Libya's Slave Trade Didn't Appear Out of Thin Air

It's a result of European immigration policy—and of pervasive anti-blackness in the MENA region.
By Rahawa Haile ,

Asylum seekers from Africa disembark a Libyan coast guard boat as they arrive at a naval base in Tripoli after being rescued in the Mediterranean Sea on August 28th, 2017.

(Photo: Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images)

On November 15th, CNN published a video of a slave auction in Libya. The salesman repeatedly emphasized the strength of the black men for sale. "Does anybody need a digger?" he asked. "This is a digger, a big strong man, he'll dig." One of the enslaved men being sold was Nigerian. According to the International Organization for Migration, Nigerians constituted the largest group of Africans who arrived in Italy in 2016, marking the first time the country of 186 million had surpassed the previous leading country of origin for asylum seekers, Eritrea, a country of five to six million. The disparity in population size tells a greater, deeper story in Europe's long struggle to keep Africans from reaching its shores; the asylum seekers and migrants in Libya today do not represent a singular migration crisis but a convergence of several. Before we address those presently trapped in Libya, it's important to reflect on where African asylum seekers aren't, and why. Examining this history is key to understanding how policy concentrates human suffering across the globe—and looking at individual traumas, in turn, can help us realize the consequences of policy.

In February of 2017, a video surfaces of the Libyan coast guard whipping asylum seekers and migrants at sea. I've spent hours staring at a frame of a woman captured by the camera approximately five seconds in. She is crouched, her lips parted. She stares at the ground, swaying slightly from left to right with deeply furrowed brows. I cannot tell whether she has already cried, or whether the person beside her even knows her name. I only know that there, on those waves, with that whip, she is undone. And I along with her.

In 2008, several years before the Arab Spring, Italy agreed to pay Muammar al-Qaddafi—who by then had ruled Libya for 39 years—$5 billion over 25 years as reparations for their colonization of the African country. In exchange, Qaddafi agreed to stem the flow of refugees to Europe. Together, both countries began to capture asylum seekers who'd made it to sea and return them to Libya. Later, Qaddafi insisted that the European Union pay Libya $6.3 billion annually to keep refugees from reaching Europe, suggesting that Europe might otherwise "turn into Africa," given the number of black asylum seekers who would reach Italy if the E.U. did not accept his terms. The Arab Spring started soon thereafter, resulting in Qaddafi's death, which left the central Mediterranean route to Europe newly open.

Asylum seekers aboard the Aquarius rescue ship, run by SOS Mediterranee and Médecins Sans Frontières after they were rescued in the Mediterranean Sea, on August 15th, 2017.

(Photo: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2013, there are news reports that militias are using Tripoli zoo to house asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa in cages. The man in charge of dealing with detainees stresses that the detention center is only temporary. A year and a half later, new articles detail the extent of overcrowding and neglect at the zoo. "These migrants often don't have access to doctors, and even when a condition is life-threatening, they can be denied care. There's scabies and TB," says the head of the Tripoli division of the World Organisation Against Torture. In 2017, a Libyan woman rescued from a group of boats in the Mediterranean complains about having to wait while black asylum seekers are also rescued by MSF's ship Aquarius. "'They will give me scabies,' she says, referring to a parasitic skin disease common in those who have spent time in Libyan detention centers. The Aquarius staff, accustomed to this kind of racism among the rescued, ignore her pleas." Anti-blackness in Libya and the greater MENA region is not new, nor a footnote. It is rampant, and a fundamental aspect of what we are seeing today: how black bodies become caged bodies become penned bodies become forgotten.

In the article about Tripoli zoo, there's a photo of a thin, dark-skinned, Muslim man kneeling to pray. I have never forgotten the brightness of his kufi, and I hope he is still alive.

After the Arab Spring, asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa headed toward Israel in large numbers. They crossed the Sinai in Egypt, until, over the course of a few years, their bones came to litter the desert. Some traffickers began to prey on those making the journey, kidnapping and holding the asylum seekers for ransom, or harvesting their organs and discarding the bodies. In 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu campaigned aggressively on his commitment to Israel's security, pointing to the razor-wire fence that Israel built along the length of the Sinai to keep black asylum seekers from entering Israel; in 2010, the prime minister referred to them as "a concrete threat to the Jewish and democratic character of the country." The fence worked: Few asylum seekers entered Israel after its completion. Years later, in a tweet dated January 28th, 2017, Netanyahu applauded President Donald Trump's desire to build a wall to keep refugees from Mexico and Central America from crossing into the United States. "President Trump is right," Netanyahu said. "I built a wall along Israel's southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea." Most of the articles written about the tweet focused on the resulting outrage of the Mexican government. Africans were erased from the narrative completely.

In January of 2017, a 22-year-old Gambian man drowned in Venice's Grand Canal while onlookers filmed the episode on their phones. Lifesavers were thrown, but he appeared not to reach for them. Some speculated that the man wanted to die. Few asked what his reasons might have been. I'll never know, but I can imagine his fingertips breaking the surface for the last time, his eyes stinging from the salt, and I can guess at least a few.

While most migration in Africa is within African countries, after Israel's fence went up, many asylum seekers turned to Libya and the sea. Meanwhile, all asylum seekers who'd arrived in Israel beforehand continued to be referred to as infiltrators, a word Israel has used for decades when describing Palestinians. Many of the Africans were rounded up and sent to Holot, a detention center in the Negev Desert, where they were held indefinitely, on the principle that they would stop seeking asylum and voluntarily return to their country of origin. Unable to kick asylum seekers out, thanks to the mandates of the 1951 Refugee Convention, in 2013 Israel offered asylum seekers $3,500 per person to leave. More recently, Netanyahu and his cabinet voted to close the Holot detention center and deport the remaining 40,000 African asylum seekers. "This removal is taking place thanks to an international agreement I reached that enables us to remove the 40,000 infiltrators remaining, remove them without their consent," Netanyahu told his ministers.

In May of 2017, Libya's coast guard fires upon a humanitarian rescue ship. "The Luventa, a vessel operated by German charity Jugend Rettet, was among the vessels deployed by maritime commanders in Rome to help around a dozen refugee ships carrying more than 1,800 people on Tuesday," the Independent reported. The Libyan coast guard arrived in speedboats and began firing shots, first at the German boat, then at the jeopardized refugee boat. Roughly 100 black people jumped into the sea. "The idea of blocking humanitarian ships flying foreign flags from returning to Italian ports has been discussed," an Italian government source told Reuters a month later. By mid-July, an anti-immigrant group had raised over $100,000 for the purpose of hiring a ship and crew to obstruct the humanitarian organizations rescuing asylum seekers and migrants in the Mediterranean. Though they had life jackets, I can't stop thinking about those 100 bodies. The cold shock of the sea against their skin. All the money and energy that has gone into keeping people like them—and those who would see them live—back, back, back.

The number of asylum seekers reaching Italy's shores plummeted in 2017, but as recently as 2013, Italy was running a highly successful rescue operation called Mare Nostrum. Implemented after the Lampedusa tragedy that resulted in 359 African asylum seekers drowning in the Mediterranean, the program saved over 150,000 lives. Italy asked the E.U. for funding to keep the rescue program operating. The E.U. declined, and Italy was forced to end Mare Nostrum. Instead, beginning in November of 2014, the E.U. expanded its border control operation, known as Frontex, and launched Operation Triton, a rescue operation in name alone that patrolled the areas of the Mediterranean where asylum seekers were least likely to be. As the Guardian reported, "rather than replicating the Italian mission, which carried out proactive search and rescue across 27,000 square miles of sea, Triton will focus on border surveillance and operate only within 30 miles of the Italian coast."

A rescue team member takes a baby aboard a rescue ship during an operation off the Libyan coast in the Mediterranean Sea on November 5th, 2016.

(Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)

To date, asylum seekers' best hope for rescue lies with the humanitarian vessels patrolling the Mediterranean. In the four years between Mare Nostrum and the present, and with anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping across Europe, Italy is now committed, once again, to aiding Libya's scattered coast guard in the retrieval and return of asylum seekers and migrants to Libya. It has committed ships, helicopters, and drones to patrolling Libya's coast to ensure that those in Africa never make it to international waters, or to the humanitarian vessels that might aid them. The results have been devastating to asylum seekers, but they've worked for Italians: Italy has seen an 87 percent drop in the number of Africans reaching its shores. For vulnerable asylum seekers in Libya, there is simply nowhere left to go.

For the time being, Libya is a country ruled in part by various militias and extremists. Mass migration toward its northern coast will continue to be a reality of the 21st century whether or not it is convenient for Europe. Global attempts at containment are not only inhumane, but insufficient: People will always fight to survive. Western countries can't ask them to find a quieter place to die, even though the measures they've taken over the past decade have amounted to just that. This includes the E.U. paying Turkey €3 billion to ensure that Syrians and other refugees never make it to Greece, the U.S. paying Mexico to ensure that children fleeing the gangs of Central America's Northern Triangle never make it to America, Israel building its southern border fence to keep Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers out, and Australia maintaining numerous, horrific offshore detention centers such as those on Manus and Nauru. The list goes on.

The belief that these barbarous exercises in inhospitality will serve as effective deterrents has proven false. The destination might change, but nothing will stop migration, because nothing will stop those who know their lives are threatened from seeking refuge elsewhere. In the past century of countries choosing whom to see as worthy of their protection, black bodies have often come dead last. In 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that all Syrian asylum seekers would be allowed to stay in Germany independent of their first country of contact. The move was celebrated by some as a watershed moment. What received less attention was that these asylum seekers amounted to a little under half of those in the country at the time; other asylum seekers, including many from Africa, were stuck in the unstable purgatory of the undocumented. What emphasis some have placed on the role religion plays during these considerations, such as the severity of anti-Muslim attitudes in countries like Germany, fail to take into account the considerable number of asylum seekers from African countries like Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, and Nigeria who, in addition to being black, are also Muslim. In 2016, Germany's Interior Ministry proposed intercepting refugee boats in the Mediterranean and returning them to Africa. Germany is now offering up to €1,000 to rejected asylum seekers in the country who agree to return home.

In 2016, several articles spring up about slave auctions in Libya. A year later, video of an auction goes viral. Black men sold for $400. The president of the U.S. calls those who reported the story purveyors of "fake news"; a Libyan broadcaster latches onto those words to discredit the video. African leaders, European heads of state, and the United Nations feign ignorance, but they have known. And we, of the African diaspora, have done our best to tell these stories. What those in power can't name is the way the world has become too much at all times for them. What they can't face is their inaction, or the reasons why those who die seeking refuge rarely look anything like the ones responsible for determining who will live.

Join the Conversation