How the EU is responsible for slavery in Libya

The migration policies of the European Union have directly resulted in slavery conditions for migrants in Libya.

Protest Sweden
Protesters attend a demonstration against slavery in Libya in Stockholm on November 25 [Reuters/Claudio Bresciani]

Migrants and refugees being sold into slavery in Libya is not really new information. In April 2017, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that along the North African migrant routes its staff discovered “slave markets” where hundreds of African young men are being tormented.

But following CNN’s release of footage showing men being sold by an auctioneer for the equivalent of $800, there was finally international outrage. There were demonstrations in Paris, Stockholm and New York with slogans such as “Free our brothers!” and “Black people are not slaves!” The chairman of the African Union, Guinean President Alpha Conde, demanded prosecutions for these crimes and Libya announced it was reportedly launching an investigation into the matter. 

But while the outrage has focused on the Libyan authorities, it has very much ignored the role the European Union has played in enabling such despicable abuse.

The EU has pushed to curb migration and tighten its borders, but it has not provided alternative safe and legal paths for migrants and refugees. This has inevitably led to more dangerous conditions for people already in transit countries such as Libya. Slavery, unfortunately, has been a direct consequence of that.

Deadly ‘Fortress Europe’ policies

In response to the CNN video, the Malta Independent declared in an editorial: “it should make us Europeans ashamed of the deal our leaders struck on our behalf when they convened in Malta last February to address the mounting deaths at sea in the Mediterranean but which, in actual fact, was merely a facade hiding their real purpose – to reinforce Fortress Europe.”

What the Maltese newspaper is referring to is what is euphemistically called the “externalisation of migration control”. The EU is “outsourcing responsibility” to authorities in such countries as Libya and Niger, despite warnings by humanitarian organisations and the UN that neither of the two has the infrastructure or training to abide by international law and treat migrants humanely.

The EU has given tens of millions of euros to enforce border control and boost the Nigerien police which was tasked with stopping migrants trying to cross into Libya. In April, the EU also pledged 90 million euro ($107m) for “improved migration management” in Libya.

The Italian government gave the Libyan Coast Guard new boats and millions of euros to support their operations. It has done so disregarding accusations that its forces are rounding up migrants and refugees and sending them to prisons, with widespread abuses at all stages.

One Libyan coast guard commander even told Human Rights Watch in April that the use of force against migrants was “necessary to control the situation as you cannot communicate with them”. In May 2017, volunteer rescuers reported that the Libyan Coast Guard opened fire during a refugee “rescue” operation in international waters.

The support for the Libyan Coastal Guard and its violent ways has somewhat curbed the number of boats attempting the trip across the Mediterranean. But that has meant that there are more people now in Libya who are at risk of exploitation, torture and slavery at the hands of smugglers or armed groups.

The United Nations has condemned the EU helping the Libyan authorities detain migrants and has described its actions as “inhuman“. UN monitors visited some of the detention centres in Libya and were “shocked” by what they saw. They found “thousands of emaciated and traumatized men, women and children piled on top of each other, locked up in hangars with no access to the most basic necessities, and stripped of their human dignity”; they found out that beatings and rape were commonplace.

At the same time, NGOs are being forced to abandon what they view as their moral obligations, with devastating consequences. The Italian government made NGOs involved in search and rescue operations sign a “code of conduct not to enter Libyan territorial waters and not to obstruct Libyan Coast Guard’s operations. The EU has engaged in smear campaigns against NGOs conducting search and rescue operations, accusing them of “unintentionally helping” smugglers while providing no evidence for that claim.

As the EU continues to pour millions of its taxpayers’ money into security policies violating human rights transit countries, the death rate of migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean continues to increase. Between January and July of this year alone, approximately 2,000 people drowned at sea.

We are often told that tragedies can influence policy. We were told, for example, that the world was appalled by the image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying dead on a beach in Turkey. But since he drowned at sea not too far from Fortress Europe’s border, hundreds of children have shared the same fate. Between January and September 2016, 600 children drowned. In the three months between December 2016 and February 2017, 190 drowned.

Instead of seeing a change towards something more rational and human in the policies of the EU, as the more optimistic among us hoped in 2015, we saw a worsening of an easily solvable problem. Now that 2017 has brought us evidence of slavery at Fortress Europe’s borders, what can we expect in 2018?

 The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.