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Libyan outrage: slavery or borders?

A recent CNN video of an apparent ‘slave auction’ in Libya has caused horror on social media, but the term slavery hides the European migration policies leading to such abuse.

Demonstration for the murders on the beach of Tarajal. Adolfo Lujan/flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) 

Since the 1990s, the European Union (EU) has pursued a policy of ‘externalising’ its border controls. In exchange for aid and financial support, it requires North African states to implement measures to suppress irregular migration. Two facts about this policy are widely known, and have been for many years now. The first is that it doesn’t work. It has not stopped the unauthorised movement of people into Europe. The second is that it has appalling, and often lethal, consequences for migrants and refugees.

For years, the EU and individual governments of EU countries have entered into ‘partnerships’ with governments known to be violating migrants’ human rights. In the 2000s, they were even willing to embrace and bankroll Gaddafi as a partner in their efforts to end ‘illegal immigration’. Today, they are happy to ‘partner’ with a Libyan state widely regarded as failed or failing to the same end. Such deals have made men, women, and children vulnerable to unimaginable cruelties at the hands of both criminals and state actors as they attempt to journey towards Europe. In addition to the thousands who have drowned in the Mediterranean, many thousands more have been held captive in detention centres or private prisons in unbearable conditions for months, beaten, whipped, raped, hung, starved, subject to forced labour, murdered, or deported and dumped in the Sahara desert without water or food.

The fate of those deterred from travelling via Libya by EU-Libya deals from 2005 onwards was often just as bad. Many Eritreans who instead decided to try to seek asylum in Israel were taken hostage en route, and subject to horrific violence in order to pressure their families to pay large ransoms, a phenomenon that only increased as Israel tightened its border controls. It is estimated that between 2009 and 2014, some 25,000 to 30,000 people were tortured for purposes of extortion in camps in the Egyptian peninsula, close to the Israeli border.

The price of immobility

Efforts to immobilise people come at huge human cost. And they also carry a monetary price tag. It has long been recognised that by creating a barrier between the demand for opportunities to migrate and the supply of legal means to do so, restrictive immigration policies generate clandestine markets in migration services, including smuggling. Since these markets (sometimes referred to as ‘trafficking’) are criminalised and unregulated, they can be – though are not always - sites of violence, deception and abuse. However, in the arrangements between EU and African states mentioned above, the monetary value is attached to actions that immobilise people, rather than help them to move.

As Migreurop observed in 2005, the states providing Europe with such immobility services are perfectly aware of ways to increase that value. By allowing migrants to embark for Sicily from its shores at the right moment in 2004, “Libya was able to negotiate the raising of the arms embargo, the construction of various migrant camps on its soil and a financial commitment from the EU to protect its southern borders”. Likewise, by broadcasting spectacular images of large numbers of migrants’ desperate efforts to cross razor wire fences protecting the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Mellila, Morocco successfully pressed its case for an increase in European aid.

Efforts to immobilise people come at huge human cost. And they also carry a monetary price tag.

Just as smuggling can be understood as the informal, unauthorised equivalent of (highly profitable) state sanctioned migration services, so the hostage-taking practices that have emerged in the Sinai, Libya, and elsewhere, look rather like an unauthorised version of the business of immobilising people for financial gain. Indeed, in a context where providing actual smuggling services has become risky and difficult to cheaply arrange, torture and ransom is a means by which money can still be made from would-be migrants. And it opens up a market in which those able and willing to transport and betray migrants can command a price for supplying them to those able and willing to detain and torture them until a ransom is paid.

Old news is new news

Extreme violence against migrants in Libya is not new news. Indeed, part of what makes it so sickening is the world’s indifference to its untiring repetition. Yet suddenly, a report on ‘slave auctions’ published by CNN in mid November has grabbed the attention of mainstream media and political actors. It has also gone viral on social media, where graphic images of violence are being circulated alongside the CNN story. Many of these images are either photographs taken in Libya several years ago, or in other countries at other times, but they have helped to fuel mounting outrage about what is happening to migrants in Libya.

EU leaders have been quick to express their indignation. UN Secretary-General António Guterres described the CNN report as revealing some of ‘the most egregious abuses of human rights’ that may amount to crimes against humanity. On November 30, UN officials, EU leaders and government representatives from Chad, Niger, Morocco, Congo, and Libya met and agreed an emergency plan of action. That plan involves measures to arrest traffickers, freeze their assets, and impose financial sanctions and a mass repatriation of migrants from Libya to their home countries, financed by the EU and organised by the International Organisation for Migration. It is, in other words, a plan for more of the same.

They want to get to Europe, not return to their country of origin, and the metaphor of slavery deflects attention from this keen and urgent desire.

Beware the term ‘slavery’

The EU response to reports on violations of migrants’ rights in North Africa has long been to condemn those who smuggle and traffic migrants (the terms are used interchangeably), and intensify efforts to suppress irregular migration. Evidence on the ransoming of migrants in the Sinai was used to justify the 2014 Khartoum Process designed to restrict migration from the Horn of Africa. The language of ‘slavery’ is frequently used to justify such efforts, as in 2015, when the false analogy between migrants making perilous journeys across the Mediterranean and the transatlantic slave trade made it possible for EU leaders to discuss the use of military force against ‘smuggling networks’ on the North African coast, as if such violence were a moral necessity. Two years on, CNN’s designation of the abuse, exploitation, and violence endured by migrants in Libya as ‘slavery’ is helping to provide EU leaders with a way to legitimate continued efforts to suppress unauthorised movement and to forcibly transport large numbers of people to places that they do not wish to go. And yet even the CNN’s reporting on this story includes interviews that reveal such interventions are profoundly unwelcome to the people concerned. They want to get to Europe, not return to their country of origin, and the metaphor of slavery deflects attention from this keen and urgent desire.

It also reproduces a vision of ‘them’ being quite unlike ‘us’. If EU citizens were kidnapped and held ransom whilst travelling, it would be described as a crime, perhaps an act of banditry, but not as the contemporary equivalent of transatlantic slavery. Kidnap for ransom practiced against seafarers around the Horn of Africa is termed piracy, not slavery. In neither case would restrictions on the movement of potential victims be regarded as the appropriate policy solution. It is because the majority of the migrants violated in Libya are black Africans that ‘slavery’ is invoked. And whilst this term adds historical weight to the outrage at their mistreatment, it also works to conceal white European repudiation of their desire to move freely around the world. Why shouldn’t young people like those pictured huddled in auction lots and detention centres in Libya travel to Europe if they choose to do so? If EU leaders are so concerned about them falling victim to ‘slavers’, why don’t they just issue the visas that would allow them to fly directly and safely to Europe? The fact that they won’t do so tells us that African lives, like the lives of others in the global South, don’t matter.

This devaluation of African lives has been challenged in a wave of protests in front of Libyan embassies in European capitals following the publication of the CNN report. Unlike the public demonstrations of antislavery sentiment that usually take place in cities such as London, Paris and Madrid, these protests have been called by various organisations of African people, and people of African descent. The EU, as well as Libya, was the focus of their indignation. In Madrid, they rallied under the slogan ‘we will stop the sale of our black brothers and sisters’ but condemned European migration policies – ‘It's Europe that kills us’, cried one demonstrator. In London, demonstrators chanted ‘We are human’, and ‘EU masters stop the Khartoum process’, as well as ‘We are not for sale’.

Let’s hope that the metaphor of slavery doesn’t drown out this message to the EU. And let’s hope that ultimately, the outrage generated by the CNN story triggers a popular movement for the abolition of the system of domination that actually lies behind it. Not slavery, but borders. 

About the author

Julia O’Connell Davidson is a professor in social research at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol. Her new book, Modern Slavery: the Margins of Freedom, Palgrave Macmillan, was published in October 2015.


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