The rise of the ''slave market'' in Libya and the hypocrisy of the EU

The imperialist military interventions in Iraq, Syria and Libya were portrayed by Western leaders as “humanitarian” operations to restore democracy and human rights. But what has instead occurred is the exact opposite with the rise of different degrees of barbarism in all three countries. Just like in Syria and Iraq, we are now also witnessing the rise of slave-like conditions in Libya on a systematic level.

This was revealed in a series of disturbing reports produced by the International Organization for Migration [IOM]on the horrific situation faced by Sub-Saharan African migrants, including the rehabilitation of a modern-day slave market in Libya.

A dangerous journey

An increasing number of Sub-Saharan Africans have been fleeing their countries for Europe with the hope of starting a better life, but quite often the journey doesn’t go as expected with a great number being captured and sold as slaves. The re-emergence of slavery in Libya is one of the many disastrous social consequences of imperialist intervention.

This is caused by the rising flood of desperate refugees who are making their way up through Africa towards Europe. For most of these refugees the journey is an extremely difficult and dangerous one, first crossing the Sahara in the back of a pickup truck (which takes 3 to 6 days in temperatures as high as 45°C), then through war-torn Libya, ruled by armed gangs, to finally reach the southern shores of the Mediterranean. Those who make it to the shore have to face yet another risk: crossing the Mediterranean in an unsafe, overcrowded boat to Italy.

On their journey from Sub-Saharan Africa towards the Mediterranean, the trucks are regularly attacked by armed gangs. Often the traffickers have already made a deal with these gangs and hand over the refugees directly to them, instead of taking them to the shores.

The report above quoted one Niger IOM staff saying: “Over the past few days, I have discussed these stories with several who told me horrible stories. They all confirmed the risks of being sold as slaves in squares or garages in Sabha, either by their drivers or by locals who recruit the migrants for daily jobs in town, often in construction, and later, instead of paying them, sell their victims to new buyers. Some migrants – mostly Nigerians, Ghanaians and Gambians – are forced to work for the kidnappers/slave traders as guards in the ransom houses or in the ‘market’ itself.”

The IOM report gives one horrifying example: “Adam* (not his real name) was kidnapped together with 25 other Gambians while traveling from Sabha to Tripoli. An armed Gambian man and two Arab men kidnapped the party and took them to a 'prison' where some 200 men and several women were being held.

“According to this witness, the captives were from several African nations. Adam explained that captives were beaten each day and forced to call their families to pay for their release. It took nine months for Adam’s father to collect enough money for Adam’s release, after selling the family house.

“Adam said the kidnappers took him to Tripoli where he was released. There, a Libyan man found him and due to his poor health condition, took him to the hospital. The hospital staff published a post on Facebook requesting assistance. An IOM colleague saw the post and referred the case to an IOM doctor who visited him in the hospital. Adam spent 3 weeks in the hospital trying to recover from severe malnutrition – he weighed just 35 kilograms – and the physical wounds from torture.”

The report goes on about another case “[involving] a young woman being held in what she describes as a warehouse near the port in Misrata by Somalian kidnappers. She is believed to have been held captive for at least 3 months, although the exact dates are unknown. Her husband and young son have lived in the United Kingdom since 2012, and they have been receiving demands for money.

“It has been reported that this victim is subjected to rape and physical assault. The husband has paid via family and members of the Somali community USD 7,500, although they have recently been told the kidnappers are demanding a second payment of USD 7,500.”

As we see, the refugees who are captured are robbed of their belongings and taken to “prisons“. Usually, the kidnappers ask for money for their release (from their families back home); those who can’t afford it are often killed. The women who are captured are used as sex slaves. There are also some migrants who are recruited for a daily job (mainly construction) to save some money to continue the journey, but at the end, instead of getting paid, they are sold to new buyers. According to a report by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), armed gangs, some of which are Islamist and some pledging allegiance to ISIS, as well as state institutions such as the Department for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM) and the Libyan Coast Guard are involved in kidnappings, forced labour and other abuses.

Many of those who finally reach Europe are denied refugee status and held in detention centers (a prison would be a more accurate term) since they are considered “economic migrants” and not “war refugees”, as if there is any difference between being immediately killed by a bomb or gradually starving to death due to poverty and unemployment. More and more of these detention centers are planned to be built for the migrants who are refused refugee status. For example, in 2015 alone, 27,000 expulsion orders were handed out in Italy out of a total 181,000 entries to the country. Not all who entered Italy applied for a status there, however. So it does not mean that all the rest were given refugee status.

The hypocrisy of the EU

After the EU-Turkey deal in March last year, the latter agreed to keep the refugees behind its own borders by closing the Eastern Mediterranean route in exchange for ‘aid’. This deal was struck supposedly to stop “the greedy smugglers”. The flow of migrants to Greece was sharply reduced, the total number of refugees entering Europe by sea also decreased. This merely pushed the migrants back towards the Central Mediterranean route, through Libya, which became the primary passage for refugees. This left Libya, which has no unified central state power, as the main transit route towards Europe - a route the EU cannot stop since it has no state to negotiate with.

We explained this back in March 2016 after the EU-Turkey deal, when we said that: “People who are desperately fleeing war will not be stopped by the threat of deportation. They will find new routes, probably more dangerous ones. Far from destroying the ‘people-smuggling business’, this will make it more profitable.”

And that’s precisely what has happened since the deal. The result was an increased death toll of the migrants, since now they have to cross the more dangerous Central Mediterranean route. 2016 proved to be the deadliest year in the Mediterranean, but probably will be surpassed by 2017. Of course, the EU authorities are very quick to declare a “war on smugglers”, but this is utter hypocrisy and an attempt to shift the blame for human death and suffering away from themselves and to the lowest link in the chain: the human trafficker.

After the signing of the deal with Turkey and the increased border controls, the quality of the boats used by the smugglers decreased, the overcrowding of the boats became more intense, the prices for human trafficking increased, while the smugglers began treating the refugees even more brutally. That is the logic of capitalism: when the market is assured and demand is high, there is no need to guarantee the quality of the services. Furthermore, since there are fewer and fewer legal avenues available to the refugees, they have to rely more and more on smugglers. But for the EU authorities everything appears turned on its head.

In June 2015, the European Union launched Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya. The goal of the operation was to “undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and dispose of vessels and enabling assets used or suspected of being used by migrant smugglers or traffickers, in order to contribute to wider EU efforts to disrupt the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks in the Southern Central Mediterranean and prevent the further loss of life at sea”.

What a lie and what hypocrisy! Destroying the smuggling boats, while not providing legal pathways for migrants, simply means a death sentence for many of them and slavery for many others. It is definitely not an attempt to “prevent the further loss of life”. Though in words they have laws that prohibit the EU states from returning the refugees back to unsafe places - the so-called principle of “non-refoulement” [the practice of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution], a law that Italy and Spain have already violated. Indeed, with their actions this is precisely what they are doing. They declare “war against the human traffickers” as if people decide to leave their home country because there are smugglers, not because life has become unbearable back home.

Italy, as the main destination country, seems very eager to find a way to keep the refugees away. Italy and its northern neighbours plan to work together with Libya to help implement a new accord to better patrol Libya's coasts and stop smugglers from setting off with their human cargo. The irony is, according to the same UNSMIL report, that the Libyan Coast Guard itself is involved in kidnappings, slave markets and abuse of the migrants. Of course that does not stop the EU authorities form working with them and “training them”.

Renzi and Merkel agreed in September 2016 to step up efforts to send migrants with no right to asylum in Europe back to their homelands. “It is important that we make deals with the countries of origin,” Merkel said, in a meeting in September 2016. Marco Minniti, the Interior Minister of Italy, embarked on African tours to try to add countries to the list in exchange for aid and cooperation pacts.

On the other hand, earlier this year, on Italy’s initiative, “around 60 chieftains from the southern deserts of Libya were brought together in Rome to make a peace deal between warring tribes and find a way to staunch the human trafficking. Leaders from the southern tribes in Libya say that for the right reward they can lock down Libya’s southern border with Niger – the main transit route for migrants from West Africa and elsewhere. They also candidly admitted that they have until now profited from the trafficking business, arguing that since the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 there have been few other economic opportunities in the region.”

So, the strategy, on the one hand, is to try to create and support a “strongman” in Libya and offer training to the “Libyan Coast Guard” to fight human smugglers in order to control the situation, and on the other hand, to give money to the reactionary tribal leaders and warlords in southern Libya in return for controlling the border with Niger, the main route for West African migrants to the Mediterranean. Now of course, as far as the immigration crisis is concerned, the talk of “stabilizing Libya” simply means being able to close the access of the African migrants to the Southern Mediterranean shores as they did in the Turkey deal. And to achieve this they do not hesitate to give money to the same human traffickers, tribal leaders and warlords, essentially to the same people who are carrying out the kidnappings and all the other abuses.

The hypocrisy becomes more glaring when one takes into account how Europe is directly responsible for the creation of the current state of affairs: first, through their military intervention in Libya, which Sarkozy in France and Cameron in Britain were all too eager to carry out back in 2011.

Since the intervention and the toppling of Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has been plunged into turmoil, with no stable government. It is de facto divided into different areas, with different groups claiming to be the be legitimate government. The country has also become a breeding ground for different Islamist and tribal armed militias. In summer 2014 the “Libyan House of Representatives”, the government backed by the West, had to flee from Tripoli to Tobruk against advancing armed militias, many of them Islamist. A new government was announced in Tripoli in summer 2014 (the “General National Congress” or “GNC”) headed by Al-Ghawil, and supported by Turkey and Qatar. Both of these governments however, far from willing or able to control the regional armed gangs, “city-states”, tribal leaders and Islamist militias, were simply based on these forces.

As the influence of Islamist militias, including ISIS, increased in Libya, the imperialist powers came up with the “solution” of forming a unity government. That led to the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in December 2015. The new president, Fayez al-Sarraj, was to preside over the “Government of National Accord” (GNA). The Tobruk government, however, refused to endorse Sarraj. Al-Ghawil, the head of the old Tripoli based government (GNC), initially allowed the new government to take office and retreated to Misrata. However, later he tried to re-organize his militias against the Sarraj government.

Currently war is still going on in Libya with the west of the country controlled by the GNA, which is allied with the Libyan Shield Force that has links to Al-Qaeda. The eastern part of the country is mainly controlled by the Tobruk government, the south and some regions in the center are controlled by tribal forces, while ISIS and other Islamist groups, as well as so-called “local authorities”, have control over several cities in the country.

As the fights between the regional “governments”, each backed by different foreign powers and with different alliances with tribal leaders and Islamist groups, are going on, the country sinks deeper and deeper into poverty and desperation. Oil production has dropped sharply since 2014, with the exception of a brief period of almost a year in 2012 when the production increased to close to the pre-war level. The country's GDP dropped by 13.6% in 2013 followed by another 24% drop in 2014 and then another 10.2% drop in 2015 (source: World Bank) while living conditions keep deteriorating rapidly. We have analyzed the balance sheet of the imperialist intervention in Libya in detail elsewhere.

Although Libya's immigration policy under Gaddafi was undoubtedly controversial, there were about 2.5 million non-Libyans living in Libya before the intervention: 600,000 regular workers plus between 750,000 and 1.2 million “irregular” foreign workers, many of whom were from Sub-Saharan Africa. These “irregular” workers suddenly found themselves in a desperate position.

Western imperialism is responsible for the current state of affairs by its undermining of the economy of West Africa, whether by signing extremely unfavourable trade “deals” with the countries or simply exploiting the resources there without even bothering to go through legal formalities.

A good example of this is the destruction of the fishing industry by foreign companies, many of them European, which are fishing on an industrial scale on the west coast of Africa, making it impossible for the local fishermen to make a living from the reduced catch. In Senegal, for example, about 20% of the population works in the industry. Deprived of their source of food and income, they are left with no option but to hit the road. This is Western imperialism’s gift to Africa.

Imperialism is responsible for the horrific situation in Libya and the rest of Africa, where, the pursuit of profit, they have made life impossible for many and now refuse to acknowledge the consequences of their actions, refusing to accept many of the Sub-Saharan refugees on the grounds that they are merely “economic migrants” and not war refugees (although it is not clear how the “war refugees” of Syria and Iraq are supposed to come to Europe when the more direct routes are closed). Now, in spite of all this, western imperialism is yet again beating the war drums in Syria and Afghanistan.

We condemn imperialism for its plundering of these countries. For their own greedy purposes, western governments have invaded countries, breaking them up and sowing utter barbarism. Then to add insult to injury, when the poor and wretched of these countries finally make it to the shores of the Mediterranean, they face either enslavement or the risk of death crossing the sea. And those that make it across are then treated in an abominable manner, while at the same being exploited politically to whip up racist hysteria among the people of the host countries. Instead of pointing the finger at who is really to blame for this disastrous situation, those who profit from it, the governments of Europe, the US government, the arms industry and capitalists in general, the poor immigrants are turned into the scapegoat upon whom all blame is laid.

We say to workers in the advanced capitalist countries: do not see the immigrants as your enemy; your real enemy is your own capitalist class and the governments that serve it. They are using the immigrant to pit worker against worker, poor against poor. Stand in solidarity with all refugees. There is no difference between war and “economic” migrants. Organise against your own governments, the same governments that are taking away everything you have fought for, from freed education, to healthcare, to pensions and jobs.

To put an end to this dramatic situation, we must fight our own governments. Part of this fight is to say: No to imperialist intervention! All refugees welcome!

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