It was “scandalous,” “unacceptable,” and a “crime against humanity.” That was French President Emmanuel Macron’s description of the grainy video footage of a modern-day slave auction in Libya broadcast by CNN last month. European and African leaders echoed his sentiment at a summit in Burkina Faso in November, demanding an end to the auctions. Nigeria and Senegal immediately chartered planes to rescue their nationals from Libya. The secretaries-general of the United Nations and the African Union loudly decried the situation and made vague commitments to work toward ending it.
Finally, it seemed, the plight of African migrants stranded in Libya was being recognized. But the feigned surprise of European and African leaders was, and still is, disingenuous. The CNN report broke through to the general public in a way that previous exposés of Libya’s slave trade did not — and this new wave of interest is welcome — but to world leaders, and to international organizations like the U.N., this should have been old news.
As long ago as 2010, Italian legislators were aware that Libya’s then-leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi, was holding African migrants and refugees in desert “concentration camps.” But that didn’t stop Italy and other European countries from showering Qaddafi — who once claimed that Europe would turn into “another Africa” as a result of unfettered migration — with tens of millions of dollars in return for halting African migrants. And in October, Peter Tinti reported for Foreign Policy on enslavement, beatings, and torture at Libyan detention centers funded by the European Union and supported by the International Organization for Migration, or IOM. (The Guardian and the New Yorker, among others, have also reported on the abysmal conditions that migrants face in detention facilities there.)
Yet European governments have been unmoved by the plight of African migrants during the more recent Mediterranean crisis. Humanitarian organizations on the front lines of the crisis have repeatedly warned that the EU’s policies — especially restrictions on safe and legal routes for migration — are directly contributing to the deterioration of conditions for migrants and refugees in Libya. The IOM — the U.N. migration agency — sounded the alarm over the emergence of regular slave markets back in April.
According to the medical charity Doctors Without Borders, Europe’s financial support to Libyan detention centers makes them profitable. Likewise, Tinti’s reporting makes clear that European aid — or the expectation of it — has created financial incentives for militias to detain migrants and often to sell them into slavery. Yet as recently as August, Macron called Italy’s efforts to partner with Libyan militias a “perfect example of what we are aiming for.”
In other words, European leaders acting shocked today have known of the abuses in Libya for years. But instead of doing something to halt them, they have mostly been content to lurch from emergency to emergency, primarily focusing on managing public opinion.
But it’s not just European governments that are pairing platitudes with policies that make the problem worse. African governments are also complicit in Libya’s contemporary slave trade. Not only were they well aware of the conditions there — the reports by humanitarian organizations were available to all — they created the conditions that fueled the exodus in the first place. International law distinguishes between refugees — those seeking international protection — and migrants seeking social and economic opportunities. Both are symptoms of failing politics. In Nigeria, for example, in addition to the thousands of people fleeing violence from Boko Haram in the north of the country, there are thousands more escaping lack of economic opportunities in the south.
It doesn’t matter how many planes are now chartered to rescue individuals stranded in Libya if there is no effort to change the conditions that push people to take the dangerous Mediterranean route. In April, I spoke to Gambian and Senegalese teenagers in Italy who had survived Libya. Many were still too traumatized to speak freely about their experiences in the detention camps, but they all assured me that if conditions in their home countries made hope possible for young people, they would happily return.
Why did world leaders remain silent so long after the crimes in Libya were clearly documented? Part of the answer is that leaders who speak out in favor of freer human mobility risk significant political backlash. With the rise of the far-right in Europe, even nominally centrist leaders like Macron have embraced the EU’s existing xenophobic policies in order to win votes. Angela Merkel in Germany stands out as the rare European leader with enough political capital to risk taking a stand.
But part of the answer has to do with who the victims are. The persistence of the slave trade in Libya — and the silence that surrounded it — is a symptom of rising global anti-black racism. Fear of immigration of the “other” has long been the bête noire of European politics. Qaddafi was especially skilled at manipulating that fear, routinely using black bodies as bargaining chips for better relations with Europe. But deals aimed at keeping black and brown immigrants out have proliferated since Qaddafi’s ouster. Despite their spectacular humanitarian failure in Libya, these deals have been replicated in places including Sudan and Eritrea. So have similar ones that reward autocratic governments for taking back unwanted refugees, such as the secret deal Israel struck with Rwanda and Uganda to resettle Sudanese and Rwandan asylum-seekers (many of these people ended up discarded in third countries, including in Libya).
None of this should be taken as an indictment of the ordinary citizens who have fueled the outrage over the CNN report. But the public performance of concern by world leaders rings hollow. Libya’s slave markets are the culmination of a crisis that world leaders have been courting with their migration policies for some time now — policies that represent a tacit acknowledgement that there is a price tag on unwanted human beings.