Slavery and Hard Borders: A Grim Limbo in Libya

The 300-mile stretch of the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy has become a battleground. Since 2014, over 600,000 people have traversed this route, seeking asylum or work. The majority of these people are from North and Sub-Saharan Africa, fleeing violence, oppression and weak economies. Thousands have died en route each year as a result of capsized overburdened boats. Though not all of these people remain in Italy once they arrive, the country has responded with increasing antipathy, recently voting a hardline, anti-immigrant government into power. The new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has already laid down a policy of impermeability and refusal.

Slavery and Hard Borders: A Grim Limbo in Libya

The 300-mile stretch of the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy has become a battleground. Since 2014, over 600,000 people have traversed this route, seeking asylum or work. The majority of these people are from North and Sub-Saharan Africa, fleeing violence, oppression and weak economies. Thousands have died en route each year as a result of capsized overburdened boats. Though not all of these people remain in Italy once they arrive, the country has responded with increasing antipathy, recently voting a hardline, anti-immigrant government into power. The new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has already laid down a policy of impermeability and refusal.

This attitude is not new. In 2017, Italy and Libya made a deal in which Italy would contribute resources to Libya’s Coast Guard in order to boost their ability to prevent boats from making the crossing. From January to mid-June of 2017, 73,038 people crossed the Mediterranean to Europe. This year, that figure dropped over 50 percent to 33,400 people. The Italo-Libyan blockade has also shifted the balance westward: Spain has seen 50 percent more people arriving at its shores than last year, where Italy has 75 percent fewer. Still, in the first week of June 2018 alone, 561 migrants and refugees left Libya for Italy.

The second part of Italy’s deal with Libya was to increase its capacity to detain people caught crossing the Mediterranean. If the Libyan Coast Guard rescues or intercepts people at sea, they return them to Libya. Their blockade, which is partly funded by the EU, has slowed the process of making the crossings, causing a back-up in Libya. Though the rate of crossings has slowed, migrants and refugees are still arriving in Libya after months of enduring exploitative, expensive and sometimes deadly smuggling routes. Following the 2017 deal, Libya found itself with thousands of people stuck on its shores, either unable to cross or having been intercepted at sea and returned to land.

Italy and the EU have effectively extended their borders to the Libyan coast by employing Libya’s Coast Guard as border agents. As a result, Libya has become a torturous, sometimes deadly, limbo for thousands of people who are, as a result, vulnerable to opportunistic abusers. Those in the custody of Libyan authorities are held in overcrowded and cage-like detention centers that lack even the most basic resources. For many, there are no clear options for leaving these centers; for others, their smugglers have become their owners.

As the world learned in the fall of 2017, thousands of people in Libya are being bought and sold as slaves. Smugglers who found themselves charged with more migrants than they could put into boats began selling the people under their control. For as low as $400, they auctioned men and women from Nigeria, Eritrea, Sudan and elsewhere to farmers, contractors and anyone willing to buy a human being to perform free labor. Some formerly enslaved people reported being sold multiple times and being referred to as “merchandise.” CNN investigations discovered at least nine auctions for enslaved people in Libya, likely more.

The reports keep coming. In May, some 140 East African migrants managed to escape captivity after being held by smugglers in western Libya. Their captors shot at them as they fled, injuring ten. According to the UN, hundreds more were being held captive. These migrants reported they were tortured and raped in order to extort more money from them or their families.

The situation in the Mediterranean mirrors that on the southern border of the United States. An increasingly fortified border is pushing would-be migrants in Mexico to take greater risks on deadly desert crossings or stalling them in the border state of Tamaulipas. Tamaulipas has reported rates of kidnapping, murder and sexual assault so high that the U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning for that state as severe as the warnings for travel to Libya and Syria.

The rigid border is also providing fertile ground for unchecked abuse. Those that do manage to cross the border are subject not only to illegal trafficking within the U.S. but also to fierce abuses by the government, both in an out of official detention centers. As of the past month, children, some of them infants, are being separated from their parents at the border and detained prisons euphemistically referred to as “tender care shelters.”

In Libya, migrants who are apprehended and returned to shore are thrust back into a dangerous landscape where they are vulnerable to enslavement and other violence. Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., said that news of the human auctions “shocked our conscience.”

On June 12, delayed by investigations and Russian skepticism, the U.N. Security Council and the U.S. Treasury put sanctions on six young men accused of profiting from brutal networks of human trafficking, slavery and exploitation that span large swaths of Africa. The men will be banned from travel and their bank accounts and business profits, will be frozen. These men, four Libyans and two Eritreans, represent the chaotic patchwork of militias, smuggling networks and government forces that command Libya today.

Among the sanctioned is Ahmed Al-Dabbashi, commander of a militia that has facilitated smuggling and has links to the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli. The rate of attempted sea crossings slowed significantly after his militia made a deal with Italy to stop facilitating them. Another is Mohammed Keshlaf, who commands another militia and serves as head of security for the Italian-built oil refinery in Zawiya. Most significant among the sanctioned is Abdul-Rahman Milad, commander of the regional Coast Guard in Zawiya.

Milad has been profiting off of the enslavement and exploitation of the migrants kept onshore by his own Coast Guard unit. For the sake of keeping people out of Italy, the EU has sent sizeable sums to support a Coast Guard unit whose leader is involved in enslaving people and human trafficking. He is also said to have been responsible for many migrant boat disasters, intentionally sinking the ships with firearms. The actions of Milad and the wide network of smugglers below him have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of people on the coast and on the Mediterranean – at an “unprecedented scale and level of severity,” according to the U.N.

The sanctions on these individuals, a first for the U.N., are intended to help staunch the flow of money through these inhumane channels. The money is big. In 2016, smuggling networks made upwards of nearly €4 billion on Europe-seeking migrants, each paying hundreds or thousands of dollars for the journey. This kind of money is enough to further destabilize a highly unstable Libya, putting power in the hands of armed militias responsible for human trafficking. The Netherlands framed the U.N., targeting a Coast Guard commander as a strong show of zero tolerance.

While these sanctions will put pressure on these six high-powered individuals, it is not an indictment of the system that has allowed them to gain power, nor is it reflective of the system’s origins. Although conditions were dangerous before Italy’s 2017 deal with the Libyan Coast Guard, it is only since the deal that slavery and other gross human rights abuses have been reported on such a severe scale. Blockading the Libyan coast has resulted in a huge accumulation of people on the shore who have been held captive, brutally abused and sold into forced labor.

Today’s Libya, lacking a stable government and torn by warring militias, does not have the capacity to adequately deal with the thousands of people stuck on its coast. The U.N.’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) is offering bandages for the problem: revamp and humanize detention centers and provide free flights to bring people stuck in Libya back to their home countries. IOM director William Swing presents this option as one of the “few viable humane solutions,” and a “free and informed process, with institutional safeguards.” Migrants who have taken the option of return end up at square one, penniless and traumatized.

In their own manner of extending borders, France announced in 2017 its intentions to proactively assess asylum claims for would-be Mediterranean-crossers in Libya. The hope would be to discourage those ineligible for French asylum from crossing. Aloys Vimard, the coordinator of the MSF ship Aquarius, said that “Containment and deterrence … doesn’t save lives — it just encourages people to take bigger risks.”

The “best way” to save lives of migrants, said Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, is “to prevent them from boarding those ships.” While this tactic might prevent drowning deaths, it is clear that it has not improved lives. It has pleased Salvini’s constituents by lowering the numbers of migrants reaching Italian shores, but it has also trapped thousands in a grievously unstable country, vulnerable to real atrocities. When the Italy-Libya deal was made in 2017, Italy’s parliament stated its intent was to “monitor and contrast illegal migration and the smuggling of human beings.” As Amnesty International’s Gauri Van Gulik said, it has instead “endanger[ed] the very people it says it is trying to help.”