By Bel Trew
The young Ghanaian migrant had already been robbed at gunpoint, left to die in the desert, kidnapped and tortured. Then he was sold into slavery.
From the moment that Abdulaziz, 25, crossed Libya’s vast desert border from Niger in 2015, he was at the mercy of heavily armed traffickers and militiamen. His story became even more violent in the past 12 months as Libya’s lucrative people-smuggling business morphed into a full-blown slave trade.
Hundreds of thousands of migrants, who like Abdulaziz travelled to Libya to make a living or to catch dinghies to Europe, are trapped in a hellish world where they are repeatedly bought and sold by rival gangs.
“I was a slave for one year in Qatrun,” said Abdulaziz, referring to a town in southwest Libya. The former teacher sat cross-legged in a detention centre beside a guard cradling a Kalashnikov. He had been arrested that day by the Libyan coastguard as he tried to get to Italy.
Qatrun, on the main road between Niger, Chad and Libya, is a hub for trafficking. “First I was kidnapped by an armed group in Qatrun and beaten so badly my body is still covered in torture wounds. When I couldn’t pay the money they demanded, they sold me for 5,000 dinars [about £550 on the black market],” he said. “The man who bought me had a business, so I became his slave labourer until after a year he felt sorry for me and let me go north.”
Abdulaziz had planned to stay in Libya and work but, fearing for his life, fled for Italy. He said that his dinghy, stuffed with 117 people, was stopped by the Libyan coastguard nearly 12 miles offshore, just short of international waters where they hoped to be rescued by a charity ship and taken to Italy.
Libya has long been a transit country for migrants and refugees desperate to get to Europe. In the past people fleeing war and poverty in Africa, the Middle East and southeast Asia would pay their way through the many legs of the journey. But trafficking has boomed in Libya’s security vacuum since the country toppled back into civil war three years ago. Many smugglers realise they can make double the profits treating migrants like slaves rather than clients.
This year more than 97,850 migrants have made the sea crossing from Libya to Italy, just shy of the number that landed in the same period last year, which had a record number. The UN estimates there are at least 700,000 migrants in Libya.
In April the International Organisation for Migration warned of “slave markets” developing in Sabha, a trafficking hub about 500 miles south of the capital. The UN agency said that as many as 100 migrants were being held in warehouses as hostages and beaten until their families paid up.
Months later the slave trade appears to have spread across the country. More than a dozen migrants interviewed by The Times described being purchased multiple times by opportunist thugs, trafficking kingpins and many figures in between. They told of a haphazard world where migrants would be sold in small groups or moved around in packs of several hundred, either to be tortured for ransom to their families, or to work as labourers or sex slaves.
“They would take some of the women to houses to be prostitutes, and they would take their money,” said Precious, 26, from Nigeria, who arrived in Libya last June with her 21-year-old sister, Blessing. The sisters had been kidnapped in Sabha as they were trying to move north to Tripoli. They were held for three months and starved but were spared being sold on because their brother, who made it to Europe three years ago, paid the kidnapper £800.
“We were saved because my brother in Italy was able to give them the money they wanted,” she said. “Many of the other girls were forced into prostitution to bring in cash for the traffickers who had bought them. The youngest were just 13 years old. You are under their control so you can’t do anything.”
She said that girls who refused were gang raped or tortured. One girl, aged 29, in the same detention centre in Tajoura on the outskirts of Tripoli, said that she was twice gang raped by eight men in Sabha. In another centre in central Tripoli two girls had allegedly been set on fire for being “troublemakers”.
The slave trade is not just booming in Libya’s lawless south but also along the coast. Lamin Jamal, 21, a Gambian student, said that he was sold on multiple times and ended up in Bani Walid, a town 110 miles southwest of Tripoli. Several migrants said that they were held there with hundreds of others in sprawling warehouses. They were tortured day and night for money or forced to work.
“I was kidnapped three times, and had to pay a total of 190,000 Gambian dalasi [£3,000] to the kidnappers,” Jamal said. “The first group doused me with water and then gave me an electric shock to make the pain more intense. Sometimes they would come twice a day to hurt you, to get your family to pay faster.”
Despite securing the ransom money from his family he was sold on twice more and ended up locked up in a warehouse with 300 others in Bani Walid. “I have no idea of the process, I was just taken by a person and then taken somewhere else. You have no idea what is going on,” he said. “I originally paid 15,000 dalasi [£260] to get a ticket to Tripoli but if you are unlucky they take the money and sell you on.”
Libya’s security and intelligence officials said that the slave trade was so lucrative that the most powerful traffickers were protecting their “cargo” with armed escorts. Sabeaa, a village about 30 miles south of Tripoli, is one of the busiest crossroads to the beaches around the capital. There, the security forces said that they were woefully under-equipped to combat traffickers.
“We sometimes get 60 traffickers coming through this village a day,” Walid Kheel, an officer, said. “They now bribe someone to do reconnaissance to see if our men are coming.” He added: “They also have armed escorts with large cargo. They will accompany a water tank that has the capacity of 40,000 litres, and will be filled with 100 migrants, with anti-aircraft guns.”
A Libyan intelligence officer said that some people smugglers had amassed mini-armies. “Dr Musab, the nickname of one of the chief smugglers in Sabratha, has tanks and heavy artillery in his arsenal, as well as around 150 militiamen,” the officer said.
“He has partners in places across the coast but also the south. They co-ordinate with intermediaries, to give the order to buy say 400 migrants that are transferred to places like Garaboli on the coast. They are moved like sheep.”
Migrants are not even safe from the slave trade in the final leg of their journey, when they board the flimsy dinghies or fishing boats to Italy. Shahadat, 28, from Bangladesh, had flown to Libya in April after failing to find work in Dubai. His smuggler forced him at gunpoint to set sail during bad weather. When the vessel had to return to shore, the smuggler sold him on to another armed group where he was flogged daily with rubber pipes.
“I was bought for 1,200 dinars,” he said at the overflowing Sikka Road detention centre in Tripoli, where he has been since May. “They beat me until I was able to get more money. I had already sold all my land in Bangladesh. In total all of this has cost me $7,000.”
He, like Abdulaziz and countless others, faces being deported home, a long process complicated by poor Libyan bureaucracy and an often unwillingness of home countries to engage.
“We lost everything,” Shahadat said. “We are worried for our lives. At this point we just want any organisation to help us get home. Then at least we can be safe.”
Additional reporting by Yassin el-Kanuni
Bel Trew – Middle East reporter for The Times based in Cairo.