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Black slave auctions in Libya are a terrifying throwback

New reports of modern slavery in Libya are reminiscent of the transatlantic slave trade

Tomorrow a crowd of up to three thousand people will gather outside the Libyan Embassy in Belgravia, London, to protest ongoing reports of black slavery in Libya.

Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa stranded in the country are being auctioned off by Arabs in Libya for as little as $400 (about £300), in sickening conditions. They are referred to as “merchandise” – and “big strong boys for farm work” and sold to the highest bidder. One man who was sold as a slave at an auction spoke to CNN of being “beaten” and “mutilated”.

The plight of these slaves is intimately tied to Europe because almost all the men, women and children who attempt to make the terrifying journey across the Mediterranean sea (according to Missing Migrants, nearly 3000 people have drowned in the Med this year alone) have passed through Libya. Their situation leaves them particularly vulnerable to human trafficking, sexual violence, torture and, in some instances, slavery.

This is perhaps why reports of slavery in Libya have particularly raised the hackles of black people in the Western world, even though so-called modern slavery on the continent has been taking place for decades.

In Paris hundreds of protesters, mostly young black people, demonstrated in front of the Libyan Embassy last week, carrying signs that said, “Put an end to the slavery and concentration camps in Libya”, and chanting, “Free our brothers!” Another protest is happening today in Sweden, which is expected to draw in a crowd of over 7000 if the Facebook event is anything to go by.

Meanwhile, French footballer Paul Pogba, who plays for Manchester United, raised the issue after scoring a goal against Newcastle last Saturday, putting his wrists together as if they were handcuffed. “My prayers go to those suffering slavery in Libya. May Allah be by your side and may this cruelty come to an end!” he wrote on Instagram. Cedric Bakambu, a player for Spanish team Villarreal, joined Pogba in crossing his wrists after he scored, later tweeting “f*** slavery”.

During a time when race relations are heightened in the Western world thanks to blunders from Trump in the US, terrorist attacks, the rise of the alt-right and a vicious new form of white supremacy, the emergence of these auctions seems to play into everyone's worst fears that we are not learning from the errors of our past.

The voices behind the London protest, which has been organised by Slavery Remembrance and SOAS university, agree. They told Dazed that our “refusal to remember or even acknowledge the past we are destined to repeat the same mistakes” when it comes to racism and slavery.

“The growing racism around the world along with the rising racist anti-blackness in Arab countries is sickening,” they added. “The complete disregard for human life shown to black people in many countries harks back to the treatment of black Africans during the Transatlantic Slave Trade (TST) and highlights that the belief system which triggered and upheld the TST – black people are disposable commodities and less than human - is still ingrained in the psyche of many countries and individuals today.”

“The growing racism around the world along with the rising racist anti-blackness in Arab countries is sickening” – Slavery Rememberance

Coco Mbassi, a singer and educator who started a petition directed at the UK government against slavery in Libya, also expressed that she thinks that the suffering of Africans is “old news to many”.

“I was definitely not aware that auctions involving people still took place,” she said. “This is the stuff of nightmares. Four hundred years of slavery is quite enough I think, especially given the fact that populations of African descent throughout the world have not yet recovered fully from what was probably the worst crime against humanity. Ever.”

Although it was the CNN report which verified the emergence of black slave auctions in Libya, whispers of black slavery have been leaking out of the country for at least a year. Oxfam published a report during summer based on the testimonies of more than 250 people who managed to escape Libya to Italy. One of them talked explicitly about being sold and others mention forced labour.

“A friend of mine helped me to arrive to Agadez, where I remained for three months,” part of one testimony read. “I continued the journey to Sabha in a pick-up truck. A Senegalese man from Casamance allowed me to travel for free but I only realized afterwards that he had in fact sold us.”

Although Oxfam doesn't work within Libya (Medecins Sans Frontieres appears to be the only humanitarian group that does), Claire Seaward, Oxfam's Humanitarian Campaign Manager, said that the EU can't “keep ignoring” the consequences of its attempts to stop people crossing the Mediterranean sea.

“Shutting down people's chances to escape Libya is condemning them to a life of forced labour, torture and degrading treatment,” she said. “Supporting the Libyan coastguard to pull people back to Libya, where they end up in detention centres and worse, cannot be tolerated. Enough is enough.”

“Shutting down people's chances to escape Libya is condemning them to a life of forced labour, torture and degrading treatment” – Oxfam

Earlier this week, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, finally spoke up about the issue. “In recent days we have all been horrified by images of African migrants being sold as 'goods' in Libya,” Guterres said. “Slavery and other such egregious abuses of human rights have no place in the 21st century.”

According to Guterres the United Nations is actively pursuing the matter, and the Libyan authorities have also said they are now investigating the reports. When Dazed calls the embassy in London, they send a long statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Libya, which, we're told, is “of course the same opinion of the embassy in London”.

It condemns the slave traders – “the ministry expresses its rejection and denunciation of such inhumane actions which are contrary to the culture and heritage for Libyan people” – but reading between the lines of the statement, it seems that the Libyan government is unsympathetic towards the black migrants it houses.

The statement goes on: “At a time when Libya is well aware of its targeting by some regional parties to make it a breeding ground for immigrants, it warns, as it has repeatedly warned, that superficial and useless solutions is hampering its efforts to eliminate this phenomenon.” 

The slave auctions have been referred to as “Obama's legacy”, as he led a military intervention into the country in 2011 to overthrow dictator Muammar Gaddafi, plunging the country into a chaos from which it hasn't quite recovered. For everyone's sakes, however, let's hope that the Libyan government's investigations into the auctions are successful and bring an end to this disgusting practice.

Join the protest taking place outside the Libyan Embassy in Belgravia, London, at 2pm Saturday November 25