Slaves in Libya

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CPJ uses a public justice lens to identify gaps in policy and to advocate for better ones for the public good. This approach is particularly important when dealing with the rights of vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers. Canada should be commended for having resettled the largest number of refugees in 2018, as reported by UNHCR. Although Canada cannot be expected to resettle all the refugees in the world, it should ensure that it treats all refugees equally.

Since 2015, over 60,000 vulnerable Syrian refugees have been resettled in the country. Canada deserves to be credited for such a mass migration to save lives. In contrast, recently the Immigration Minister announced that over the next two years, the government will resettle a total of 750 ex-slave refugees from Libya. Before proceeding, it is important to put Libya’s history and the current situation into context.

Since 2011, Libya has been beset by chaos since NATO-backed forces overthrew strong-man Col Muammar Gaddafi. The results of that military intervention were a complete disaster for Libyans. The country has been in complete turmoil since then.

In getting rid of Gaddafi, the western ‘allies’ did not understand was that the Libyan people were not homogeneous historically and lacked shared or common ideals. They were a collection of fiercely autonomous tribes until Gaddafi usurped power and held the country together for four decades as its ruler. The togetherness he had fostered was shattered when western governments overthrew his government. As a result, Libya is currently controlled by various heavily armed militias who are responsible for the deteriorating human rights situation and a constant threat of civil war.

Thousands of black Africans are fleeing armed conflict, persecution or severe economic hardship hoping to reach Europe for better lives. Their journey usually begins with a trek through deserts to Libya. Then, they proceed for the Mediterranean Sea on unseaworthy boats to Europe. However, many of them end up in overcrowded detention centers, run by smugglers, where they are traded as slaves. The African Union reported that there are an estimated 400,000 to 700,000 migrants in more than 40 detention camps across Libya living in inhumane conditions. It is in such a lawless environment that people smugglers and slave traders are thriving unchecked. On July 3, 2019, disaster struck when 53 migrants were killed by a militant airstrike on a detention center.

In a statement, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that migrants seeking to transit through lawless Libya have experienced “unimaginable horrors”. The International Organization of Migration (IOM) staff in North Africa have documented horrid events on migrant routes where ‘slave markets’ are flourishing. A former Nigerian government minister even claimed that the internal organs of some migrants have been harvested after they were sold into slavery. They are held in detention centers for months amid raw sewage, piles of garbage, disease, maggots and barely enough food to survive. IOM recorded more than 3,100 deaths in one year among migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean. The tragedy is further exacerbated by the European Union’s policy of partnering with Libyan militias to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean Sea. A UN envoy declared that “There is a certain blindness among European countries about the situation of migrants in Libya, which has been deteriorating for months.”

With all these goings-on, it is rather befuddling that it will take a whole two years to resettle a mere 750 vulnerable people, whereas it took a mere four years to resettle 60,000 equally vulnerable Syrians. Why should less attention be paid to the suffering North Africans? A refugee is a refugee despite skin tone, and all should be treated equally. Bearing in mind Canada’s past discriminatory immigration policies, one would be hard pressed not to believe that Africans are being ignored in their plight because of their skin color.  The process starts with rigorous screening overseas and makes it hard, particularly for Africans to travel to Canada.  Refugees in Africa routinely wait years for Canadian immigration officials to process their applications to come to Canada. Processing is too slow in many parts of the world, but it is slowest of all in Africa.

Western countries should lead in resettling the enslaved Africans, especially considering that they have been the main the architects of the Libyan anarchy. Common Dreams put it aptly by stating that the anarchy has its roots in political decisions by western governments to overthrow Libya’s stable government, turning the oil-rich Libya into a failed state ruled by competing warlords and militias profiting from slavery and human trafficking. The European Union should rethink its policy of returning migrants intercepted at sea to the mercy of brutal traffickers or to be detained in inhuman conditions.

Canada should endeavor to uphold the principles of fairness and equity in responding to refugees around the world. It did well to significantly increase the immigration targets for the resettlement of Syrian refugees and, in the interest of justice, it should do the same for Africa and other regions in times of crisis. The African ‘slaves’ in Libya need immediate rescue, but the world is not paying adequate attention to their plight.

Photo by mostafa meraji is licensed under CC0

About the author

  • Stephen is the Refugee Rights Policy Analyst at CPJ. He has worked as a civil servant, forced migration researcher and in the not for profit sector. Stephen has a Masters in Demography from the Australian National University; a BA in Social Work from Makerere University and a Diploma in Paralegal studies from Herzing College Toronto. He also has certificates in refugee and forced migration studies from Oxford and York universities. Stephen is very passionate about public justice and has written and published research papers pertaining to public justice issues including refugee and forced migration issues, governance and poverty reduction.

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