As It Happens

Migrants in Libya are being rounded up and sold into slavery, UN says

After leaving everything they know behind to risk their lives in search of a better life, hundreds of African migrants are being forced into a system of "modern slavery" in Libya, a United Nations spokesman says.
Migrants and refugees are rescued from a crowded wooden boat north of Sabratha, Libya, on February 18, 2017. (David Ramos/Getty Images)

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After leaving everything they know behind to risk their lives in search of a better life, hundreds of African migrants are being forced into a system of "modern slavery" in Libya, a United Nations spokesman says.

"Facing all those risks and dangers in a foreign country, you can imagine that you are trying to do whatever you can just to survive yourself and send some money back home and support your family — and you end up with the hands of those smugglers, and you end up working for free," Othman Belbeisi, head of the UN International Organization for Migration's (IOM) Libya mission, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

The IOM released a report on Tuesday detailing the system in which hundreds of people —  many from Nigeria, Senegal and Gambia — are either rounded up in the streets by armed groups, or held captive by the very smugglers who brought them to the country in the first place.

Some, he said, are held as hostages by smugglers hoping to secure money from their families back home. 

If that doesn't pan out, they are sold for between $100 to $200 US per person, often as day labourers in construction or agriculture. 

In these images, Sub-Saharan African migrants held hostage in Sabha, Southern Libya. Many are beaten, starved or sold for labour, the UN says. Others are killed. (IOM)

The IOM interviewed dozens of West Africans who recounted being sold in garages and car parks in the southern city of Sabha, one of Libya's main migrant smuggling hubs.

The trade mostly targets men, Belbeisi  said, but the IOM has also heard stories of women being sold into sexual slavery. 

The stories are all different, he said, but the common thread in all of them is violence and hunger.

'You can be killed'

"They live in a very poor conditions, they receive just the minimal amount of food, just to keep them alive, and the treatment that they face also is inhumane," he said. "Many are subject to violence and it can reach a level where you can be killed if you cause problems to those smugglers."

Some who don't snag a ransom for their kidnappers are reportedly killed or left to starve to death, then are buried in unmarked graves with families back home uncertain of their fate.

"We are hearing about mass graves in the desert," Mohammed Abdiker, IOM's director of operations and emergencies, said in a statement. 

Migrants from West Africa wait in Agadez, northern Niger, on April 1, 2017, as they wait to go to Libya, from where they will attempt to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean sea. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

Libya is the main gateway for migrants attempting to reach Europe by sea, with more than 150,000 people making the crossing in each of the past three years.

So far this year an estimated 32,657 migrants have crossed to Italy, over 7,000 more than during the same period in 2016, according to UN estimates. More than 800 are known to have died at sea in 2017 while an unknown number perish during their journey north through the desert. In 2016, some 3,800 died. 

"People fleeing their countries looking for better life, they end up in a much worse situation," Belbeisi said. "And you can imagine if you accept this very high risk, it means that you have very limited options back home, and I believe those people deserve better treatment and better opportuities."

With files from Reuters


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