As It Happens

Hundreds of former slaves headed to Canada were exploited and abused in Libya: UN

Hundreds of refugees coming to Canada were lured from their home countries by criminals, detained in horrible conditions in Libya and sold into slavery, says Leonard Doyle, director of the UN's International Office for Migration.

600 refugees rescued from slavery in Libya headed to Canada, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen says

An African migrant with his hands chained takes part in a march towards the offices of the European Union during a demonstration on Dec. 2, 2017, in Athens, protesting against the slavery of migrants in Libya. (Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images)


Hundreds of refugees coming to Canada were lured from their home countries by criminals, detained in horrible conditions in Libya and sold into slavery, says Leonard Doyle, director of the UN's International Office for Migration.

More than 150 people from Libyan detention centres have been resettled in Canada and another 600 people rescued from slavery in Libya are expected over the next two years, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said Wednesday. 

Canada is also planning to take in 100 refugees from Niger who were rescued from Libyan migrant detention centres.

Doyle spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about what happens to some of the people who risk everything to travel to Libya with the dream of crossing the Mediterranean into Europe. 

Here is part of their conversation.

First of all, how did these people come to be auctioned off at slave markets?

We don't know for sure, but one thing that's clear, though, is that many of the people were lured from their homes in West Africa and elsewhere.

Some were forced because they were fleeing violence, of course. Some were asylum-seekers in that sense. Others were economic migrants trying to better their lives. 

And along the journey, many of them were, you know, terribly abused, trafficked, put into servitude, treated badly. But we also know they ... used social media to get on the journey. 

Canada was one of the few countries to respond to a request from the United Nations refugee agency in 2017, says Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

What do you mean, they used social media? This is how they were lured from their homes?

I mean, not everyone by any means, but certainly the people who are organizing them — the so-called connection men that they meet in the villages and towns, who are part of this long criminal chain — they're using WhatsApp and other encrypted services like Messenger to shepherd their charges through the, you know, very inhospitable terrain.

What countries have they come from?

They're from all over. They're from, you know, at least the 14 countries of West Africa.... Also from Eritrea, in particular, from Ethiopia, East Africa, even as far as Bangladesh and beyond.

Because Libya became basically a kind of an open wound in the southern flank of Europe that people realized they could get through, but not really knowing that there were these dreadfully exploitative people there who would take advantage of them, traffic them, make them modern-day slaves, as it's often called, but also put them literally on the slave block.

Who buys them? What's the market?

Libya's a very big country — physically very huge. It's bigger than France. But the population is tiny. It's about five million. So there's a lot of need for labourers for construction, for cleaning staff, you name it.

So a lot of these migrants were shaken down by the people as soon as they crossed the border. They then put them into terrible detention centres, get them to call home, have more money sent through and then sell them on.

Migrants are are kept behind bars at detention camp in Gheryan, Libya, in December 2016. (Hani Amara/Reuters)

But the ones who are now part of this resettlement program are those who have survived that and found themselves to be living in some kind of detention conditions. What have you seen?

I've traveled twice to Libya and seen the detention centres and they're, frankly, appalling. And, of course, I was with a delegation, so we're seeing the cleaned-up version of it.

But what was particularly shocking was seeing thousands of people sitting down cross-legged with, like, a piece of bread in their hands to keep them quiet, and really just calling out for help as we came by.

And, of course, we know that when the doors close and international eyes are gone, the abuse that is happening there is just off the scales.

Most of the people who are in these camps, or in these detention centres from which this program comes from, are they mostly singles? Are they there families, or are they single men?

There's a lot of single men and single women coming through.... Not so many families but, indeed, you do see unaccompanied minors and, indeed, they are terribly exploited because there's nobody there to protect them.

Migrants from West Africa wait in Niger, on April 1, 2017, as they wait to go to Libya. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

And if they are coming as individuals — as as men, as women, as girls, as unaccompanied minors — what needs will they have in Canada? What special needs would they need to settle when they don't have their families with them?

People are a long way from home. They're not used the country, the culture, the climate, if I may I say.

They obviously need to be integrated into their own community. I'm sure one of first things that the authorities will do [is] seek out people who speak the same language, have the same religion, this kind of thing.

It's super important for future generations that migrants and refugees who come are integrated well, that they feel fully part of the new community.

I think the problems we see and have seen recently in Europe come from poor integration of people, people feeling marginalized.

Canadians are a kind of outliers in this and show remarkable leadership in this domain.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Canadian Press. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.