Slavery Isn’t Over. Read That Again.

Libya: A Modern-Day Slave Trade

8 min readJul 21, 2020

Written by Olivia Opara

Within the state of Libya, a humanitarian crisis is occurring: human lives are being auctioned off. Modern-day slavery is, unfortunately, a common occurrence — this isn’t happening in isolation. It takes place in over 130 countries worldwide affecting about 21 million, many of which are children. They are exploited typically for labour purposes (most common within the fast fashion industry) as well as sold into human trafficking rings. In Black Sister’s Street by Chika Unigwe, we see young girls sent to Europe under the guise of being employed as nannies, but end up in the sex industry with their passports ceased. With the rise of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, many injustices have been brought to light. As this movement is predominantly happening in both the United States of America and the United Kingdom, it seems the movement is just for those facing institutional injustice in the Western world. However, we must pay attention to Black lives in post-colonial states. If we truly want ‘All Black Lives’ to matter, we must find a way to liberate those in slavery in Libya.

Africa’s history is rich with culture and tradition, with slavery and human trafficking are a part of this history. In the 1830s, when slavery flourished, it has been documented that Libya had played a part in the orchestration, taxation and had facilitated the Trans-Saharan trade. This was a trade of predominantly the Tuareg, indigenous peoples within the state of Libya. It was also recorded that Ghadames, “an oasis Berber town” in the north west of Libya, would accumulate 2,500 slaves per year. Despite the Trans-Saharan trade being banned in 1853, as with all things, it has taken a different form and name.

What is happening in Libya?

In an investigation carried out in 2017 by CNN after a dreadful video was leaked from Tripoli, Libya’s capital, the auctioning of human beings was uncovered. This sparked outrage on social media, as most were completely unaware about this. Though modern slavery is a phenomenon most are aware of, modern chattel slavery took the world by shock. It was leaked by one of their contacts in Libya at that time (click here to view the CNN documentary at your own discretion). The footage displays the live-action of men being sold at an auction where they’re sold for as little as $400 (£317). The men are condescendingly described as merchandise, yet their lives are sold for change. The footage also highlights an abysmal detail, the buyers’ identities are concealed; they remain anonymous. Why are their identities kept private? Is it because those involved in the purchasing of human lives are those in positions of power? It is obvious that those participating in this trade want to maintain the reputability of their reputation within society, but, how is justice supposed to be served for the victims if the perpetrators are unidentifiable?

The unknown reasoning behind this is both sickening and disturbing to even fathom, yet not in the least bit surprising. It seems almost normal for those who are supposed to protect us as their citizens are the same ones who cause us the most harm, in the most inhumane ways imaginable. CNN correspondents recall having spoken to two victims of an auction that lasted six to seven minutes who were “so traumatized by what they’d been through that they could not speak, and so scared that they were suspicious of everyone they met.”

Why is this happening?

Following the end of Gaddafi’s tyrannical leadership, the state of Libya descended into a turmoil of civil unrest and uncontrollable disorder. Initially, the former President of Libya had aspirations to revolutionise the state of Libya. He had plans to turn the aristocratic state into a democratic state. However, these ambitions transformed into acts of impunity against the people of Libya. They were violently repressed, murdered, and tortured as well as imprisoned unjustly (to read more about Gaddafi and his regime, click here). Fleeing from poverty and political corruption, migrants’ hopes of going to Europe for the dream of having a better life, one of peace and prosperity, was capitalised. Migrants from Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and other West African countries often fall prey to smugglers and thus, human trafficking rings and auctions.

A 2017 report published by ‘The International Organization for Migration’ (IOM) in April of said year, detailed the shocking numbers of migrants being captured, detained, and later sold by smugglers and militia organisations. They are sold into auction warehouses if they become too overcrowded or are unable to pay their smugglers, whilst migrants from countries to the south of the state of Libya are sold off at Libyan slave markets.

Libya’s slave trade is not just a unique and isolated issue as the immense inequality across Africa feeds into this. Poverty, political tyranny, war, and civil unrest are just examples of the hardships that the many within Africa face with some seeing the only way out to leave (albeit dangerously) for the Western world. This is a vicious cycle where those who are victims of one injustice end up becoming prey to another one.

The experiences of the victims:

[CW: mentions of torture, sexual abuse and child exploitation]

A rescued migrant of Nigerian descent Victory, was sold multiple times into slavery describes his experiences:

“I was sold. Yes, I was sold. […] If you look at most of the people here, if you check [their] bodies, you see the marks. They are beaten, mutilated. […] I’m not happy. I go back and start back from square one. It’s very painful. Very painful.””

Victory also described how they are kept in vile and grotesque conditions, caged like cattle in a black market. The conditions are rife, unsanitary. They are also starved with no substantial access to water. To me, this is quite ironic as Nigeria is perceived to be somewhat oil-rich and prosperous, but its reputation fails to highlight the economic and social disparities between the rich and poor. According to Oxfam, in 2012, Nigeria had almost 10million children out of school and 57 million did not have access to safe water. Meanwhile, the combined wealth of the richest 5 people in the country is $29.9 billion and could end extreme poverty. Others rescued recount how:

“They [the slave sellers] took people to work by force [when] we were at the seaside port. […] when you are doing their [the slave master’s] work they will [be] beating you. They will be maltreating us.”

They are also branded by their masters with many, even children, being raped and sexually exploited. They are sold to brothels for the enjoyment and entertainment of elite and “private Libyan clients”. Are national leaders the ones legitimising this violence? This is a question that there is no answer to. And even if there was, perhaps, a list of those behind this, is there much we, as the public, can do? Is there anything we can truly do about tyrannical leaders?

I find it quite strange that the UN is yet to say much about this either which makes me wonder if this trade goes far beyond the continent of Africa. World leaders alike have not said anything either. Interestingly enough, Libya was one of the many countries in support of the Chinese concentration camps that are being used to ethnically cleanse the Uighur population. If the government supports ethnic cleansing in other countries, how are we to expect them to tackle modern slavery in their own country?

With no international support back in 2017, the immigration officials had the sole responsibility to care for the migrants until they were able to be returned to their country of origin. I find this shocking to say the least. I really question motivations of the organisations that pledge to be for the people and to be our supposed saviours in the time of crisis. With our current situation with the COVID-19 epidemic, why is it that international support, or lack thereof, seems to surprise me?

What is being done to help now?

Despite international organisations calling for Libya to put an end to this atrocious disregard for human life, the slave trade is functioning behind the scenes. CNN had reportedly submitted their investigation findings to the Libyan authorities who had “promised to launch an investigation” yet, this does not appear to have been done. In late November 2017, a task force in Libya was created by The European Union (EU) , United Nations (UN) and The African Union (AU) to tackle the migrant abuse. West African governments had also demanded for the return of their citizens, with Muhammadu Buhari, President of Nigeria, claiming that:

“Nigerians [are] being treated like goats”

When I saw this, I found it laughable as the Nigerian migrants are fleeing from Nigeria because of his tyranny as a President and how his inner circles have caused economic turmoil within Nigeria. He says that Libya treats his citizens like goats, yet he treats them like dispensable livestock. It is almost bewildering as it is ironic that Buhari himself doesn’t seem to care much about his citizens despite running on a campaign of ‘an end to corruption’ while being formerly involved in military coups in the 1980s. He says this, but doesn’t acknowledge the condition he has made in the country to facilitate so many Nigerians fleeing. As an Nigerian myself, I find it quite shameful of the state of my country. Personally, I believe that Nigeria could have been one of the most prosperous countries in the world, with us Nigerians enjoying the beauty of life if it wasn’t for the corruption and greed of our leaders as well as the exploitation of our resources by the western superpowers throughout the years.

As of late, there is not a lot of available information about the current state of the situation. It was even hard to find petitions from 2020 and even up to date information. I feel like the Libyan government has swept this under the rug for three years despite having promised to look into it. I pretty much think the government encourages this as it benefits them. Likewise, there is a limited amount of information about the progress of the task force that was created by the EU, the AU and the UN.

From everything that I have discussed within this piece, it is quite obvious, perhaps, that the situation in Libya, like many across the world, is being overlooked by those in power. Those of us fighting for the justice of our Black peers outside of Africa have forgotten about our Black peers within Africa. Colonial systems are still at work despite countries being independent. While we acknowledge that our leaders need to be held accountable, we must question how our current political systems came to be. Africans are suffering by the hands of those in power both within the continent and outside of it. It seems like we are all trapped within a multi-faceted system of injustice. We can use our access to resources to both educate and learn about what is going on with Black people in the diaspora. We can use our platforms, whether big or small, to raise awareness of the issues, like that of the Libyan slave trade. You can help here.

Written by Olivia Opara