A CNN report earlier this month showing video of a slave market in Libya raised outrage (and no shortage of political posturing) over the long-running issue of the treatment of migrants in the African country. The footage showed migrants being auctioned off for as little as $400.
The existence of slave markets in Libya was reported by the International Organization for Migration back in April, but it took the CNN footage to really capture public attention.
Since the CNN story, which reported nine separate markets and the possibility of more, there have been protests, threats of sanctions, and proclamations by world leaders. Here's what you need to know about how things got so terrible, and what we can do about it.
This is not a new issue
Conditions for migrants in Libya have been bad for a long time, well before April 2017. The country has long served as a stopping point for people from Sub-Saharan Africa on their way to Europe. This already-vulnerable population became even more vulnerable after NATO overthrew Libya's government in 2011, and even more so when a renewed civil war broke out in 2014.
Multiple factions are fighting for control of the country right now, resulting in what is generally considered a failed state. There is the UN-recognized National Transition Council; the Khalifa Haftar, who have a thing for torture and control a lot of territory; and ISIL and al-Qaeda are also in the mix.
Essentially what this means is that there's no central authority to make sure that migrants seeking passage to Europe via Libya's northern coast aren't ripped off, trafficked, or enslaved. Whatever governments there are, are often complicit. The UN noted that the Libyan Coast Guard and the Department to Counter Illegal Migration are "directly involved" in slavery.
It's not just an African problem
Despite French President Emmanuel Macron's self-serving declaration that Europe is blameless because "Africans are enslaving Africans," the situation is actually a lot more complicated. The same Libyan Coast Guard that is directly involved in slavery is trained and funded by the EU and NATO. And the whole reason there's such a huge flow of migrants for people to enslave in the first place is that Europe is "trying to cut the flow" of African migrants.
Libyan mistreatment of migrants has been funded by European countries for nearly a decade now—they will give vicious Libyan security forces money in exchange for reducing the flow of people to their country, while never caring about how that happens.
Sanctions are not an easy answer
While some have called for sanctions on Libya in order to shut down the slave markets, that won't do the job by itself. In fact, sanctions may ultimately be counter-productive. Omar Turbi, a Libyan human rights defender, told Al Jazeera that he wasn't sure sanctions would do the trick.
"It's going to be extremely hard to control the borders," he said. "What is really needed is work to institute a viable government in Libya, not a failed state. The government in Libya is helpless." And it should not escape notice that the same countries now calling for sanctions are the ones that funded and trained the slavers in the first place—a dynamic that Americans should be very familiar with.
So what now? What can we do?
One simple answer is donate to reputable organizations that are attacking the root causes of the crisis. You can find a few of them in this fine round-up by Sarah Friedmann.
And, of course, don't be afraid to speak out.