Modern slavery


The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called it horrific. European governments have described it as appalling in this modern day and age. Human Rights organizations are disgusted and insist that something must be done immediately. What has outraged everyone is the discovery that human beings are being bought and sold in Libya.

The US broadcaster CNN sent a courageous news team with a no less courageous fixer to a small Libyan town outside the capital Tripoli where they secretly filmed the nighttime auction of sub-Saharan migrants for use as farmhands. One man was knocked down for 800 Libyan dinars, less than $100 at the black market exchange rate.

Afterward the journalists even approached the auctioneer to ask him how he felt about what he was doing. He declined to talk. Amazingly they got back to Tripoli safely and visited a migrant detention camp where inmates also said that they had been sold as slaves.

The footage the TV station broadcast last week has had a worldwide impact. But in actual fact, it has been known for some time that migrants trapped in Libya have been enslaved. At the very least, after they have paid to be smuggled across the Sahara desert, migrants are forced to work for the people-traffickers in order to earn enough money for the next and final stage of their journey across the Mediterranean. There has also been incontrovertible evidence of abhorrent mistreatment of the migrants inside the detention centers, with obscene tortures including male and female rape.

But as so often with such issues, it took TV footage to finally galvanize international opinion. However, there are not a few Libyans who openly doubt the genuineness of the CNN film. They say it was staged. They say that the “slaves” looked too well fed and healthy. They note that the footage was shot in darkness and much of it is indistinct, relying for recorded voices off camera to produce the real impact. Some even point out that after confronting the auctioneer, the journalists effectively blew their cover. In lawless Libya where guns and the willingness to use them are a wretched fact of every day life, it was remarkable that the CNN team even made it out of town.

The UN-recognized Libya government led by Faiez Serraj has vowed to investigate. His deputy Ahmed Maetig has promised the culprits will be found and brought to justice because Libya will not tolerate slavery. Fine words but farcical nevertheless. The government sits in the capital protected by militia gunmen, whose chiefs are into every racket from kidnappings to fuel and people smuggling and some even into the buying and selling of human beings. After all, what is the real difference between forcing someone to work to pay his onward passage to Europe and actually selling a man for labor? What the CNN coverage did not apparently discover was what the migrant got out of the deal. It did not ask the detainees it interviewed in the camp, how they had escaped the bondage into which they said they had been sold. Migrants are prepared to sacrifice virtually everything to make it to Europe and their dream of prosperity, maybe even the truth.

What these latest revelations really underline is how close Libya is to being a failed state in which Daesh (so-called IS) terrorists could flourish.