Over the last few days, my phone has been filled with videos showing African migrants detained in Libyan concentration camps, where they’ve been auctioned for daily labor, beaten and worked to death.
One video shows an African migrant lying on his stomach on a single bed, legs tied at the ankles with a rope, arms tied around his back. Bleeding from torture, he can barely murmur a word to beg a respite. His abductor, a Caucasian, yells at him in a mix of broken English and Spanish, “Look in the camera!” He tells him to ask his relatives back in Africa, watching the scene live, to send money to ransom him, or else he will be slaughtered.
Such scenes happening recently in Libya have been called “modern slavery.” Many such videos landed on Facebook, but most of what reached my phone came via WhatsApp. That’s because, like many Senegalese immigrants in the U.S., I am part of transnational WhatsApp groups created as networking platforms to connect Senegalese in Europe, Africa and the Americas with home (Senegal). Members of these groups have been very alarmed with the horrendous torture of Africans in Libya.
On Nov. 19, a CNN report, showing black people auctioned in Tripoli triggered a protest among African immigrants in front of Libya’s embassy in France. In a statement after the rally, the chairman of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, called the auctions “despicable” and resolved to dispatch an envoy to Libya to speak with the government there and other stakeholders. Several African governments have summoned Libyan ambassadors in their respective countries and urged an official investigation.
What’s going on in Libya today is indeed beyond qualification! The world is watching its darkest episode in history repeat.
The auctioning of black bodies in coastal Libya reminds us of slavery, the scars of which remain fresh in the Black-Atlantic consciousness. Slavery, a once legal commodification of the black body, was driven by a thirst for capital. Today, the same global-scale rush for profit – and its ensuing (geo)political hypocrisies – have led to a NATO-led, chaotic post-Qaddafi Libya, where de facto statelessness makes permissible barbarities like human auctioning.
While Libya’s modern-slavery episode is unprecedented, its real causes are not. They are what had originated and sustained the ignominious triangular trade a few centuries ago: the cannibalistic exploitation of Africa, its resources and people by Western imperialist governments. This exploitation has taken neocolonial forms today, effected through collaboration with Africa’s patrimonialist regimes. As a consequence, desperate young Africans are fleeing their conflict-ridden and starved homelands toward an imaginary El Dorado where, now, they’re unwanted. On their way, they even face a deadly trap set against them by the same European predator.
A recent New York Times report reads, “The Italian government reportedly began paying the warlords controlling Libya’s coast to curb the flow of migrants earlier this year.” Like slave overseers on the plantation, Libyan warlords used all sort of violence, not just to force off the immigration influx, but also to extort money from their Negro-African prey. By last August alone, the arrivals of migrants in Italy had fallen by 85 percent.
Such allegations against Italy are serious! They provide grounds for questioning how European government decisions may have led directly to the killing and enslaving of Africans in Libya.
The so-called “illegal” African migration by sea or by land – via the Atlantic Ocean or the Sahara Desert – is not new. In West Africa, it dates back, at least, to the mid-1990s, when people from Senegal, Guinea, etc., on-board rickety fishing boats, floated in the Atlantic toward mainland Spain, transiting via the Canary Islands. Between 2005 and 2007, over 50,000 Senegalese boat migrants reached Spain, although more than 4,065 got deported back. Libya – as well as Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, etc. – had always been their transit points. But never did we witness the capture and auctioning of black African emigrants, although negrophobia has been rampant in that part of the continent. With this history in the background, the allegation against Italy must be taken seriously. Any direct roles that Italy – or France and Spain – may have in these Libya crimes need to be investigated and measures effectively taken.
Samba Camara, Ph.D., is a teaching assistant professor in the Department of African, African American, and Diaspora Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill.