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Sunday, May 14, 2017


Coulibaly Yahyah, 25, from Ivory Coast suffered serious burns after being doused with petrol and set on fire by his Libyan kidnappers. Photograph: IOM

Coulibaly Yahyah, 25, from Ivory Coast suffered serious burns after being doused with petrol and set on fire by his Libyan kidnappers. Photograph: IOM

African migrants flee poverty to get sucked into a world of violent crime

Six months after Muhammed Yusuf had been sold, tortured and forced to watch as a friend died, he found himself back at the parched, dusty bus station where his ordeal began, facing the man who had made him a slave.

Unembarrassed and unrepentant, the smuggler was still touting for business among the crowds flooding into Agadez, an oasis town on the fringe of the Sahara desert in central Niger that has for centuries been a trading center and gateway to shifting paths across the desert.

“I told him ‘my friend died in Libya because of you’,” Yusuf said a few days after the meeting. Then, desperately hungry, he asked him for some food. The man shrugged off both appeals, and walked away, saying only: “I am sorry, but God will help you.”

Yusuf, a 24-year-old Nigerian, was one of the thousands of people who had travelled to Libya looking for work or hoping to sail to Europe, who were instead sucked into a grim and violent world of slave markets, private prisons, and brutal forced brothels.

The dangers of attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, in overcrowded, unseaworthy vessels, have been highlighted by a series of desperate rescue missions and thousands of deaths at sea in recent years. Last week, at least 245 people were killed by shipwrecks, bringing the toll for this year alone to 1,300.

Less well-known are the dangers of Libya itself for migrants fleeing poverty across West Africa. The country’s slide into chaos following the 2011 death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi and the collapse of the government have made it a breeding ground for crime and exploitation. 

Two rival governments, an Isis franchise and countless local militias competing for control of a vast, sparsely populated territory awash in weapons, have allowed traffickers to flourish, checked only by the activities of their criminal rivals.

Last year, more than 180,000 refugees arrived in Italy, the vast majority of them through Libya, according to UN agency the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). That number is forecast to top 200,000 this year – and these people form a lucrative source of income for militias and mafias who control Libya’s roads and trafficking networks.

Migrants who managed to reach Europe from Libya have long told of being kidnapped by smugglers, who would then torture them to extort cash as they waited for boats. But in recent years this abuse has developed into a modern-day slave trade – plied along routes once used by slaving caravans – that has engulfed tens of thousands of lives.

The new slave traders operate with such impunity that, survivors say, some victims are being sold in public markets. Most, however, see their lives and liberty auctioned off in private.

“They took people and put them in the street, under a sign that said ‘for sale’,” said Shamsuddin Jibril, 27, from Cameroon, who twice saw men traded publicly in the streets of the central Libyan town of Sabha, once famous as the home of a young Gaddafi, but now known for violence and brutality.

“They tied their hands just like in the former slave trade, and they drove them here in the back of a Toyota Hilux. There were maybe five or seven of them.”

He was too frightened to speak to the men, who were lined up near a monument known as Dar Muammar, a one-room cabin where Gaddafi had lived as a student. The spot, besides a popular bakery, was apparently chosen for the large volume of potential customers passing by, Jibril said.

Another migrant reported being auctioned off at dusty parking lots on the outskirts of town, after being driven in from Agadez, which has for centuries been the last stopping point for traders, goods, and slaves heading into the desert.

Today, it is the most northerly town that West Africans can reach without papers: it is part of the huge Economic Community of the West African States, which allows visa-free travel for citizens of the region. That has made it the place where most put themselves in the hands of smugglers, and many get sucked into slavery at the bases of middlemen, known in migrant slang as “connection houses”.

This, according to Jibril, is where the problems start. Some of the victims pay for their journey but are sold off anyway when they reach Libya. Others, like Yusuf, the Nigerian who lost his friend, are told they can travel on credit and pay off the trip by working in Libya. They only find on arrival they have been carried as cargo for sale.

Adama Isoomah, warned by friends of the horrors in Libya, thought he had paid for a passage to Algeria. There were no signposts in the desert to alert him to the trickery. “I know there is a desert on the way, but I didn’t know what it looked like,” he said. “After four days, they said ‘welcome to Libya’. I said, is this a dream to me or reality? I know this is where they sell people. And then I realized that the middleman had sold me.”

Abahi (not his real name) is one of these modern-day slave traders, though he bridles at descriptions of his trade as trafficking. He shares cheerful selfies taken in the desert with the men he was carrying to market and even admits to worries about the fate he drove them into. “It’s no good. Now you will see the migrants suffering and say, ‘I am the man who takes them to this problem.’ It’s no good. But what can we do? Inside Libya, everything is ruled by the militias.”

He says he would never steal from migrants who paid their fare but admits that the 27 people who cram into his Hilux for each trip are a mix of passengers and cargo, depending on who is paying. “If you take them for nothing, the boss in Sabha pays,” he says. “It’s around €400 per person.”

By Emma Graham-Harrison in Agadez

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