As It Happens

Reporter describes 'surreal' experience of watching a migrant slave auction in Libya

CNN journalist Nima Elbagir has long heard horror stories from migrants about being bought and sold at Libyan slave auctions — and then she witnessed one first-hand.
A migrant looks out of a barred door at a detention centre in Gharyan, Libya, Oct. 12, 2017. Hundreds more like him are being kept in smuggler-owned Libyan warehouses, where they are sometimes beaten, ransomed or sold into slavery. (Hani Amara/Reuters)

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Nima Elbagir has long heard horror stories from migrants about being bought and sold at Libyan slave auctions — and then she witnessed one first-hand.

The CNN correspondent told As It Happens host Carol Off she first heard of practice from an Ethiopian migrant at a detention centre in Sicily three years ago.

"He described something that I almost found unbelievable — being locked into these warehouses, having people come round to choose from amongst the migrants, being beaten and forced to work," she said.

"And at the time I remember thinking, 'God this sounds like something out of the 17th century. This sounds like slavery."

There is indeed modern-day slavery happening in Libya, and three years later, Elbagir would see it up close and personal: men being auctioned off for as little as $500 US.

It started when one of CNN's sources in Libya sent the news organization a video of a slave auction. 

"It sounds ridiculous for someone who puts together words for a living, but I found it undescribable," Elbagir said.

"I don't think I'll ever be able to genuinely do justice to what it felt like to watch that video, because your brain almost suspends disbelief because it feels like you're watching a film."

She and her colleagues decided to travel to Libya to investigate further.

Network of slavery 

What they found mirrors what the International Organization for Migration detailed in a report earlier this year — that hundreds of African migrants are being forced into slavery by the human smugglers who brought them to the country in the first place.

The migrants — mostly from Nigeria, Senegal and Gambia — flee conflict and economic instability, hoping to make the treacherous journey from Libya across the Mediterranean into Europe.

A migrant looks up as he waits with others to be transported to a detention centre, in the coastal city of Sabratha, Libya. The country has become a gateway for Africans hoping to escape to Europe. (Hani Amara/Reuters)

But due to a crackdown by Libyan coast guard, many end up stuck waiting in cramped warehouses, branded by smugglers as "an excess in merchandise."

Some are held as hostages until their families pay ransom, while others are sold out for labour. 

"It's a way for the smugglers to make money off an available resource," Elbagir said.

The auction block 

The auctions, Elbagir said, are organized by word of mouth with trusted contacts only. 

"We were able to find someone who at great, great risk was willing to bring us along," she said.

She and her colleagues were led to the back of a warehouse outside Tripoli, where they watched and recorded as 12 men were sold to the highest bidder.

"What really struck me at the time was first of all how fast it all happened. Within minutes it felt like these people had been sold,"  Elbagir said.

A still image is seen from a video recording obtained by CNN of a slave action in Libya. (Screengrab/CNN)

She described one "incredibly surreal moment" in which "the person being sold was concerned about the ramifications of him being sold somewhere and being unable to do his job."

"So when the auctioneer said, 'I've got a driver, I've got a driver,' he kind of jumped up and said, 'No no, I don't know how to drive. I'm a digger. I can operate digging machinery.'"

The men being sold, she said, appeared "very resigned" to their fate.

"They seem to believe that it is yet another step on their journey to Europe," she said.

"Obviously there's a lot of beatings. There is a lot of duress. But at the same time, I think they ultimately believe that: if I pay off this so-called debt to this smuggler, then I will be allowed to continue our journey."

Sold again and again 

But that's often not the case.

Elbagir spoke to migrants at a detention centre in Libya who had been rescued from smuggler warehouses.

Many said they had been sold at auction and worked off their so-called debts, only be to be sold again and again. Others say they were sold even after their families paid their ransoms. 

"So you have these people who still somehow have managed to keep that hope alive and that dream alive that somehow at the end of this horror I will be allowed to continue my journey to Europe," she said.

"What was really important for us was to then show the other side of that."

CNN has handed over its footage to the Libyan authorities.

First Lieutenant Naser Hazam of the government's Anti-Illegal Immigration Agency in Tripoli told CNN that he had not witnessed a slave auction, but is aware of human smuggling rings operating in the country.

A migrant smokes a cigarette as he arrives with others at a naval base after they were rescued by Libyan Navy in Tripoli. The government in this country has cracked down on human smugglers carting migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean to Europe. (Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)

Elbagir said it's hard to place the blame solely at Libya's feet. The country has become a crossroads in a global refugee crisis. 

"Libya itself is teetering on failed statehood, so while there is the reality of the Libyan authorities not being particularly proactive, I think there's also the problem of Europe not being particularly proactive," she said.

"There are no agencies on the ground other than the International Organization for Migration supporting these detention centres. There is a level of complicity that doesn't just begin and end with the Libyan government."


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