Libya has reached a deal with European and African leaders to allow the emergency repatriation of refugees and migrants facing abuse in detention camps in the North African country.
Thursday’s announcement came after revelations that African asylum seekers and migrants were being sold into slavery in Libya as they tried in vain to reach European shores.
“This disgraceful drama reminds us of the darkest hours of humanity. I call on our collective sense of responsibility to take urgent action,” Alassane Ouattara, president of Ivory Coast, said at a two-day African-European Union summit in Abidjan.
The summit, which was meant to focus on development in African countries, instead focused largely on the Mediterranean refugee crisis.
French President Emmanuel Macron said leaders were focused on fixing “a series of very critical issues and atrocities, like in Libya”.
The African Union, European Union and UN announced the creation of a task force to deal with the migration crisis, notably in Libya.
The body will work in close collaboration with the Libyan government, the groups said in a statement.
The goal is “to save and protect lives of migrants and refugees along the routes and in particular inside Libya, accelerating the assisted voluntary returns to countries of origin, and the resettlement of those in need of international protection”.
It will also aim to dismantle criminal networks involved in trafficking.
However, Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, said it was important to address the root causes of the crisis if it was to be resolved.
“We will not put an end to the tragedy in the Mediterranean if we do not create significant, legal migration opportunities. We must also ensure that people can find a dignified future in their home country,” he said during the meeting.
Opportunities at home
Others said more must be done to give young Africans opportunities at home.
“We have to invest in jobs,” said Oxfam’s Magalie Laliberte.
“We have to invest to cover their basic needs, that’s what we need to do.”
Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Abidjan, said the slave trade in Libya has shocked and embarrassed leaders in both Africa and Europe.
“It has injected a sense of urgency to this summit. International leaders, including Guterres and representatives of charitable organisations, said that African nations must create legal pathways for migration and invest funds in economic development,” she said.
These actors say “more must be done to stop Africans leaving home in the first place”.
‘Slavery is an outrageous reality in Libya’
A group of UN human rights experts has strongly condemned Libya’s slave trade amid reports that hundreds of African refugees are being bought and sold in markets across the country every week.
In a joint statement issued on Thursday, the group urged the Libyan government to take “urgent action” to end the practice.
“We were extremely disturbed to see the images which show migrants being auctioned as merchandise, and the evidence of markets in enslaved Africans which has since been gathered,” the statement noted.
“It is now clear that slavery is an outrageous reality in Libya. The auctions are reminiscent of one of the darkest chapters in human history, when millions of Africans were uprooted, enslaved, trafficked and auctioned to the highest bidder.”
Among the signatories to the statement were Urmila Bhoola, the United Nations special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery; Felipe Gonzalez-Morales, the special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants; Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, the special rapporteur on trafficking in persons; and others with expertise on human rights and minority issues.
They are part of the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council, the largest body of independent experts in the UN human rights system.
The statement called on the Libyan government and the international community to “take immediate and decisive action to ensure that this crime does not continue”, calling for the immediate release of those already enslaved.
“It is imperative that the authorities urgently locate and rescue the victims of this horrendous crime and that Libya holds the perpetrators accountable,” the statement noted, adding that migrants in Libya “are at high risk of multiple grave violations of their human rights, such as slavery, forced labour, trafficking, arbitrary and indefinite detention, exploitation and extortion, rape, torture and even being killed”.
An estimated 700,000 migrants are in Libya, which is among the key transit pathways towards Europe, according to a UN estimate.
A human trafficker recently told Al Jazeera that many of the enslaved refugees are held for ransom or forced into prostitution and sexual exploitation to pay their captors and smugglers. Others are murdered by smugglers or die in the desert from thirst or car accidents.
Libya’s ambassador to the UN has said that the reports of slave auctions will be fully investigated.