Captives in a Libya awaiting sale

France’s ambassador to the UN has urged the Security Council to impose sanctions on the people involved in the enslavement of African refugees and migrants in Libya.

Captives in a Libya awaiting sale

Francois Delattre’s comments follow a CNN investigation showing migrants being sold at undisclosed locations in Libya. In the film young men are seen being auctioned off as farm workers for $400.

“France will propose to assist the sanctions committee … in identifying responsible individuals and entities for trafficking through Libyan territory,” he told the council on November 28.

The Security Council held an emergency session to discuss the possibility of sanctions against individuals and entities, and of applying the full range of international law including the use of the international criminal court, but the session ended without resolution.

“To see the pictures of these men being treated like cattle, and to hear the auctioneer describe them as, quote, ‘big strong boys for farm work,’ should shock the conscience of us all,” Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, told the Security Council last week.

“There are few greater violations of human rights and human dignity than this.”

Following the film’s release in mid-November, AU chair, President Alpha Conde of Guinea, demanded prosecutions over a “despicable” trade “from another era”.

“These modern slavery practices must end and the African Union will use all the tools at its disposal,” Conde said.

Muammar Gaddafi – his overthrow led to Libya’s descent into anarchy

In April, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said it had gathered evidence of slavery in Libya. The IOM’s chief of mission for Libya, Othman Belbeisi, told the BBC at the time that migrants were priced according to their abilities.

“Apparently they don’t have money and their families cannot pay the ransom, so they are being sold to get at least a minimum benefit from that,” he said.

“The price is definitely different depending on your qualifications, for example if you can do painting or tiles or some specialised work then the price gets higher.”

A report by Al Jazeera on November 29 said hundreds of Africans are being sold in “slave markets” every week across Libya with many of them held for ransom or forced into prostitution to pay their captors and smugglers.

‘Salman’, a self-confessed human trafficker, told the news station that a number ended up being murdered by their smugglers in the open desert or die from thirst or car accidents in the vast Libyan desert.

According to a Libyan health official, a morgue in the southern city of Sabha – an entry point for many refugees coming from Africa – is overflowing with corpses, with faulty refrigerator making the situation worse.

The refugees and migrants –most of them from Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Zambia, Senegal, Gambia and Sudan – are smuggled into Libya by a network of criminal gangs on the promise of reaching Europe’s shores, the report continued.

Libya is the main gateway for people attempting to reach Europe by sea, with more than 150,000 people attempting to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in each of the past three years.

The IOM says that it has interviewed migrants from West African countries who said they had been traded in garages and car parks in Sabha, which lies 650km south of the capital Tripoli.

The IOM said it had spoken to one Senegalese migrant, who was held in a private house in Sabha along with some 100 others. They were beaten up and forced to call their families to arrange money for their release. Another Libyan bought the unnamed migrant, who set a new price for his release.

Salman, the human trafficker, explained in detail his routes through Libya, telling Al Jazeera over the phone that refugees are first introduced to traffickers in the cities of Agadez and Zinder in neighbouring Niger.

Salman said once he receives a wire transfer for the refugees from a “commander” in Niger, he starts the transportation process, charging between 1,000 Libyan dinars ($735) and 1,500 Libyan dinars ($1,100) per person.

Once payment is received, the migrants are loaded up on 4×4 vehicles and driven through Libya’s sweltering desert, where temperatures exceed 50C during the summer months.

“I pick up migrants from al-Qatron [in Libya] and transport them to Sabha,” he told Al Jazeera. “This is a deal agreed upon with other commanders in Niger and other African countries.”

Al-Qatron, a small town about 300km south of Sabha and close to the Nigerien border, is the starting point for many of the thousands of migrants that enter Libya every year.

Once in Sabha, the refugees are taken under the control of a “commander” who provides them food, shelter and protection, before they are sold as slaves to other smuggling rings or other commanders in various Libyan cities.

The refugees are forced to live in either open courtyards, or in ramshackle rooms without proper sanitation.

‘Ahmad’, who lives in Sabha, told Al Jazeera that in recent years the town had seen an influx from countries such as Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria and Zambia, along with Chad and Niger. He also said that forced prostitution was widespread.

This was confirmed by Mohamad Hasan, a Libyan national. He told Al Jazeera over the phone that he witnessed five women being sold by one commander to another, who immediately forced them into prostitution. “I have seen African women being ordered to work in private night clubs that cater to the migrant communities in Libya and are forced into prostitution,” he said.

Hasan, who owns a restaurant frequented by migrants, said, the “women in particular are helpless and for the most part are stuck in Libya with nowhere to go”.

Libya has opened an investigation into the practice but in a country overrun with armed militias since the Nato-backed overthrow of longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 it is unlikely that this will get very far. There are two rival parliaments and three governments, the latest formed in UN-brokered talks with the aim of replacing the other two, but suspicions that it is being imposed on the country by the west means its influence is limited.

The turmoil allowed IS to gain a foothold and although it has been forced into a retreat it continues to attack oil facilities, Libya’s main foreign exchange earner. Once possessing the highest standard of living in Africa, with free healthcare and free education, the country is now on the road to financial ruin.

Libya’s vast desert zones have always made it a magnet for arms, drugs and human traffickers but now the situation is out of control, say observers.

“It’s going to be extremely hard to control the borders,” Omar Turbi, a Libyan human rights defender, told Al Jazeera.

“What is really needed is work to institute a viable government in Libya, not a failed state. The government in Libya is helpless.”

Turbi also pointed to human traffickers in Europe, specifically in Italy  and Malta, who he said are not being confronted by their governments.

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I am a publisher and a renowned journalist for the award-winning World Today Press based in London, UK. I am a member of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), based in London, UK, and International Photographers Organisation in Libreville, USA. I have covered high profile events including Her Majesty The Queen of Britain's 60th Diamond Jubilee at Buckingham Palace, as well as Prince William's Royal Wedding, and numerous Number 10 Downing Street coverages.