Why are African refugees slave trade victims

By Wang Hongyi Source:Global Times Published: 2017/12/5 21:28:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

At the request of African countries including Chad, Niger, Morocco and the Republic of the Congo, the fifth African Union-European Union summit held on November 29-30 discussed the slave trade issue in Libya. The participants agreed to rescue and evacuate refugee slaves, cut off the chain of financial transactions, crack down on organized crime, and create jobs to reduce economic refugees.

These African refugees, who attempt to travel to Europe through Libya in search of a better life, were sold into slavery, causing a widespread furore among the international community. Footage aired by US television network CNN in November of an apparent live auction in Libya exposed this indignity. Refugees from African countries such as Nigeria, Gambia, Senegal and Eritrea were tortured, abused and sold off to people in tribes in Libya for as little as $200-400.

This video sparked outrage in Africa. How could a slave trade still exist in today's modern-day society? What anguishes and humiliates Africans is that they have been subject to trafficking by Arab and European slave traders since the 7th century. The loss of 100 million Africans due to the slave trade is a reason for today's impoverished and underdeveloped Africa. In losing their freedom, and suffering inhuman treatment and spiritual discrimination through the slave trade, a collective scar has been left on African people and those with African descent.

In order to escape war and poverty, hundreds of Africans fled as refugees, often dying from hunger and thirst in the Sahara desert or from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea along the way. Some refugees were being sold as slaves. Since the video was aired, the presidents of Niger, Guinea and Senegal strongly protested, demanding that those responsible be put to trial by the International Criminal Court. Chairman of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat appealed to all African countries to help refugees and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also called on the international community to end the terrible slavery.

Why are refugees being sold into slavery in Libya?

First, the cause lies in refugees' illegal immigration in Libya. Since the overthrow of its longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has fallen into chaos. African refugee stowaways swarmed into Libya and then rushed into Europe. Traffickers could only get the final payment from stowaways once they arrived in Europe. In order to avoid losses due to the death of illegal immigrants and get paid as soon as possible, some drivers and traffickers will sell stowaways to tribal groups. Those kidnapped were asked to call home to pay roughly $600 in ransom, if not, they would be sold into slavery.

Second, in the wake of the war against terrorism, the international community has ignored the human rights of illegal immigrants. When the US and France overthrew the Gaddafi regime in 2011, terrorists swooped in. Not only did the Islamic State occupy the eastern Libyan strategic city of Benghazi, but also conspired with tribal arms in the desert hinterlands, establishing more than 400 training camps. In order to crack down on terrorists, the West pushed for the establishment of a coalition government in western Libya as well as cozied up to the eastern-based army commander General Khalifa Haftar. It took more than two years of efforts to expel terrorists from Benghazi.

Third, the interception of stowaways by European countries brought damage to traffickers' business, which stimulated the slave trade. French and Italian navies have secured Libya's rights offshore to fight the smuggling of illegal immigrants. The fight against human smuggling is understandable, but few achievements have been made. Traffickers, however, took this "great opportunity" to make money.

Lastly, the slave trade in northern Africa has a long history. In the sparsely populated areas of the Sahara and Sahel, some tribes still follow the cultural customs of the ancient Arabs. Preying on slaves and the slave trade are commonplace. Refugees and vulnerable groups being captured or abducted still can be seen in remote and backward areas of countries including Libya, Niger, Mali and Sudan. What is even more frightening is that Mauritania did not officially abolish slavery until today, with more than 150,000 people in the country being enslaved in the past.

At present, African and European countries and the UN are stepping up their work to stop the grave abuses. With the efforts of all parties, refugee slaves being stranded in Libya can be rescued. However, the historical, religious and cultural barriers between Arabs and other African cultures have long existed. War and extreme poverty have put Africans at a disadvantage and the tragedy of the predatory slave trade is at risk of being repeated in Africa.

The author is an associate research fellow of the Institute of West-Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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