The front page headline “Arab Masters, Black Slaves” in the defunct black weekly newspaper The City Sun for the week of February 1 – 7, 1995, featuring the first of a flagship series of groundbreaking articles about slavery in Mauritania and Sudan by journalist Sam Cotton. (The City Sun / American Anti-Slavery Group)

Arabs and Muslims Own Black Slaves in Five African Countries

Today, there could be more people enslaved than at any time in human history.

According to the International Labour Organization, as of 2016, around 40.3 million people around the world perform involuntary servitude of some kind.

Slavery exists on every continent, and there are several forms of slavery, including debt bondage, forced labor, sex slavery, and so on. But the sort of human bondage most familiar to Americans is chattel slavery — where a person is the wholly-owned property of another.

Unlike in debt bondage, the slave cannot pay a debt and be freed; unlike in sex slavery, a chattel slave, even after his or her most “useful” years, is typically not set free. One can be beaten, bought, inherited, sold, raped, even rented. Any children resulting from rape by the master are his also his property. It is the worst type of slavery.

And just like the other forms slavery can take, chattel bondage still happens in the world today — particularly in Africa.

Today, an estimate of between 529,000 and 869,000* black men, women, and children are still bought, owned, sold, and traded by Arab and Muslim masters in five African countries.

The five African countries where blacks are the property of Arabs and Muslims: Algeria (106,000), Libya (48,000), Mauritania (340,000 – 680,000), Nigeria (number unknown), and Sudan (35,000); totaling 529,000 – 869,000.

Algeria

African migrants take shelter under the bridge of a motorway on the outskirts of Algiers, Algeria — June 28, 2017. (Zohra Bensemra / Reuters)

In Algeria, Sub-Saharan Africans fleeing violence and poverty for Europe are enslaved by Algerian Arabs as they try to cross the Mediterranean. Today, according to the Global Slavery Index, around 106,000 black Africans are estimated to be enslaved.

Migrant women, but also children (both male and female), risk being forced into sexual slavery, while men perform unskilled labor. Such enslavement of black migrants is generally a surprise condition for being smuggled to Europe — though, unlike typical debt bondage, traffickers are not obliged to release the enslaved once their debt is somehow paid. Those who avoid slavery are also subjected to virulent Arab racism, further marginalizing the already destitute.

Read the full Algeria slavery report, or download a PDF.

Libya

Screenshot from CNN’s 2017 viral video showing a secret nighttime slave auction in Libya where black men are sold as slaves to Arab traffickers — c. August 2017. (CNN)

As in Algeria, black Africans hoping for a better life in Europe travel to Libya to be trafficked across the Mediterranean, often to Italy. Once there, some are enslaved by local Arabs and traffickers. As of 2016, according to the U.N., there are between 700,000 and 1 million black African migrants currently in Libya; of these, the Global Slavery Index estimates many as 48,000 of them live as slaves of some nature. Survivors report torture and sexual and slavery — some even forced to become prostitutes only after they have reached their destinations.

The slave trade in Libya became international news when CNN obtained video of an actual slave auction in 2017.

Watch CNN’s viral footage of black men being sold in Libya.

Read the full Libya slavery report, or download a PDF.

Mauritania

A young Mauritanian black slave girl washing her Arab masters’ hands, photographed in 1992 for Newsweek. (Mark Peters / Sipa Press via Newsweek)

In Mauritania, the very structure of society reinforces slavery. Over the centuries a cruel class system has evolved in which the lighter-skinned Arabs (beydanes) and Arabized Berbers rule over the black former slaves who have been forcibly Arabized over time (haratin), those free blacks in the south who refuse Arabization calling themselves “Negro-Africans,” and the black chattel slave class (abid) at the bottom. Though the country is entirely Muslim, and Islam theoretically forbids the enslavement of one Muslim by another, the severity of Arab racism even supersedes adherence to the Shari‘ah (Islamic law).

In 1993, a U.S. State Department report estimated that between 30,000 and 90,000 blacks lived as slaves owned by private masters. In 2012, a CNN investigation estimated that the number could be as high as between 340,000 and 680,000.

No slave markets exist in Mauritania. All slaves are born in masters’ households from the master raping black slave women, or ordering necessary episodes of sexual activity (“breeding”) between couples of slaves. In the absence of open markets, slaves change hands quietly in individual sales, are traded as substitutes for money in the settling of gambling debts, or can even be rented.

Watch footage from a groundbreaking 1996 investigation into Mauritanian slavery.

Watch the accompanying video to CNN’s 2012 investigation.

Read the full Mauritania slavery report, or download a PDF.

Nigeria

Chibok school girls freed from Boko Haram captivity are seen during a meeting with Nigeria’s Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, in Abuja, Nigeria — October 13, 2016. (Sunday Aghaeze / Nigeria State House via AP)

Among the most disturbing aspects of the long-running civil war in Nigeria has been slavery. Conflicts between the Muslim majority and the 40% Christian minority have led to the growth of terrorist violence in which the taking of Christian slaves has become a source of compensation for Islamic fighters.

The recent rise of jihad organizations like ISIS affiliate Boko Haram has been the main source of contemporary slave raids. The most infamous incident of a slave raid was Boko Haram’s abduction of 276 Christian schoolgirls in the town of Chibok on April 14, 2014 which inspired Michelle Obama’s “#BringBackOurGirls” hashtag. Most slaves are young girls, kidnapped and kept as the concubines of the Islamic soldiers — some even preferring to become suicide bombers to escape the life of a sex slave.

Though the U.S. State Department’s 2018 human rights report on Nigeria mentions that the number of slaves captured and owned by Boko Haram terrorists today could be in the thousands, the full number is as of now “unknown.”

The human rights organization Open Doors USA has also ranked Nigeria as no. 12 on its list of the countries most guilty of persecuting and massacring Christians.

Watch Rebecca Sharibu and her translator, Dr. Gloria Puldu, beg the Trump administration to help free Rebecca’s daughter Leah, who has been held as a slave ever since Boko Haram kidnapped her from her school in 2018, because she has refused to renounce her Christian faith.

Read the full Nigeria slavery report, or download a PDF.

Sudan

Black Sudanese slave women rest as they wait to be redeemed by aid workers from Christian Solidarity International after years of enslavement by Arab masters in the north — January 8, 2011. (American Anti-Slavery Group)

In Sudan, slavery remains as a painful vestige of the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983 – 2005), during which the Arab Muslim government in the north of the country declared a jihad upon the black, largely Christian south, killing perhaps 2.5 million people and enslaving as many as 200,000.

Though the war ended in 2005 and black South Sudan became the world’s newest nation on July 9, 2011, many black slaves remain as the property of Arab masters across the new border in the north. The exact number is not known, but as of 2006, James Aguer Alic, a former Sudanese government minister, estimated that it could be as high as 35,000.

The slaves lucky enough to be liberated in mass buy-backs — mostly women — tell hideous stories of abduction, beatings, forced conversion to Islam, grueling labor, Islamic vaginal mutilation, malnutrition, and rape.

Witness the freeing of 175 black slaves in Sudan, which took place on Passover, the Jewish festival of freedom.

Listen to a black Sudanese former slave tell the story of how he was kidnapped during a brutal slave raid, enslaved for 10 years, and then escaped from his Arab master.

Read the full Sudan slavery report, or download a PDF.

* This figure consists of the estimates of those enslaved in Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, and Sudan — excluding Nigeria, for which there are no tangible estimates.

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