Libya: Slavery may amount to crimes against humanity

In October, carrying concealed cameras, a group of CNN reporters witnessed and recorded a dozen men being auctioned outside Tripoli, in Libya. Sold for the equivalent of several hundreds of dollars, the men appeared so traumatised they could not speak. They appeared helplessly resigned to their fate as merchandise. The reporters were told that similar auctions were taking place at nine other locations in the country.

Part of the blame rests with the European Union. Its decision to tighten its borders and new policies have contributed to trapping migrants in conditions where they are held as captives and sold as slaves. In doing the EU’s bidding, Italy has been helping Libya in preventing migrants from departing for Europe and in returning those captured at sea. The resulting backlog of migrants and refugees who were originally in transit, has indisputably helped to usher in a gruesome trade in human beings.

After the expose by the investigative journalists, the EU’s reaction has been notably muffled. The Secretary General of the United Nations António Guterres declared promptly on 20 November that he was “horrified at news reports and video footage showing African migrants in Libya reportedly being sold as slaves” and called upon all competent authorities to investigate without delay and bring the perpetrators to justice.

During the African Union – European Union Summit on 29 – 30 November, the AU, EU and UN decided to set up a task force to assist voluntary returns to countries of origin and accelerate resettlement procedures for those fleeing violence and persecution. I had a conversation with local young men, and they were impatient to tell their story – and to have someone listening to them. It is clear that they have no prospects, no hope of employment. Uprooted, they remain adrift and vulnerable to abuse.

The scale of the challenge is no doubt daunting. In November there were 44,306 registered refugees and asylum seekers in Libya, while 116,545 persons have arrived in Italy during this year. Despite the policies, Libya remains a key crossing point to Europe.

Slavery may amount to crimes against humanity. It is one of the most serious human rights violations under international law.