Libya: Black African migrants face ‘slave markets’

The International Organization for Migration reports that its staff have documented shocking conditions on North African migrant routes—including what they describe as "slave markets" faced by hundreds of young African men bound for Libya. Staff with the IOM's office in Niger, reported on the rescue of a Senegalese migrant (referred to as "SC" to protect his identity), who was returning to his home after being held captive for months. According to SC's testimony, while trying to travel north through the Sahara, he arrived in Agadez, Niger, where he paid a trafficker 200,000 CFA (about $320) to arrange trasnport north to Libya. But when the pick-up truck reached Sabha in southwestern Libya, the driver insisted that he hadn't been paid by the trafficker, and brought the migrants to an area where SC witnessed a slave market taking place. "Sub-Saharan migrants were being sold and bought by Libyans, with the support of Ghanaians and Nigerians who work for them," IOM staff reported.

SC described being "bought" and then being brought to his first "prison," a private home where more than 100 migrants were held against their will. He said the captors made the migrants call their families back home, and were often beaten while on the phone so their family members could hear them being tortured. In order to be released from this first house, SC was told to pay 300,000 CFA (about $480), which he couldn't raise. He was then "bought" by another Libyan, who brought him to a bigger house—where a new price was set for his release: 600,000 CFA (about $970), to be paid via Western Union or Money Gram to a contact in Ghana.

SC managed to get some money from his family via mobile phone and then agreed to work as an interpreter for the kidnappers, to avoid further beatings. He described dreadful sanitary conditions, and food offered only once per day. Some migrants who couldn't pay were reportedly killed, or left to starve.

SC told IOM that when a captive died or was released, the captors returned to the market to "buy" more migrants to replace them. Women, too, were "bought," and brought to homes where they were forced to be sex slaves.

The IOM cites similar accounts from migrants who were held captive in Libya. "Some migrants—mostly Nigerians, Ghanaians and Gambians—are forced to work for the kidnappers/slave traders as guards in the ransom houses or in the 'market' itself," said an IOM Niger staffer.

The IOM has alerted Libyan authorities about the claims. "The situation is dire," said Mohammed Abdiker, IOM's director of emergency operations, who recently returned from a visit to Tripoli. "The more IOM engages inside Libya, the more we learn that it is a vale of tears for many migrants. Some reports are truly horrifying and the latest reports of 'slave markets' for migrants can be added to a long list of outrages."

Abdiker said that in recent months IOM staff in Libya have gained access to several detention centers, where they are trying to improve conditions. "What we know is that migrants who fall into the hands of smugglers face systematic malnutrition, sexual abuse and even murder. Last year we learned 14 migrants died in a single month in one of those locations, just from disease and malnutrition. We are hearing about mass graves in the desert."

He said so far this year the Libyan Coast Guard and others have found 171 bodies washed up on Mediterranean shores, from migrant voyages that foundered off the coast. The Coast Guard has also rescued thousands more, he added.

"Migrants who go to Libya while trying to get to Europe, have no idea of the torture archipelago that awaits them just over the border," said Leonard Doyle, chief IOM spokesman in Geneva. "There they become commodities to be bought, sold and discarded when they have no more value." (IOM, April 11)