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Libya's migration crisis fuelling slave trade

media Ivorian migrants returning from Libya prepare for registration as they arrive in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, November 20, 2017. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

African migrants in Libya have begun returning to their home countries. Côte d’Ivoire repatriated over 350 citizens from Tripoli on Wednesday, after video footage appearing to show migrants being auctioned off as slaves sparked global outcry. The UN says the auctions may amount to crimes against humanity.

“I was shocked at seeing the footage of the CNN report, but I wasn't surprised,” Umberto Profazio, an analyst with the International Institute for Security Studies in London told RFI Tuesday.

In the footage, migrants--predominantly black--are seen being put up for auction as potential farmhands and being sold for, in some cases, four hundred dollars each.

The images sparked protests against slavery in Paris and cities across the world, prompting Libyan authorities to launch an investigation.

"Slave markets in Libya are not new," continues Profazio, who recalls that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) first documented in April how migrants were being sold as slaves in the southern Libyan city of Sabha.

"We understand the markets are usually in small places far from the capital," Joel Millman, a press officer with the IOM, told RFI.

"We're not really sure if it's linked to a seasonal harvest, maybe the dates are finally ripe, or whether or not these are small parties of migrants who find themselves bereft, such as if their truck runs out of a gas," he said.

Testimonies by survivors suggest that this was the prime moment where smugglers pounced.

New slavery

"Someone takes the migrants to a market where actual bidding goes on: people need farm labour, or construction labour," says Millman, adding that Libya, like most petrol economies still relies heavily on foreign labour.

"A country that small in population is always dependent on a large work force for the south, and that hasn't stopped even in all this crisis, they're still coming."

They come from countries like Mali, Niger and Guinea in search of better economic opportunities in Italy, with Sub-Saharan migrants being the most vulnerable to traffickers.

"They've suffered terribly because they're so destitute when they start their journey, they're not a reliable source of income for the traffickers," adds Millman.

Smugglers are thus turning to slavery markets to make up the shortfall.

"They didn't need to resort to these tactics before with Syrians," continues Millman, "You set a price and they were able to pay. But now they've realized they can extract a lot of money from these unfortunate folks."

Slavery-fuelled migration exacerbating tribal tensions

Not only are these new slavery markets stirring anger across the globe, but they're also exacerbating tribal tensions on the ground explains Libyan activist Emad Badi.

"We are a very tribal society and a racist society in the sense that most Arabs view themselves as being superior to what they call Africans," he told RFI.

Badi argues that this underlying racism is being provoked by the influx of migrants into Libya, and by what he sees as the European Union’s policy of using Tripoli as “a dumping ground”.

"Imagine a society that has the potential to be very racist having huge flows of migrants arriving to their shores, while other countries refuse to assume their responsibility, close off their borders and their solution is basically to keep the migrants in (...) Obviously the symptoms of racism and insecurity are bound to show up," he comments.

EU under scrutiny

For Badi, the EU's migration strategy may be be propping up slavery markets in Libya.

"The EU should focus on not combatting migration through financing militias, which creates other problems."

Indeed, in September, rival militias battled for control of Libya's trafficking hub Sabratha, west Tripoli, and essentially for access to Italian funds to curb migration.

"Italy was paying off militias in Sabratha to stop boats from taking migrants through the Central Mediterranean Route," explains Umberto Profazio.

"But the cost of battle was very high." At least five people were killed and dozens injured, fuelling reports that Italy's efforts to stop migration were having an inverse effect.

Detention broken beyond repair

In mid-November, the UN blasted the EU's policy of assisting the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and return migrants in the Mediterranean as "inhuman."

UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'aad Al Hussein, warned the system of detention was "broken beyond repair".

One way of tackling the problem, reckons Joel Millman, is "registering people as soon as they're rescued so they have a name and a file," which he says will prevent them from being swallowed up by the slave trade.

"There should be a central meeting point where someone knows he can come and get food, call his family, and discuss voluntary return if they're interested," he says, calling for detention centres to be decriminalized.

"We need to get rid of this detention centre mentality and move to something a lot more humane," he said.

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