bel trew, Libya, Tripoli

The Modern Slave Trade in Libya

Bel Trew, Tajoura, West Libya
The young Ghanaian migrant had already been robbed at gunpoint, left to die in the desert, kidnapped and tortured. Then he was sold into slavery.

From the moment that Abdulaziz, 25, crossed Libya’s vast desert border from Niger in 2015, he was at the mercy of heavily armed traffickers and militiamen. His story became even more violent in the past 12 months as Libya’s lucrative people-smuggling business morphed into a full-blown slave trade.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants, who like Abdulaziz travelled to Libya to make a living or to catch dinghies to Europe, are trapped in a hellish world where they are repeatedly bought and sold by rival gangs.

“I was a slave for one year in Qatrun,” said Abdulaziz, referring to a town in southwest Libya. The former teacher sat cross-legged in a detention centre beside a guard cradling a Kalashnikov. He had been arrested that day by the Libyan coastguard as he tried to get to Italy.

Qatrun, on the main road between Niger, Chad and Libya, is a hub for trafficking. “First I was kidnapped by an armed group in Qatrun and beaten so badly my body is still covered in torture wounds. When I couldn’t pay the money they demanded, they sold me for 5,000 dinars [about £550 on the black market],” he said. “The man who bought me had a business, so I became his slave labourer until after a year he felt sorry for me and let me go north.”

Abdulaziz had planned to stay in Libya and work but, fearing for his life, fled for Italy. He said that his dinghy, stuffed with 117 people, was stopped by the Libyan coastguard nearly 12 miles offshore, just short of international waters where they hoped to be rescued by a charity ship and taken to Italy.

Libya has long been a transit country for migrants and refugees desperate to get to Europe. In the past people fleeing war and poverty in Africa, the Middle East and southeast Asia would pay their way through the many legs of the journey. But trafficking has boomed in Libya’s security vacuum since the country toppled back into civil war three years ago. Many smugglers realise they can make double the profits treating migrants like slaves rather than clients.

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