The Middle East, Northern Africa, and Europe have been staggering under a refugee crisis for several years. Thousands of people have attempted to flee from politically unstable and war-ravaged regions to safer shores, and many take that journey through Libya, which borders the Mediterranean Sea. Though tens of thousands have made it to Italy and Greece, and some travel through Europe to find shelter in various countries, many do not survive the trek. According to the International Organization for Migration, a migration agency affiliated with the United Nations, more than 3,000 refugees have died during each of the past four years while attempting to sail to Europe from Libya.
This crisis has caused unrest, famine and family separation, but in late November a new horror was brought to the world’s attention when video surfaced of refugees in Libya apparently being sold into slavery. The video set off a renewed international uproar over the refugee crisis, but the complicated and dangerous political situation in the region may make it difficult for aid to reach those who need it most.
In the video, apparently filmed on a cell phone in the capital, Tripoli, a man is shown auctioning off two people, who are ultimately sold for 1,200 Libyan dinars, or about $800. CNN verified the video’s authenticity and sent journalists to Libya to investigate. Thanks to those journalists’ hidden cameras, the network was able to capture its own footage of people who had hoped to gain safe passage out of Africa being sold as “big strong” workers.
These human auctions are allegedly happening in at least nine locations around Tripoli and the surrounding area, and experts say they are the result of a general lawlessness that has gripped Libya since the ouster and killing of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
“There is no central government to speak of,” said Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and international studies and coordinator of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco. “There is no coast guard or border patrol to stop refugees coming from other countries to flee through Libya, or to prevent this kind of trafficking.”
How Did We Get Here?
To understand how things could get to this point, it helps to think about the region’s history.
For centuries, most of North Africa was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. Italian colonizers took over in the early 20th century, hoping to lay claim to a region they called Tripolitania. After Italy was defeated there during WWII, the Allies signed a 1947 peace treaty and decolonization began. In 1951, Libya became an independent kingdom under King Idris, and the discovery of oil reserves several years later helped bring a significant amount of wealth to the country. The wealth was mostly concentrated with Idris, however, and this led to unrest.
Muammar Gaddafi led a coup in 1969 and took the helm of the country himself. He was credited with modernizing the country significantly, but he was also known as a tyrant. In the West, he was best known for his support of terrorist organizations, and for the off-the-wall comments he often made, such as when he called Ronald Reagan “mad” and an “Israeli dog.” Still, Libyans were relatively quiet even throughout the Arab Spring, which began in late 2010 and saw uprisings in much of the Middle East.
“Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, Libya had very little in the way of civil society or any kind of independent ways of organizing,” said Zunes.
This changed with the Libyan Civil War of 2011, during which the military saw major defections, ambassadors resigned, and in less than a week the people took up arms against Gaddafi’s government. As he responded with a fierce crackdown, the international community decided to intervene. The U.S. led in carrying out strikes in the country in order to help protect civilians, a decision that President Barack Obama defends, but wishes had been better planned. He’s not alone. Some experts have gone so far as to lay the blame for the current slavery crisis at Obama’s feet.
“When you break a state and then don’t stick around to rebuild it, you create a failed state,” Alan J. Kuperman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has said.
Zunes, too, argues that the actions went beyond their mandate and violated UN security resolutions. In fact, many believed the intervention made things worse.
“It certain ways, it made it more difficult to act in those rare situations where foreign military intervention might be morally and legally justifiable to save civilian lives,” he said.
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