While we are in the mood for the Abolition of slavery let’s focus on the EU and Libya

UN: EU cooperation with Libya has led to 'unimaginable horrors' for migrants

Black Lives Matter Bristol pulled down a 17th century slave trader’s statue and throw it into the harbour, will that anger now be directed on 21st century slavers and those that are complicit?

For the pro-EU remain voting stronghold of Bristol the statue was a controversial image and for many it venerated a man that made his fortune on the brutal enslavement of other humans. There have been many petitions in the past to have the statue removed coming to nothing. Many people argue that Edward Colston parliamentarian, philanthropist, slave trader was just a man of his time. In contrast on the east cost stands the EU-sceptic leave voting port city of Hull, pride of place stands the statue of William Wilberforce, a British politician, philanthropist, and a leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade a man of that same time. The Irony could not be more pronounced when you look at the EU and its complicit nature of modern day slavers.

A similar situation has unfolded in Belgium, where demonstrators have targeted statues of King Leopold II in cities across the country. The monarch, who ruled from 1865 to 1909, oversaw the exploitation and brutal colonisation of the Congo in Africa. Past efforts to remove statues of the former ruler have failed, but a petition online has now garnered close to 60,000 signatures.

In the Belgian city of Ghent, a bust of the late king was defaced with red paint and the words “I can’t breathe,” NPR reported. A statue of the king in the city Antwerp was similarly vandalised. On Sunday, as protesters gathered in Brussels, they chanted “murderer” as they demonstrated on and around a monument for the former colonising king.

Many younger Belgians say they are ashamed that Leopold II continues to be honored when millions of Congolese are estimated to have died between 1885 and 1908 after the monarch declared the African country his personal property.

Leopold’s troops were ordered to collect the hands of victims, who were often shot for resisting slave labor. He also imported Congolese people for a human zoo in Belgium.

Some Belgians resent the criticism and claim the country’s status as a wealthy European country can be traced to its success as a trading economy in the colonial era.

However, the capital city of the European union has more than a statue venerating the statue of the genocidal King Leopold II to be ashamed of.

UN: EU cooperation with Libya has led to ‘unimaginable horrors’ for migrants

Libian slaves

EU-backed agreements between Italy and Libya have reduced the number of migrants reaching EU shores. But the cost has been “unimaginable horrors,” according to the UN human rights commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein.

The European Union’s (EU) policy of helping Libyan authorities in detaining migrants has been “inhuman,” UN human rights commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said on Tuesday. “The suffering of migrants detained in Libya is an outrage to the conscience of humanity.”

UN inspectors had seen “unimaginable horrors” endured by nearly 20,000 migrants during visits to four migrant detention centers in Tripoli, Libya in early November the commissioner said.

Zeid added they had seen evidence of widespread torture, rape and forced labor. At one point, the inspectors saw “thousands of emaciated and traumatised men, women and children piled on top of each other, locked up in hangars with no access to the most basic necessities.”

EU complicity

The Italian government signed multiple deals with the Libyan coast guard in the summer with the EU’s backing. Rome also allegedly signed agreements with local militias.

Under the agreements, the EU and Libya cooperate in intercepting migrants as they try to cross the Mediterranean for EU shores and returning them for detention in Libya.

Migration from Libya to Italy, which had been a primary route for many Africans migrants, dropped substantially after the deals came into force. 

The European Parliament has voted against a resolution supporting more search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

Around 18,000 people have died in the Mediterranean since 2014, according to figures released by the UN’s International Organisation for Migration. Knowing this the EU parliament still and voted down

The European Parliament failed to commit to protecting human life in the Mediterranean.

MEPs actively voted to maintain a ‘fortress Europe’ status quo that has seen thousands of men, women and children drown simply for seeking sanctuary.

“While the EU wax lyrical about the ‘four freedoms’ of the EU, including the freedom of movement, they are ready to side with their right-wing EU colleagues to ensure these values don’t extend to those fleeing destitution, war and persecution.”

Amnesty International accused EU of complicity in Libyan slave trade

21st century slave market in Libya and the EU are complicit.

Non-governmental organisation Amnesty International has delivered stinging criticism of the EU and its handling of the migrant crisis, saying European governments are “complicit” in grave human rights violations in Libya through their support for authorities there that often work with people smugglers, and torture refugees and migrants.

“We are detailing the human rights violations that refugees and migrants in Libya are suffering. We’re talking about arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, very often to extract a ransom from them when they are detained in detention centres run by the government. We are also describing the ways in which European governments are co-operating with the Libyan authorities and how this co-operation is actually trapping people, refugees and migrants, in the country and exposing them to human rights violations,” says the report’s co-author, Amnesty’s Matteo De Bellis.

Amnesty’s damning report comes as global outrage at the development of a 21st century slave market in Libya preying on migrants grows.

The report alleges a “dark web” of collusion exists and accuses governments of being entirely aware of the plight of tens of thousands. At best the migrants are being contained; at worse Europe aids in the creation of an infrastructure for their exploitation.

The trade in human beings thrives on the road to Europe

human trafficking slave trade italy nigeria europe migrant libya
Sunday Iabarot, 32, shows the scars on his face made by a Libyan trafficker who held him captive; he now lives in a shelter in Benin City, Nigeria Lynsey Addario

‘It Was As if We Weren’t Human.’ Inside the Modern Slave Trade Trapping African Migrants

By the time his Libyan captors branded his face, Sunday Iabarot had already run away twice and had been sold three times.The gnarled scar that covers most of the left side of his face appears to show a crude number 3. His jailer carved it into his cheek with a fire-heated knife, cutting and cauterising at the same time.

Iabarot left Nigeria in February 2016 with a plan to head northward and buy passage on a smuggler’s boat destined for Europe, where he had heard from friends on Facebook that jobs were plentiful. The journey of more than 2,500 miles would take him across the trackless desert plains of Niger and through the lawless tribal lands of southern Libya before depositing him at the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. He never made it. Instead, he was captured the moment he arrived in Libya, then sold to armed men who kept a stable of African migrants they exploited for labor and ransom.

Iabarot is among an estimated 650,000 men and women who have crossed the Sahara over the past five years dreaming of a better life in Europe. Some are fleeing war and persecution. Others, like Iabarot, are leaving villages where economic dysfunction and erratic rainfall make it impossible to find work or even enough to eat. To make the harrowing journey, they enlist the services of trans-Saharan smugglers who profit by augmenting their truckloads of weapons, drugs and other contraband goods with human cargo.

European customers are also responsible for a different kind of exploitative trade. Of the 16,000 women who arrived in Italy from Libya from 2016 to 2017, an incredible 80% fell victim to sex trafficking, according to the IOM—destined for a life of sexual slavery in the streets and the brothels of Europe.

In November 2017, a CNN special report revealed that African migrants seeking to get into Europe were being sold as slaves by some criminal gangs in Libya, a failed North African state. This country has become the face of the new “Middle Passage” to Europe. The Security Council condemned the slave trading as “heinous abuses of human rights which may also account to crimes against humanity” and called upon “all relevant authorities to investigate such activities without delay to bring perpetrators to account” (Levenson, 2017).

The shocking revelations led to international condemnation and demands by human rights groups for the United Nations (UN) intervention and the prosecution of the culprits. Worldwide protest marches condemned the Libyan slave trade as the UN announced that it would investigate. The Nigerian government started repatriating its nationals who had been rescued from their captors, yet clearly, the overall African response to the revelations was shockingly inadequate. The response was, to put it succinctly, reactionary and face-saving. For instance, it had to take a CNN investigation for the crime to be exposed while the EU and African governments slept on their jobs.

European Union policies contribute to a cycle of extreme abuse against migrants in Libya. The EU and Italy’s support for the Libyan Coast Guard contributes significantly to the interception of migrants and asylum seekers and their subsequent detention in arbitrary, abusive detention in Libya. Human Rights Watch found violent abuse by guards in four official detention centers in western Libya, including beatings and whippings.

Human Rights Watch witnessed large numbers of children, including newborns, detained in grossly unsuitable conditions in three out of the four detention centers. Almost 20 percent of those who reached Europe by sea from Libya in 2018 were children.

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

The migrants who do make it across the Mediterranean are not free from the cycle of exploitation. On an autostrada in Puglia, southern Italy, last August, a van packed with Africans slammed headlong into a tomato truck and flipped across the meridian. Twelve of the migrant laborers, who had spent a grueling day working the harvest, died in the crash. It was the second such accident in two days. In total, 16 men—from Ghana, Guinea, Gambia, Nigeria, Mali, Morocco and Senegal—died that weekend.

They had been ensnared by an ancient Italian system of press-gang labor called caporalato that enables farmers to outsource their labor needs to middlemen for a set fee, avoiding payroll taxes, work-safety requirements and minimum-wage payments in the process. It is illegal, widespread and dominated by organized crime. A 2018 report commissioned by Italy’s trade unions estimates that some 132,000 workers suffer from the most exploitative aspects of caporalato, including nonpayment of wages and physical abuse. Most are migrants from sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Europe.

Caporalato has been around forever, but the system really takes advantage of migrants because of their vulnerable status,” says Yvan Sagnet, a 33-year-old antislavery activist from Cameroon who has been living in Italy since 2010. “They don’t have papers, they don’t know their rights, and they are desperate to earn money.”

Sagnet would know—he was sucked into the caporalato system as a foreign student when a failed exam resulted in the loss of his university scholarship. A friend told him he could make money on the summer tomato harvest in Puglia, but when he arrived, he says, he was inducted into a system designed to extract the maximum amount of work for minimal pay.

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

Joey Ayoub is the MENA Editor at Global Voices as well as a Lebanese researcher currently living in Edinburgh. he writes:

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.

In April, the EU also pledged 90 million euro ($107m) for “improved migration management” in Libya.

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 evidence of slavery at Fortress Europe’s borders has been show, what can we expect in 2020?

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