Lehman Students Anguished by Libyan Slave Trade

By Shaiann Frazier

West African migrants are prime targets for Libyan slave traders. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“As an African, I feel those who have been taken into slavery are my brothers and sisters,” said Felix Mwake, 32, a teacher at Lehman’s Child Care Center. Mwake, who was born and raised in Kenya, was referring to the slave trade in Libya, where migrants and refugees -- mostly young people from sub-Saharan countries -- are being sold as farm laborers via the same smugglers who brought them illegally into the country.

After CNN footage surfaced in November showing two young Nigerian men being sold as farm laborers for $400 a piece in the city of Tripoli, many reacted with disbelief. For Americans, these slave auctions are reminiscent of those that plagued the Americas centuries ago, when Africans were taken from their homeland and forced into slave labor.

However, many Lehman students told the Meridian that they are deeply distressed, but not surprised, by the news of this new slave market. Tashana Allen, 23, a political science major, said, “What is going on in Libya is very heartbreaking. To see that many West Africans are not only hoping for a better life, but are willing to journey across the Mediterranean Sea into Europe, then to be denied their right to life is beyond devastating.”

As a result of increasing cooperation between the EU and the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) inTripoli, the number of migrant arrivals in Europe has dropped dramatically. From August to October, arrivals in Italy, the main entry point, have dropped by more than 8 percent. This has resulted in hundreds of thousands of migrants getting trapped in Libya, where they are exposed to human rights abuses. In a report released by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), at least 2,500 refugees and migrants died in the beginning of 2017 compared to the 3,262 refugees who had died the previous year. The report also stated that the rate of mortality would be one death for every 50 people who make it to Italy.

In a 2016 report released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the likelihood of dying en route between Libya and Italy was one in 23. Currently, 47,000 migrants have reached Italy from countries such as Senegal, Nigeria, and Gambia.

According to a report published in August of 2017 by the IOM, migrants from Niger are the most represented nationality, with 59,000 en route to Libya. Migrants from Chad are close behind, numbering 49,000.  All of them face the possibility of being auctioned off into forced labor.

Many commentators blame the current slave trade in Libya to the violent ousting of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and the instability that followed his death. In October of 2011 he was killed following the NATO bombing of Libya. Fleeing from poverty and violence, many traveled the route to Libya in hopes of a better life. According to a 2017 report released by the IOM, 91 percent of sub-Saharan Africans who left their home countries did so for economic reasons.

Lehman student Safiatou Diallo, 21, a computer science major also said, “I’m not surprised…. North Africans have always been racist to Black Africans.”

However, once migrants are freed either by paying off smugglers or through UN organizations that help previously enslaved migrants, they are placed in refugee camps or detention centers. These centers are facilitated under deplorable conditions with many dying from malnutrition and disease. They are often run by corrupt militia groups who subject the migrants to routine beatings, sometimes even resulting in death, in exchange for money. A 2017 report published by Amnesty International said that of the 72 refugee camps, 30 camps had been facilitated by armed groups of criminal gangs.

Lehman students agreed that the issue deserves more public attention in the US. Genaro Perez, 21, a Lehman student and anthropology major said, “I think the issue should be talked about more and ironically maybe we [the U.S] or the UN should get involved. “It’s definitely a large humanitarian issue and one that we should not allow to flourish.”

Anel Vicente, 31, a early childhood teacher at Lehman’s child daycare who is also a minister at the House of Prayer in Times Square, also felt the impact close to home. “It affects me indirectly because a lot of the people that I have friendships or relationships with even the people that I minister are impacted by this. How do we make this stop [the Slave Trade] so that it never actually happens again?”

Mwake concurred, saying, “African leaders …need to go into Libya, stop this, get those who are already esnslaved, bring them back to their countries and give them opportunities.”