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)

Slavery Report: Libya

Latest Numbers

According to a survey from the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 680,000 Sub-Saharan migrants are living in Libya today as of the summer of 2022. Of these, the Global Slavery Index estimated in 2018 that about 48,000 perform some kind of slave labor. Based upon the numbers of migrants counted, it is arguable that that number is either conservative or has increased significantly since then.

In the wake of the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in 2011, formal slave trading still occurs, as CNN exposed when it obtained video of an actual slave auction in 2017.

In the past, Libya has been an infamous nucleus of slavery in the Arab world, both black and white. Today, along with Algeria (see Algeria report), it is the epicenter of where African mass migration to Europe meets bestial bondage.

Black Africans attempting to escape poverty and violence for Europe make their way to Libya via migration “trade routes” stretching for thousands of miles across the continent. Once there, they are detained, then are often horrendously abused, tortured, and some enslaved.

Many of the migrants trekking to suffer in Libya are Nigerians fleeing civil war and poverty (see Nigeria report), but many — some non-black — also originate from countries like Burkina Faso, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mali, Niger, Somalia, and Sudan. Still, according to the IOM, out of the nearly 680,000 migrants living in Libya in the summer of 2022, the lion’s share — nearly 163,000 (24%) — are from Niger.

Even before the rise (post-Qaddafi) of Boko Haram, ash-Shabab, and other current sources of violent social chaos to the south, Libya underwent a significant influx of Sub-Saharan Africans, many of whom were brutally exploited for labor. A 2018 Instituto Español de Estudios Estratégicos (IEEE) report describes how the Qaddafi regime’s “cheap labor” immigration policies habitually attracted and entrapped black migrants:

Gaddafi’s policies may thus have acknowledged and legitimised the already substantial Sub-Saharan immigration to the country, rather than provoked it. Nonetheless, both the welcoming rhetoric and the practical implementation of the CEN-SAD [Community of Saharan and Sahelian States] — which included the removal of visa requirements for Sub-Saharan migrants — undoubtedly encouraged and facilitated Sub-Saharan immigration into Libya, which was ‘eager for cheap labour’. An estimated two and a half million Sub-Saharans lived in Libya by 2003.

The existing migration routes that connected Libya with the Sahel and West Africa were expanded and consolidated as a result, and became linked with East Africa’s migration system. Workers from Sudan or Ethiopia now migrated to Libya, and refugees from Darfur and Eritrea began to take the route to Libya as well.

Despite the official message of pan-African solidarity, however, the treatment of Sub-Saharan immigrants in Libya was, already by then, marked by arbitrariness and racism. ‘Slave’ was reportedly the most common term to refer to Sub-Saharan Africans in Libya; and detention camps for migrants allegedly existed already before 2000 — when a deadly anti-immigrant backlash in Libya marked a new turn in the country’s immigration policies. Some authors argue that the precarity of the immigrants’ legal status in Libya at the time was deliberate, as it guaranteed the reversibility of the country’s immigration policy.

p. 14.

Experiences of the Slaves

A January 2, 2018, BBC report interviewed Nigerians who were eventually deported back to Nigeria after being detained in Libya:

“It’s because of money,” …said [Agen Akhere], pleading and craning his neck to get closer to the microphone. “My friend, he’s still there. His name is Samson. He’s still there, in Gharyan.”

Gharyan is a prison in the mountains about 100km (60 miles) south of Tripoli. And it is a place where all of the migrants we spoke to were taken before they made it home.

Again and again they tell the same story, of detainees horrifically abused by prison guards, starved, beaten, raped — and traded as slaves.

“They come to our caravans [cells], they pick six persons to do their dirty jobs to do farming, brick-laying work,” says Lucky Akhanene. He returned in the same group as Mr Akhere and was held in Gharyan for four months.

“They give us out to their friends. They don’t pay us. It’s just hard labour, if you’re not fast with your job you get beaten.”

Three separate people spoke about being leased out by the prison for day labour like this. Others said they were sold.

Jackson Uwumarogie and Felix Efe were arrested “on top of the sea,” off the coast of Libya and taken to Gharyan.

They said one night a prison guard came and counted out 20 men, he took them outside and blindfolded them.

Mr Uwumarogie overheard the men talking about a price — 1,000 dinars ($735; £550). They were put into a van and taken to a farm.

A January 26, 2018, Al Jazeera article featured testimony from two Eritrean migrants who had been sold as slaves by traffickers multiple times. Sami, 18-years-old, said:

They asked me to pay $6,500 more to proceed further…

We were lied to. They beat us with sticks and a water hose. And they electrocuted us. We told them we had no money, but that did not stop them from beating us.

My mother had to sell our home in Eritrea and other assets we had and was also forced to borrow money from family and friends abroad for my trip.

They then took us to the town of the Libyan Bani Walid, where we were held in an illegal detention centre. They gave us one piece of bread a day.

We endured physical torture but the mental torture was worse. Our captors would systematically choose people unable to pay to set an example.

They would hang them upside down and beat them. They would electrocute their nipples and waterboard them. They would pour hot oil on them and burn them. We saw people dying while being tortured.

My friend died in front of me after he was electrocuted. He came with me and we survived the journey through the desert only for him to die as a slave in captivity.

Watching others being tortured made people call anyone they could for them to send money by any means. They made us call while being tortured.

While men are sold as economic slaves, women, deep in debt, are forced into sexual slavery in return for being trafficked to Europe — some even forced to become prostitutes only after they have reached their destination. Some Nigerian women are trafficked as far afield as the streets of Moscow.

A gruesome so-called “red market” has also emerged, in which enslaved men and women are subjected to live organ harvesting. As The International Business Times reported in 2017:

In an interview with TV3’s New Day, Bobby Banson said that he had viewed a number of videos of interviews with people who found themselves trapped into slavery with at least one person revealing he was aware that body parts of others were being harvested.

“One of the persons I heard, said the truth is that they are not sold to go and work, but their human parts are harvested… kidney, liver are in high demand in these areas,” Banson said according to Ghana Web.

“They are put on some [drugs] and their parts are harvested and resold. So that is actually what is happening, and that is a crime against humanity,” he added, urging the African Union (AU) to set up an ad-hoc court to investigate the matter.

The political turmoil in Libya only worsens the crisis. With control of the country split between a U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, a rival government in the east, and the jihad rebel groups in the middle, there is barely any supervision of migrants’ treatment or accommodation.

Libya has banned Western journalists from entering the country after the humiliating leak of the 2017 slave market footage. An October 2, 2018, PBS NewsHour report details how the government is desperate to cover it up:

[Foreign journalists are] under constant observation by government minders, their suspicions shadowing us everywhere. They don’t want us seeing this, the thousands of migrants and refugees from throughout Africa and beyond who use Libya as a way station north to Europe.

Each time we try filming them at government facilities, Libyan authorities shut us down.

…Libya wouldn’t allow American journalists in for nearly a year after CNN showed African migrants being auctioned off at a Libyan slave market last November.

Those whom the government detains — and possibly avert enslavement — are kept in horrific conditions, with hundreds crammed together in filthy seaside warehouses.

Political Developments

Nevertheless, despite the foul treatment, actions taken on the part of Libyan coast guard services and the European Union have reportedly yielded some results in blocking the traffickers’ trade. Though slavery persists, the Libyan migration route has been decreasing in use, at least from countries like Niger. Despite the large numbers of Nigeriens who gather in Libya, “In 2016,” says a 2018 AFP report, “330,000 people crossed [the Mediterranean] from Niger, primarily directed to Europe via Libya. The number fell to 18,000 in 2017 and to around 10,000 so far this year.”

The E.U. has also deported tens of the thousands of migrants — nearly 102,000 since 2014, according to a 2022 analysis by The Irish Times — though the migrants themselves have not decreased. Morocco is now emerging as a gateway to Spain, with many migrant deaths reported. No reports of slavery yet exist from Morocco, though the situation must be monitored.