As It Happens

Accused slave traders who made millions off migrants hit with UN sanctions

After a 2017 CNN investigation that looked into modern day slave auctions in Libya, six men accused of leading human trafficking networks have been put on an international sanctions list.

The new development comes after an nvestigation by CNN reporter Nima Elbagir

A migrant looks out of a barred door at a detention center in Gharyan, Libya October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Hani Amara - RC14CB627CA0 (Hani Amara/Reuters)

Six men accused of leading human trafficking networks operating in Libya have been slapped with unprecedented United Nations Security Council sanctions.

It is the first time individual traffickers have been put on an international sanctions list. The men are accused of smuggling, abusing and enslaving vulnerable migrants. 

The UN Security Council credited CNN's reporting with bringing the Libyan slave trade to light.

In 2017, reporter Nima Elbagir went undercover at a slave auction in Libya where Nigerian men were being sold for as little as $500 US.

Elbagir spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the new development.

Nima, what does this mean that these six men have been put on an international sanctions list?

In practical terms, it means a travel ban and an asset freeze.

The travel ban is really where this is going to hit home, because when you have as much money as these men do, and they've been described to us as essentially multimillionaires of human trafficking, they don't want to be stuck inside Libya.

They want to be out there on the beaches of Tunisia and Malta and the United Arab Emirates. They want to be in Dubai. So this will hurt them.

Migrants and refugees riide a rubber boat in the Mediterranean Sea about 21 miles north of Sabratha, Libya. Six men have been accused of operating human trafficking networks operating out of Libya by the UN Security Council. (Emilio Morenatti/The Associated Press)

All of this enormous wealth that these men have accumulated is through human smuggling, through these refugees we see on these boats. It's these humans that you reported on that were being trafficked and sold as slaves in Libya. This is the profits that these men have accumulated, is that right?

Yes. When you look at the evidence that was put before the UN Security Council and when you look at the breakdown of what it is they are being sanctioned for, what they are accused of having done, it's horrifying.

All of this [is] under the umbrella of human trafficking — slavery, sex slavery.

One of them, Abd Al-Rahman Al-Milad, who is a commander in the Libyan Coast Guard, he is believed to have actually sunk ships full of would-be migrants because they were being run by his competition.

This commander is a very senior person in the Libyan coast guard. How could he be involved with this level of human smuggling?

It's incredibly illustrative of the deal with the devil that the European Union, and specifically the Italian government, have done in their desperation to stop African migrants coming to European shores.

They have partnered up with the Libyan Coast Guard, in spite of really wide ranging concerns put forward by aid organizations, that the Libyan Coast Guard were implicated. People have been worried about this for a while. It's telling that Europe was willing to train and fund the Libyan Coast Guard ... to stop African migrants making it to their shores.

Can you tell us a bit about some of the other men who are on the sanctions list?

Ahmed Al-Dabbashi is particularly interesting. He's very young. But this is someone who is believed to not only have ISIS members in his ranks, but to be related to both family and business dealings with ISIS.

Two of the men are Eritrean citizens, they were very much part of the African end of the smuggling networks. They were responsible for the East African networks, the refugees coming out of Eritrea. And when you speak to these migrants, that often was what was the most painful for them: that the men not only capitalizing from their misery, but also enforcing the slave auctions, the men selling them off, the men selling women into prostitution, were their own countrymen.

Migrants in a dinghy are rescued by Libyan coast guards in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya. (Hani Amara/Reuters)

What we're reading in this UN report is that all these activities, they weren't ad hoc or accidental. This slave trade was another business that started up. Can you tell us about who is involved in that?

All of these men, as we understand it, were involved in that. They capitalized on what could have been a business setback, where they saw what they called the 'commodities,' the 'merchandise' — the migrants — sitting in their warehouses, eating into their profit margin because they needed shelter [and] they needed to be guarded. 

So, the slave auctions became a way to make money off the 'commodities,' off the people, even when they weren't able to move them to Europe.

What we saw when we went back to Nigeria, is that then, it became an end in and of itself. People were still being told that they could make it to Europe, even when the Libyan Coast Guard or the European boat patrols were making it difficult, so that they could be gotten to Libya. And then in Libya, they were sold off and money was made from them.

Migrants sit at a naval base after being rescued by Libyan coast guards in Tripoli, Libya. The country has become a gateway for Africans hoping to escape to Europe. (Ismail Zitouny/Reuters)

You have put a human face on those who suffered. These are human beings, not commodities, and you've shown us these people and what they're going through and what they're fleeing. Will these sanctions change anything for them?

I hope so. That really is the toughest question, because what you can't battle often is the depth of human optimism. So many of these people that we meet and speak to don't believe it will happen to them. And that's the heartbreak, because it's their optimism and their hopes and their dreams that are being exploited by these people.

I hope, at least, seeing these people named and shamed will have an impact on whether or not some 17-year-old kid in Niger chooses to undertake this journey.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Written by Imogen Birchard and Samantha Lui. Interview with Nima Elbagir was produced by Imogen Birchard.