Ever since the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi, the former Libya strongman who was toppled and killed during the Arab Spring uprisings a few years ago, the North African nation has suffered deep political instability and chaos. One of the most harrowing issues plaguing Libya has been the arrival of the Islamic State terrorist organization, often referred to as ISIS, in central regions such as Sirte, where news reports suggest that the group is involved in a horrific new activity: the slave trade of African migrants. In early April 2017, a wire report by the Reuters news bureau indicated that Libyan forces engaged in an offensive to eradicate ISIS fighters from Sirte came across 35 people who had been abducted and forced into sex slavery. The victims were mostly from Eritrea, but also included five Nigerians who had been looking for a way to cross the Mediterranean for the purpose of seeking asylum in Europe.
Although the abductees were able to escape a compound in Sirte during an operation by Libyan forces, they were further traumatized by subsequently being sent to a government prison in Misrata so that they could be investigated for potential connections to ISIS. Finally, the victims were released to United Nations and Red Cross workers. A more recent report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a non-profit that works with the UN, explains that the slave trade in Libya has unfortunately developed to the point that African migrants escaping their troubled countries are being intercepted, captured, and bought and sold as slaves.
The Promise of the Mediterranean
Libya and other Northern African nations have become rally points for sub-Saharan refugees fleeing countries such as Sudan, Niger, Congo, Eritrea, Somalia, Nigeria, and others. Many of these African migrants pay smugglers to transport them to Libya, a nation that has experienced abandonment and lawlessness over the last few years. If these refugees reach the Mediterranean coast, they will try to make it across with the hope of being given asylum by a member nation of the European Union.
The IOM report further elaborates that Arab criminals operating in Libya, some connected to ISIS, are taking advantage of the situation to sell migrants as slaves. A photographer from Mexico working with IOM officials explained to the Deutsche Welle news agency that criminals are selling their victims for monetary gain, with some being sold into sexual servitude while others only get one meal per day. The slave merchants often pose as migrant smugglers with empty promises of transport to the coast; in reality, these criminals operate among the Arab tribes in southern Libya.
What is even more concerning is that armed militias connected to the government may be involved in the slavery markets. Libya is the last place African migrants should attempt to reach due to the current risks to their safety. The tragic exploitation of migrants who are being further victimized in their already desperate situations calls for immediate international intervention. The European Union is considering a deployment of security forces in Libya for the purpose of breaking up these slavery rings; all the same, this could be a politically fraught measure in a North African country that the Arab Spring was not able to improve.