Last April, the International Organization for Migration published a report documenting the existence of Libyan “slave markets” where dark-skinned migrants were auctioned, and it was widely covered at the time by international news organizations.
The report said that traffickers who had taken payment to transport African migrants across the desert for passage to Europe instead sold their human cargo to Libyans, and that the Libyan buyers often resold them to others.
“We get so used to hearing the words, ‘I was sold,’” said Meron Estafanos, a human rights advocate based in Stockholm who works with migrants from her native country, Eritrea. “It makes you feel, where were all these people when we were reporting it before?”
After the expressions of shock from around the world at CNN’s slave-market video, many Libyans accused the Europeans of hypocrisy for having acted surprised.
“The international community keeps turning a blind eye to facts when it comes to #Libya & #migration,” Emad Badi, a Libyan activist in Tripoli, wrote on Twitter. “Newsflash: there is no ‘coast guard’, slavery is not new, interception at sea breeds internal problems, expecting the nationally contested #GNA to handle migration is foolish.” He was referring to the Western-backed Government of National Accord, one of three rival governments vying for power in Libya.
Taher el-Sonni, an adviser to the president of the Western-backed government, wrote on Twitter: “Trafficking = Slavery, to put the blame only on Libya is unacceptable!”
Federica Mogherini, the top diplomat for the European Union, has been measured about the abuses, but has acknowledged that European policymakers have long known about the enslavement of migrants in Libyan detention centers. “We have to face the dramatic situation of our African brothers and sisters that are in slavery in those centers,” she said recently at a meeting with African diplomats in Brussels.
Without defending the migrant-return policies, Ms. Mogherini emphasized that this year the European Union has also started providing support for flights returning some migrants waylaid in Libya to their home countries — as many as 15,000 by the end of the year, she projected.
“This is only a drop in the ocean, but it is the first time that we have done this,” she said.