Migrants in Libya facing threat of slavery: U.N.

Migrants in a detention centre in Libya

Migrants in Libya face the greatest danger in years of being trafficked exploited or enslaved by armed groups and criminal gangs – which are becoming stronger – as Europe clamps down on migration, the United Nations and analysts say.

The U.N. International Organization for Migration (IOM) says the rising numbers of migrants trapped in the North African country are prey to smugglers and traffickers, who sell them as slaves.

Libya has become a preferred departure route for hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking to reach Europe through the Mediterranean Sea. Not all make it through however. Some get stuck in Libya after being shortchanged by the people smugglers, and worse still, others perish in the sea.

Of the more than 650,000 migrants in Libya, at least 9,000 are in detention centres – a number that has doubled in recent months due to increased coastguard returns – while the IOM estimates that thousands more are at the mercy of smugglers.

“Smuggling networks are becoming more organised, stronger, globally,” IOM’s Libya head Othman Belbeisi told reporters in London. “More and more we are seeing migrants being sold from one smuggler to another … being contracted for work but not being paid.”

Many people in Libya become smugglers because the networks are well established, unlikely to be dismantled or prosecuted, and due to a lack of other sources of income, Belbeisi added.

The smuggling cells rose following the Muammar Gaddafi killing in 2011, which created a leadership vacuum that various groups sought to take advantage of.

“Traffickers don’t need detention centres, they can go on the streets, detain 100 migrants and take them to a farm (to work),” Belbeisi said. “This is regular business for armed groups.”