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Earlier this month, CNN published cellphone and hidden-camera footage from what appeared to be “slave auctions” conducted in Libya. The images, including video obtained by undercover CNN journalists, served as a jolt to the international community: They showed what seemed to be West African migrants being haggled over as “merchandise” by smugglers operating in what has become a haven for illicit trafficking networks.

“Does anybody need a digger? This is a digger, a big strong man, he’ll dig,” said a salesman in camouflage gear. “What am I bid, what am I bid?”

Buyers respond with a round of prices. “Within minutes it is all over and the men, utterly resigned to their fate, are being handed over to their new ‘masters,’” reported CNN.

Though some Libyan journalists have questioned the authenticity of the report, there’s nothing new about the systematic abuse and exploitation that migrants experience in Libya. This summer, my colleague Sudarsan Raghavan chronicled the plight of many people who had hoped to make the Mediterranean passage to Europe, only to find themselves hoodwinked by smugglers and marooned in squalid Libyan detention centers.

“They flogged me, they slapped me, they beat me while I was on the phone with my mother so she could hear me cry,” said Ishmael Konte, a 25-year-old from Sierra Leone, recounting his torrid journey through the arid deserts of southern Libya at the whim of smugglers.


Bags containing the bodies of migrants who died when a boat sank off Libya's western coast, seen in Tripoli, Libya, on Nov. 25. (Ismail Zitouny/Reuters)

But the CNN report, and especially its footage, has focused new outrage on the situation. Last week, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres declared that “slavery has no place in our world and these actions are among the most egregious abuses of human rights and may amount to crimes against humanity.” He called on Libyan authorities to investigate the crisis, while a number of West African nations withdrew their ambassadors from Tripoli or chastised the Libyan envoys in their own capitals. Protests also exploded in various European cities. On Tuesday, French diplomats pushed for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

A huge part of the problem, however, is that the Libyan state is a fragile mess, contested by what amounts to three rival governments and controlled in large areas by a patchwork of militias that pay fealty to no one. Ever since the regime of late Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi collapsed in 2011, the country has become the focal point of regional smuggling networks, including those ferrying countless impoverished West Africans eager to leave behind deprivation and war for the chance of a better life in Europe. More than 150,000 migrants and refugees made the crossing to Europe from Libya in each of the past three years.

And though the country’s U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord said it was launching an inquiry into the alleged slave dealing, it stressed that Libya “is going through difficult times which affected its own citizens as well” and argued that it was “not fair to assume responsibility for the consequences of this immigration, which everyone unanimously agreed that addressing this phenomenon exceeds the national capacities.”

“As shocking as it seems, it’s indeed true. The reason [the slave trade] can happen is because there is really no rule of law across much of Libya,” Leonard Doyle of the International Organization of Migration said to Al Jazeera. “Libya is a country as big as France, with a lot of space there. Migrants are coming there ... they see the promise of a new life when they go to their Facebook feed and they think something wonderful is waiting for them in Europe, because a smuggler has abused the system and has sold them that lie.”


Migrants quartered in a detention center in Zawiyah, a city west of Tripoli, on June 17. (Taha Jawashi/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

Increasingly, though, many migrants are finding the door to Europe firmly shut by a continent that wants nothing to do with them. And the path to Europe itself is also treacherous and deadly. For the fourth year in a row, more than 3,000 migrants or refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean. With Italian assistance, the Libyan coast guard has been intercepting more boats ferrying migrants since the summer — an outcome that is ideal for Europe, but which has left migrants stranded in a country where they are preyed upon by criminal elements. A U.N. human rights report in September warned of “the hidden human calamity” taking place along Libya’s coast, documenting accounts of migrants being robbed, raped and murdered.

Estimates say that anywhere from 400,000 to nearly 1 million migrants may be trapped in Libya. Government detention centers are overflowing and underfunded, and countless migrants have disappeared into a shadow world of criminality and abuse. Attention has also fallen on widespread anti-black bigotry in Libya that partly fuels local indifference to the migrants’ plight.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who is on a landmark visit to countries in West Africa, will likely stress the need to stabilize Libya during a E.U.-Africa summit starting Wednesday. He is pushing for outside support to help evacuate many migrants back to their home countries.

But there is a bigger moral conundrum for Macron — and the rest of the West, as well. France, along with the United States, was a leading player in the military intervention that ousted Gaddafi and ushered in what was supposed to be a democratic transition. But Libya has since become a failed state with little capacity to safeguard, host or even register would-be asylum seekers, and where rogue militias have run roughshod.

“We cannot even guess the scale of the abuses inflicted on migrants in all these hidden places, untouched by the rule of law,” said U.N. human rights commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Huseein in a September statement. “The situation of migrants crossing Libya was appalling during Gaddafi’s era, but it has become diabolical since.”

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