow the migrants to be evacuated.

Considering migrants deliberately came to Libya as a response to untenable and undesirable situations in their home country, it is unclear whether this will be a solution or seen as assistance for many migrants in Libya. What is clear is that unless decisive action is taken in Libya it seems hard not to conclude that thousands more migrants will fall prey to perpetrators of abuse and exploitation in the coming months.

As the UN Human Rights chief expressed in mid-November: “The international community cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the unimaginable horrors endured by migrants in Libya, and pretend that the situation can be remedied only by improving conditions in detention”. For action to be sustainable, it has to be a common effort of the Libyan actors, the governments of countries of origin and the international community.

Libya has for some time become the place synonymous with most egregious crimes against migrants. The sudden urgency and sense of crisis after the CNN revelation, after numerous reports have documented extreme abuse of migrants for several years now, to many may come across as too little too late. However, events sometimes reach – and need – a tipping point, sometimes triggered by investigative journalism – or in this case video footage.

Is this such a tipping point? Libya was already in the spotlight and recent months have seen a constant stream of approaches and proposals being launched to get a grip on migration along the Central Mediterranean route. Will the current outrage be a real tipping point, not just further intensifying the focus on Libya and leading to ‘more of the same’, but do we dare to hope that concerted action and resolve will start to end the suffering of migrants in Libya? And if it can and does what will the necessary intervention look like given the highly politicised, complex and often contradictory policy environment around mixed migration?

[1] United Nations Support Mission in Libya.

Note: This article originally appeared on the RMMS Horn of Africa website.