The sale of Black people has become so normalized in Libya that West African migrants are openly being bought and sold in modern-day slave markets, several survivors told the U.N. agency assisting them in their safe return home.
“The situation is dire,” said Mohammad Abdiker, head of operations and emergencies for the International Organization for Migration. “The more IOM engages inside Libya, the more we learn that it is a vale of tears for all too many migrants.”
Disturbing reports of public slave auctions for migrants are the latest in a laundry list of atrocities committed in the North African nation, including sexual violence, exploitation and slave labor, according to The Guardian. Libya, which serves as a major exit point for African migrants headed to Europe, has slowly slipped into violent chaos ever since the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, leaving migrants with little to no cash or citizenship papers extremely vulnerable.
A 34-year-old Senegalese man who was forcibly enslaved but escaped, said he and many others were transported to a dusty lot in the south Libyan city of Sabha after passing through Niger on a bus organized by “people smugglers.” The man said the group paid to be taken to the coast, where they planned to cross the Mediterranean into Europe by boat. However, their driver suddenly claimed that middlemen hadn’t covered their fees and put the busload of migrants up for sale.
“The men on the pickup were brought to a square, or parking lot, where a kind of slave trade was happening,” said Livia Manante, an IOM officer based in Niger who aids migrants wanting to return home. “There were locals — he described them as Arabs — buying sub-Saharan migrants.”
Manate said the Senagalese man’s account of such slave markets was supported by other migrants she spoke to in Niger, as well as others who were interviewed by her colleagues in Europe.
“IOM Italy has confirmed that this story is similar to many stories reported by migrants and collected at landing points in southern Italy, including the slave market reports,” she told The Guardian. “This gives more evidence that the stories reported are true, as the stories of those who managed to cross-match those who are returning back to their countries.”
After his sale, the Senegalese man reported being taken to a makeshift prison in another part of Libya where detained migrants were forced to work for no pay or on meager rations. Their captors reportedly also called migrants’ families back home demanding ransom in exchange for their freedom.
The Senegalese man said his captors requested 300,000 West African francs (about $482), then sold him to a larger jail where his ransom was doubled without explanation. He said migrants who lingered at the prison for too long were eventually taken away and killed. Luckily, he was able to win time for relatives back home to collect money for his ransom by translating for jailers, as he spoke fluent English, French and some local languages.
Manate said the Senegalese man managed to escape the prison earlier this month.
Many other West African migrants have fled Libya with similar horror stories, according to Giuseppe Loprete, chief of mission at IOM in Niger.
“It’s very clear they see themselves as being treated as slaves,” Loprete said. “There are now more migrants coming back from Libya, so that’s also why all these stories are coming to the surface. And conditions are worsening in Libya, so I think we can also expect more in coming months.”
The IOM is now working to raise awareness across West Africa about the perilous journey to Europe by telling the personal stories of survivors who returned home. Advocates noted that while many migrants know the boat ride to Europe is extremely dangerous, they’re unaware of the dangers they might encounter in Libya before they even reach the coast.