What’s behind the slavery horror in Libya?

December 8, 2017

The terrible conditions and political violence that has given rise to slave markets in Libya have roots that go far beyond the North African country, writes Jonathan Ellis.

HORRIFYING REPORTS about the sale of captured Black African migrants in Libyan slave auctions have sparked international outrage.

While there were earlier accounts of slave markets in Libya, a CNN report in November, which included sickening video, has gained attention around the world.

In the weeks following the report airing, people mobilized to protest at Libyan embassies in London, Brussels, Berlin, Paris and elsewhere. Hundreds--predominantly young people of African descent--rallied and marched on November 19 in Paris, chanting "Free our brothers!" As one protester told the French television station France 24, "We have to mobilize--we can't let this kind of thing happen."

African governments have also responded, with Rwanda offering to take in 30,000 migrants, and the African Union (AU) discussing plans to fly migrants trapped in Libya to their countries of origin.

THE IMMEDIATE backdrop for the racist nightmare in Libya is the extreme political instability in Libya. Following the 2011 uprising that led to the downfall of dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, Libya was torn apart in a multisided conflict among different militias, some backed by the U.S. and the West and some sharply opposed.

Protesters take to the streets of Barcelona against the slave trade in Libya
Protesters take to the streets of Barcelona against the slave trade in Libya (Jorge Franganillo | flickr)

The rebel forces that ousted the Qaddafi regime were supported by a NATO bombing campaign, but the favored factions of Western governments were unable to assert their dominance in the aftermath. The situation has devolved to the point that there is no central government at the moment, with various forces--including reactionary Islamists connected to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria--controlling different parts of the country.

But there is a broader context to the enslavement of Black Africans in Libya. The abuse of sub-Saharan migrants is a long-standing issue, not only in Libya, but throughout North Africa and Europe. Because of dire economic situations, war and environmental crises related to climate change, migrants have moved northward from sub-Saharan countries, using North Africa as a launching point to get to Europe.

With governments in Europe tightening their borders, the migrants have gotten stuck in Libya and elsewhere in North Africa, falling victim to smugglers, unsafe boats and other dangers. By June of this year, the death toll of migrants crossing the Mediterranean had already surpassed the 2,000 mark.

Thousands more have been detained in camps, some of which are run by the authorities in Tripoli, with the collaboration of the European Union, and others run by rival militias.

According to the Guardian, forced labor, beatings and sexual violence have become rampant in the detention sites. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported in September that those who actually make it to the Mediterranean are drowning at a higher rate than in previous years.

While the French government has hypocritically suggested placing sanctions on Libya in response to the enslavement of migrants, it is actually the EU's own policies that prioritize protecting "Fortress Europe," rather than ensuring the well-being and livelihood of migrants.

The Italian government has been accused of paying Libyan militias to keep migrants from sub-Saharan countries from attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

Europe's history of colonialism and its current neo-colonial relationships with various African countries also has to be taken into account.

European companies profit from African labor on the continent and routinely interfere in the politics of various countries to protect multinational operations and secure access to natural resources. Meanwhile, foreign aid often comes with conditions and in the form of debt, which has made things worse for the masses of people. These are the root sources of the migration.

SOME HAVE responded to the horror of the enslavement of Black migrants in Libya with nostalgia for the Qaddafi regime. But the left shouldn't embrace the former dictator and his brutally repressive regime as Pan-Africanist liberators.

Though Qaddafi called himself the "King of Kings" of Africa, he not only oppressed peoples, including those from sub-Saharan Africa within Libya's borders, but was willing to work with European states to curb migration.

While he was in power, European governments sought to use Libya as a first line of border control to keep migrants from crossing the Mediterranean. In a particularly shameful episode while speaking in Italy in 2010, Qaddafi played to racism, demanding that the EU pay Libya 5 billion euros to stem the flow of migrants--or Europe would be flooded with "an influx of starving and ignorant Africans," he warned.

Though there were certainly forces involved in the uprising against Qaddafi that exhibited racism toward African individuals and groups, it's also true that some Indigenous, non-Arab peoples joined the rebellion.

For example, the Amazigh people, an Indigenous ethnic group, sided with the revolt against the Qaddafi regime because of their long experience of persecution for their cultural practices and language. The Toubou people of southern Libya, also persecuted under Qaddafi, likewise participated in the rebellion.

The involvement of these groups in the uprising against Qaddafi testifies to the mass character of the revolt--but that was reshaped as the U.S. and NATO powers intervened, promoting reactionary and pro-Western forces in what increasingly became a purely military struggle.

As SocialistWorker.org wrote when the Qaddafi regime fell:

Hatred of the dictatorship and a thirst for democracy and freedom drove the uprising against Qaddafi when it first arose in February, clearly inspired by the revolutions against tyrants in Tunisia to Libya's west, and Egypt to its east.

But the character of Libya's uprising has been twisted and transformed in the months since...Western governments [attempted to reshape] the anti-Qaddafi opposition to fit their needs--like ensuring the flow of oil from Libya for one, and even more importantly, creating a reliably pro-Western barrier against the tide of revolution that has swept through the region.

To do this, the U.S. and its European allies backed the most conservative elements among those who claimed to lead the struggle against Qaddafi.

The chaos of the conflict and civil war following Qaddafi's fall has allowed the most reactionary forces to flourish--and with that has come horrific anti-Black racism targeting migrants and also ethnic groups within Libya.

Many African migrants have been arrested without cause, tortured and murdered. Collective punishment against those presumed to be supporters of the old regime has been carried out by various militias, with Black Africans suffering the most.

THE UN is reportedly considering sanctions against Libya to address the issue of slavery. But with the lack of a legitimate authority, appeals to get the Libyan government to take action or suffer the consequences are bound to be ineffective.

The problems in Libya are multifaceted, including high inflation and a struggling economy, many different rival forces involved in the smuggling of migrants, and various nations funding and propping up militias and self-proclaimed governments.

Also complicit in the Libyan crisis are the very powers threatening sanctions--European states are guided by the top priority of preventing migrants from reaching Europe.

While they may call for "humanitarian intervention," the capitalist powers in Europe want the right to extract profits and resources from Africa and intervene when they see the need to, while keeping out Africans who attempt to make it to Europe as a consequence of poverty and war.

Recently, France's Emmanuel Macron promised a $44 billion "Marshall Plan" for Africa to deal with the high unemployment and poverty that leads many to make the dangerous trip through the Sahara and across the Mediterranean.

But who will benefit from this program. If history is any example, it will be European and African elites who pocket the bulk of the money, with very little getting to ordinary Africans. Even if this program succeeds in stimulating African economies, there are no guarantees that the benefits will "trickle down" to ordinary people.

The media attention on the crisis has pressured African nations into action to arranged for the trapped citizens of their respective countries to return home. But addressing the reasons why people migrate in the first place will take a social transformation in both Africa and Europe.

As long as there is a lack of employment opportunities and massive poverty for millions of Africans on the one hand, and political instability and racist immigration policies of European nations on the other, the abuse of migrants will continue. Any real solution must involve a challenge to the logic of capitalism that allows for the free movement of capital without the free movement of peoples.

Further Reading

From the archives