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Lost Liberty: Slavery in Libya

“Everybody was optimistic back then; We are now suffering the legacy of Gaddafi, the lack of institutions, no democracy, the lack of knowing how to come together.” This statement, taken from The Guardian, was made by Guma El-Gamaty, a former envoy of the rebel government. It summarises the still overbearing national state of dejection in Libya, six years after the civil war.

With shocking reports of the sale of African migrants as slaves in the nation, it is fair to say that the years following the uprising have plunged the once flourishing Arab state into a chaotic war zone. Consequently, it is crucial to examine the turmoil and upheaval that the country has faced since the capture and execution of its longest-standing leader, and how the events following have influenced the slave trade, which has re-emerged on a mass scale in the country today.

Illustration depicting Sub-Saharan Africans as slaves In Libya (Source: African Updates)

What is slave trade?

Slave trade is defined by the Oxford dictionary as ‘the procuring, transporting, and selling of human beings as slaves, in particular, the former trade in black Africans as slaves by European countries and North America’.

As shown by the definition above, “slave trade” is commonly associated with an ancient market, and refers to a transatlantic transaction with foreign nationals from other continents taking on the role of sellers. Although this practice has been abolished, it has continued in the 21st century; and the master-slave relationship has now been modified, with Africans occupying both roles.

The Gaddafi Era & The Revolution

The reason [the slave trade] can happen is because there is really no rule of law across much of Libya,” says Leonard Doyle of the International Organisation of Migration.

Ruled for four decades by its “brotherly leader” Muammar Mohammed Abu Minyar Gaddafi; Libyans’ lives have been shaped by his policies and ideas. Using his own political philosophy of a “Jamahiriya” system of government, he introduced a direct democracy which saw the populace use of local councils, as opposed to political parties to govern. This system of government, although deemed as a seemingly socialist administration run by the people, was perceived to be a dictatorship by the West, with Gaddafi being positioned as its eccentric commander.

Despite this somewhat negative and controversial perception of Gaddafi, Libya’s citizens and businesses prospered under his early rule. Both parties benefited from free public healthcare, interest-free loans and an improved adult literacy rate, following a law which saw free education introduced up till university level. Gaddafi was outspoken on uniting the African continent, helping fund South African anti-apartheid movements for which he was thanked by political revolutionary Nelson Mandela. He also notably called for a United States of Africa, which he claimed would push Africa forward towards becoming like the USA. This is why it is with a sense of irony that today in the very state he served, a sense of division towards other Africans thrives, with Pan-Africanism being abandoned, and citizens viewing fleeing African migrants as a commodity.

Nelson Mandela and Muammar Gaddafi (Source: The African Exponent)

After he was overthrown and killed in 2011, a lack of direction and a forceful struggle for power fell over Libya. Widespread inflation, which peaked at 32.8% in May 2017, has lead to destitution; and with two rival parliaments and three governments, the political situation in Libya continues to worsen.

Post-Revolution Racial Tensions

The recent re-emergence of the slave trade in Libya is not the first occurrence of such xenophobic racial tensions. In 2011, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon reported that former Libyan rebels illegally detained an estimated 7000 people, including women and children. Among them were black detainees (“a large number” of Sub-Saharan Africans Moon said) who were suspected to have been targeted for their skin colour and were accused of acting as mercenaries under Gaddafi’s rule for which they faced torture. CIA figures maintain around 97% of the Lybian population are of the Berber and Arab ethnic groups, with immigrants making up 12% of the population. Although abuse is usually associated with this large migrant populace, it is not restricted to them.

Tawergha, Libya’s only town with a black majority was left with empty streets following an attack in 2011. Gaddafi’s forces used the town as a base during the civil war, attacking neighbouring town Misrata in a 3-month siege. The Misratans survived and countered by driving out everyone in Tawergha who they saw as responsible for their suffering. "No, they can never come back… They have done us too much harm, terrible things. We cannot forgive them.” said Najia Walks, a Misrata local following the attack.

Tawerghan girl holding sign “When can we go home?” (Source: Tawergha Foundation)

Events like this highlight the vulnerability of all minorities currently in Libya, given the high political tensions regardless of whether they are migrants or natives. A report by the Humans Rights Watch on the battle between Misrata and Tawergha noted that people of dark skin are called ‘Abid”, a demeaning term for a slave in Arabic.

2017: Slave Auctions

International attention was garnered after CNN released a video showcasing the auction of African migrants as slaves for $400 in Tripoli, Libya’s capital city. Their report referenced the backwards atmosphere in the city - “inside the slave auctions it’s like we’ve stepped back in time. The only thing missing is the shackles around the migrants’ wrists and ankles.”

Following the video’s release, global outrage arose, with Africa and the West joining forces in their calls for the end of the practice, and those involved being prosecuted. Protests took place outside the Libyan embassies in various parts of the world. Libya’s Government of National Accord, formed by the United Nations and endorsed by its Security Council, claims to be taking action to stop the auctions and prosecute the perpetrators.

Many of the migrants who are now slaves are among thousands of African refugees who attempt to reach Europe through the Mediterranean Sea; known as the deadliest migration route in the world. For years, Libya has acted as a major transit point for such refugees, with this year’s influx to Italy bordering on 100,000. Unfortunately for these travellers, the combination of stricter regulations and the country’s political instability has increased the likelihood of them being kidnapped en route for ransom purposes or for auctioning off as labourers while still in Libya. Those who escape kidnapping are arguably not much better off than those sold. They may still be caught and detained by Libyan immigration authorities in an attempt to manage the growing refugee population arriving on the shores of European countries. Human rights groups have condemned the cramped conditions at these detention centres; one South Sudanese inhabitant described the centre saying, “it’s just hell”.

Anti-slave trade protest (Source: Vibe)

The Next Step

In order for real change to occur, new legislation must be put into effect, along with the imprisonment of traffickers. However, none of this can occur without better management of the political state of Libya by the international community. Greater monitoring of detention centres and migrant flows needs to occur to prevent the capture and torture of these vulnerable people, which is what leads to their sale as property.


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