The Sahel’s Stubborn Tradition of Slavery

By Michael Wilcox - 30 October 2017 at 7:27 pm
The Sahel’s Stubborn Tradition of Slavery

Many Europeans were disturbed to discover last week that a 2015 EU fund established to pay for border security, including measures aimed at keeping African citizens from leaving their own borders, is fast running out. Despite pledges from Germany and Sweden to stem shortfalls, the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker warned diplomats at a Brussels summit of a €225m hole in the EU-Africa trust fund that, without an emergency cash injection, would soon put EU-funded border control projects in Libya in peril.

The fund has come under fire from human rights groups since its inception, with a coalition of 124 activist groups and development agencies labelling the approach a “dark chapter” of human history by ignoring the insufficiency of so-called deterrence strategies that will only serve to increase the suffering of refugees. Warning against reaching “migration management” agreements with countries with dire human rights records, these groups have instead called for sustainable, long-term EU strategies. It seems their calls have fallen on deaf ears.

Since the beginning of 2017, some 109,915 people have attempted to cross between the central Mediterranean to Italy; despite the numbers of successful crossings falling by 70% compared to July-August 2016, the October 20th announcement threatens to point to a resurgence in the future. Of greater concern, however, is what goes on beyond Italy’s borders: though border control programs tend to be successful in limiting arrivals, smuggling networks feeding into Libya are alive and well.

Migrants who make it as far as the central Mediterranean tend to be on the final leg of a far longer trek. Seeking respite from poverty, persecution or a general lack of opportunities in their home countries, these groups and individuals usually reach North Africa from nine sub-Saharan nations: Nigeria, Eritrea, Sudan, Gambia, the Ivory Coast, Guinea, Somalia, Mali and Senegal.

Since supply follows demand, a booming illegal human trafficking trade has blossomed all across Africa, with the UN’s latest estimates putting it at $35 billion – a bit more than Airbnb’s total market capitalization. What’s more, very few smugglers have been arrested or prosecuted. According to smuggler Mohammed Lamine Janneh, or L-Boy, the path to Libya is one of Europe’s worst kept secrets. “From Mali, you go to Niger,” L-Boy described to an Al Jazeera reporter, “from Mali, you go to Niger, [to] Agadez…Saba…Libya…on all those points… money was paid to me.” The journey to Europe can cost as little as $2,000, according to L-Boy, with the bulk of his clients made up of teenagers seeking improved circumstances and the chance to support their families.

Even so, the journey to Libya is a nightmare for many migrants, with many kidnapped, tortured, sold into slavery by traffickers. One witness has described seeing people placed on a Libyan street under a sign reading “for sale”, with other migrants being auctioned off in parking lots and on the outskirts of towns. Still others are caught in the crossfire between rival armed smuggling gangs along the route.

The racial component of the abuse cannot be ignored, with the mistreatment of black Africans by lighter skinned Arab traders reaching deep into old ethnic feuds. Libyan smugglers label black migrants as “burned”, and a new Unicef report reveals that the risk posed to an adolescent boy from sub-Saharan Africa drops from 75 to 38 percent if he were to originate from a region where skin tones are of a lighter hue. Historic ethnic tension underpins enslavement dynamics in the Sahel; in some places – like Mauritania- this dynamic never went away.

Though Mauritania’s authoritarian government pays lip service to eradicating slavery, a failure to meet minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking means it remains a Tier 3 country as per the US Department of State. Worse still, Mauritian abolitionists have recently been targeted for legal punishments and persecution and, in a country which only made slavery a crime in 2007, face a long, uphill battle in tackling the highest rate of modern-day slavery in the world. According to the Walk Free Foundation, a full 4% of the populaton (155,000 people) is enslaved against their will.

With President Abdel Aziz’s consolidation of power following a referendum in August, this trend is likely to continue in the future. Unfortunatley, because the country is an important Western ally in the fight against terrorism, both Brussels and Washington have taken a soft line against Abdel Aziz, bankrolling his regime with military assisantance and aid.

The situation is similarly dire in Sudan, a country which has seen constant tension between its Arab north and black African south in Darfur. Modern slavery exists on multiple levels throughout Sudan, with a member of Sudanese Parliament estimating that some 35,000 people remain enslaved along the borderland between north and south. Ongoing conflict and stability have left countless people, especially women, vulnerable to explotiation, while many black Sudanese were sold into slavery to the north during the 1980s-1990s when the Khartoum jihad legitimised slaves as war booty. To this day, a derogatory term for a South Sudanese is abid – a term which translates literally to “slave”.

From Mauritania to Sudan, the Sahel has a persistent problem with slavery. A failure to eradicate traditional slaving practices and ethnic tensions during the region’s checkered colonial and post-independence era has led to the practice reasserting itself. Europeans only see African migrants when they reach its blue Mediterranean shores, but show a dismal ignorance of the deprivation and exploitation of Saharan trafficking networks that precede their arrival. As the EU debates the waning of its migratory war chest, poor governance and a lack of opportunities in countries of origin mean that root causes are not being tackled. Until they do, people will keep heading for Europe – and falling into slavers’ traps.

Michael Wilcox

Michael Wilcox

I am a London-based researcher specialized in security issues and environmental protection. He is currently writing a book about the role lobbying plays in keeping African leaders in power.

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