Traslado de inmigrantes llegados del norte de África a la isla italiana de Lampedusa

▲Transfer of immigrants arrived from North Africa to the Italian island of Lampedusa [Vito Manzani]

ANALYSISValeria Nadal [Spanish version]

At the end of 2017 the Cable News Network (CNN) broadcast a video recorded anonymously with a hidden camera, showing the sale of four men in Libya, for 400 dollars each, to Libyan citizens to work or in exchange for a rescue, in the case of men, or as sex slaves, in the case of women. The scandalous images triggered a global response, with several Hollywood celebrities joining protests calling for the end of slave trade in Libya. France, Germany, Chad, Nigeria and other countries have long urged Libya to tackle this serious problem, through a program of repatriation of immigrants and the evacuation of detention camps, where many of the slave trade mafias operate. The circumstances, however, do not seem to have improved since the video was released due to the persistence of a lack of state coordination to tackle the problem alongside with other factors. How is it possible that slave trade has happened within Libya?

Libya is large country located in North Africa, with a long Mediterranean coastline. Until 2011, the year in which the Arab Spring broke out, Libya was one of the most stable countries in the region. It had one of the highest life expectancies in all of Africa, and an educational system –  from primary to university studies – better than most of its neighboring countries. However, this situation of stability and relative prosperity came to an end in February 2011, when the revolts that began in Tunisia, and that had spread to countries such as Yemen, Jordan and Egypt, spilled over into Libya.

Unlike several other states in the region that experienced relatively peaceful resolutions to the protesters' demands, the immediately observable threat of civil war in Libya invited international intervention to the conflict. The United States (US) and the European Union (EU), with the support of the United Nations (UN), acted against the dictatorial regime of Muammar Gaddafi. With the capture and assassination of Gaddafi by the rebel troops, the war seemed to have ended. However, lacking a viable plan for a political transition, the situation further deteriorated as various political actors attempted to fill the power vacuum left behind, after the removal of Qaddafi.  

Today, Libya continues to experience serious political instability and is considered a failed state. Although there is a government promoted and recognized by the UN, the Government of National Unity (GNU), it do not control the entire country and is challenged by various power groups, of which many are armed militias. Due to this lack of governmental authority, as well as its strategic location on the Mediterranean coast, Libya has become the base of operations of mafias trafficking people and taking advantage of refugees and migrants attempting to reach Europe via the Libyan land route. The open border policy launched by the EU in 2015 has facilitated the establishment of human trafficking routes by migrant smuggling networks. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that at least 400,000 people are currently in Libyan detention centers, where immigrants are an easy target for slave trade. The GNU has opened a formal investigation and met with European and African leaders to allow the emergency repatriation of refugees and immigrants. However, the effectiveness of the efforts of the Libyan authorities is limited. Notwithstanding, a larger issue is what role the international community can lay in alleviating the problem, of which non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been key voices in the debate.


Since 2015, Oxfam has widely informed the international community about the migration crisis in Libya, and emphasized the need for European countries to seek and find a solution for the thousands of men, women and children who are suffering this situation. The cases documented in Libya of the slave trade, carried out by smugglers and militias, have made the search for a solution even more urgent.

In this regard, on August 9, 2017, Oxfam published a newsletter entitled “You are no longer human,” in which it analyzed the facts of the Libyan situation and blamed the European countries for their “erroneous policies aimed to prevent people from reaching Italy.” To develop this report Oxfam spoke “with men and women who have spent months being beaten, tied like animals and sold as cheap labor in the scandalous slave trade of Libya,' and is based on the '...anguished testimonies of immigrants who spent time in Libya before escaping to Italy.”

The testimonies relate shocking scenes of sexual violence, torture and slave labor; they also present cases of people who have been held captive because of the impossibility of paying the price demanded by the smugglers. The latter happened to Peter, an 18-year-old Nigerian: “Once we had arrived in Sabah, in Libya, they took me to the 'Ghetto' (...) They gave us a telephone to call our families and they told us to ask them for money. If you could not pay the 1,500 Libyan dinars [about 100 euros] they would keep you captive and beat you.”

After hearing these testimonies, Oxfam has come to the conclusion that European policies must take into account the experiences of people forced to leave their homes, as the information they provide clearly demonstrates that “Libya remains a country marked by systematic abuses against Human Rights and that (...) the EU's attempt to ensure that people cannot leave Libya only puts more men, women and children at risk of abuse and exploitation.”

Some of the solutions that Oxfam has proposed are the promotion of search and rescue operations for humanitarian purposes, increasing the number of immigration applications that are accepted to be processed, the creation of safe routes to Europe, and ending the policy that prevent migrants from leaving Libya.


Por qué las ONG no son efectivas en la crisis migratoria: el ejemplo de la trata de esclavos en Libia


Opening, closing borders

Another international agency that has actively denounced the inhuman situation in Libya is Amnesty International. According to this organization’s data, the world is facing one of the most serious cases of slavery in the 21st century. Refugees and immigrants arriving in Libyan territory are forcefully held and tortured in detention centers before being sold as slaves. Those who succeed in escaping from such horrible conditions do not necessarily wind up in better circumstances: at least 3,000 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

Being one of the most active organizations regarding the situation in Libya, Amnesty International has called on the EU Member States to stop closing its borders to refugees and immigrants from Libya. It argues that this European policy only encourages and fuels violence and extortion in Libyan territory, which makes the EU an accomplice in this crisis.

Amnesty International recalls that since the end of 2016, the closure of European borders has favored an increase in control by the Libyan Anti-Immigration Department, which now oversees detention centers where refugees and immigrants are not only arbitrarily and indefinitely detained, but also frequently sold as slaves. In addition, according to organization, European inability or unwillingness to take action, mistakenly believing that what happens outside European borders bears no consequences on the EU's internal affairs, has allowed the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept people at sea. Instead of reaching the "promised land", migrants are forcibly taken back to Libya, where they are locked up and mistreated again in the detention centers. All this is aided by agreements reached by the EU and local Libyan authorities, supported by armed groups, with regards the control of migratory flows to Europe, which effectively sanctions violent repression.

International coordination

On December 7, 2017, the UN Security Council held an emergency session to take action regarding the slave trade situation in Libya. This situation was described as an "abuse of Human Rights that may also constitute crimes against humanity", in which case the Libyan authorities and all member states of the organization should act in accordance with public international law; taking those responsible to the International Criminal Court (ICC). In addition, the UN pointed to the Libyan authorities as one of the primary actors complicit in the growing slave trade phenomenon, due to their ineffectiveness investigating it and administrating justice. The organization places special emphasis on the need for the Libyan Government to secure the borders and for its actions to be supported by various international instruments, so that effectively human trafficking can be effectively countered. Likewise, the UN also encourages cooperation with the EU and the African Union (AU) to guarantee the protection of refugees and immigrants, under the premise that success will only be achieved if all the actors involved collaborate.

Meanwhile, the UN is already operating in the territory through the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which has helped 13,000 people out of detention centers in Libya, and another 8,000 from those in Niger. But IOM's efforts do not end in Libya. Once the refugees and immigrants are safe, the organization stores their information and testimonies and offers them the possibility of returning home; guaranteeing the assistance of the IOM in the process.

Despite attempts to unify the efforts of all the organizations that are acting on the ground, the reality is that the UN today does not have an action plan that includes all parties to end slavery in Libya and look for a common solution. According to the reports of this organization, slavery in Libya could end in 2030, after 20 years of trial and error. It is, however, unsurprising, that most NGOs do not have action plans.

NGO solutions

NGOs play an important role in helping alleviate the humanitarian problems caused by migrations crises, yet the solutions they suggest oftentimes fail to take into consideration the complex political realities that make these very same solutions challenging – if not outright impossible – to achieve. As a result, many of the solutions offered by human rights agencies like Oxfam and Amnesty International are far too broad to be of any practical use. The migration crisis, reaching its peak in summer 2015 with the effective invitation of several European nations' heads to refugees to come to Europe – coupled with the relaxation of the Dublin regulations and an opening of borders inside the EU – paradoxically helped exacerbate the problem. It provided an incentive for the mass migration of individuals who fall out of the "refugee" category, encouraging risk-taking among migrants on the premise that the borders would remain open and everyone would be welcomed.

The result has been not only the rapid backtracking on this policy by a host of countries initially supporting it – like Austria – but also a dramatic internal, diplomatic conflict within the EU between countries for, and those against, mass migration into the EU. The crisis also shed light on the inability of the existing laws of both the EU and its member states in finding solutions to the migration problem. As such, the sweeping claim of opening borders as a solution to the problem may be well intentioned, yet does little to provide for a balanced solution to the problem.

Similarly, securing safe passages for migrants back to their home country rests on the assumption that there exists a functioning government in Libya with which such efforts can be coordinated, yet there exists no such entity as of yet. While the GNU does have a limited amount of control over certain swathes of territory, the problem remains to be that other parts of Libya do not fall under government control. While aiding (limited) migration and/or repatriation and securing the land and sea borders might be a first step in stemming the flow, the fact remains to be that it is political instability within Libya – as well as other nations – that breeds smuggling networks, of which the slave trade is one of many.

Thus, the policy of simply aiding more people into Europe through again relaxing the borders hardly solves the problem. At its height, the migration crisis saw hundreds of thousands of migrants stream through open borders in Europe, absent any realistic plans to deal with the numbers. What is seemingly less covered in the international news is the various hardships that migrants within their new host states have faced as a result of a utopian policy where the sky is the limit for migration. Most importantly, the open door policy for migration has similarly led to the proliferation of smuggling networks inside Europe that necessitated the establishment of new task forces to deal with them, although an increased control may result in the emergence of new routes and hotspots. Though the numbers involved are as large as those in Libya, the open door policy – pushed by a host of humanitarian organizations – has created smuggling networks  involved in the smuggling of migrant men, women, and children, into prostitution among other things. Almost 90% of the migrants that arrive to Europe are facilitated by the smuggling multi-national business.  The point being that illegal activities thrive as a result of failed policies, and the inability to find determinate policy solutions to the migrant crisis: a necessary ingredient for deriving successful practical ones.     

A primary role of the states

The lack of governmental control over the territory in Libya, characteristic of a failed state, has made possible the proliferation of illegal and highly humiliating activities against human dignity, such as the slave trade. Images such as those of CNN, which provided evidence for how people were being sold as slaves in detention centers, have heightened international awareness of the problem. Numerous organizations, led by the UN, have intensified their work in recent months to try to put an end to such a disastrous situation. These efforts have achieved some results however, there is no meaningful method to upscale these efforts because they are not coordinated at the state level, and it is unlikely that the large-scale cooperation required by all parties involved is possible. 

Further, the effects of the migration crisis are by no means unique to Libya or Africa, and have manifested in Europe as well. Although human trafficking, both into the slave trade as well as for other purposes, occurs on a much larger (and quite alarming) scale in the African theatre, the phenomenon has similarly come to plague Europe as a result of its failed (or non-existent) plan of action to manage migration, both internally and externally. The solution is necessarily political, and the reality is that – as well intentioned and necessary as they may be – the detached, rights-based, solutions of NGOs will not be determinate in solving the problem. Only states, working together with various NGOs, can put an end to this misery through well thought-out, coordinated, solutions. And, the sad reality is that not everyone can necessarily be saved in the process,  nor will every migrant will be able to get their 'European dream."

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