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Sub-Saharan African migrants held hostage in Sabha, Southern Libya. Many of the refugees are bought on open markets and the buyers demand a ransom from the relatives of their victims before freeing them / Photo: IOM

African migrants sold as slaves in Libya, says UN agency

The United Nations’ migration agency says growing numbers of African migrants passing through Libya are being sold as slaves by traffickers or militia groups before being held for ransom.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has published a report based on interviews with several West African migrants who told of being bought and sold in garages and car parks in the southern city of Sabha, one of Libya’s main migrant smuggling hubs.

The head of the UN agency’s Libya mission, Othman Belbeisi, told a news conference in Geneva on Tuesday that migrants were usually held for two to three months after being traded.

These migrants, mostly coming from Nigeria, Senegal and Gambia, are stopped in Libya and held for ransom, forced labour or sexual exploitation. 

“Migrants are being sold in the market as a commodity,” Belbeisi said. “Selling human beings is becoming a trend among smugglers as the smuggling networks in Libya are becoming stronger and stronger”

The IOM interviewed West African migrants who had been exploited in Libya on their attempted journey to Europe. These survivors said that armed gangs torture migrants and make them call their families to ask for a ransom. If there is no ransom money provided by the family, the migrants are then left to starve to death. They are buried without being identified, which leaves their families wondering where whey are.

Belbeisi said that in regards to migrant women in Libya the IOM “heard a lot about bad treatment, rape and being forced into prostiution.”

“If you go to the market and you can pay between 200 and 500 dollars to get a migrant that will work with you on your daily jobs or support your work. After you buy, this person is handed over to you, again then it becomes your responsibility. Many of them escape, many of them are kept in bondage, and many of them are even imprisoned inside an area where they are forced to work on daily basis,” Othman Belbeisi said.

There are also claims that women have been bought by private Libyan clients and forced to be sex slaves.

The new evidence suggests that slave markets are becoming much more open, trapping sub-Saharan migrants who cross the desert heading for Europe.

The UN agency is helping some of the victims to return home.

Felix Dappah


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