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Delving Deeper into Libyan Slave Markets

Delving Deeper into Libyan Slave Markets

May 22, 2018 | In Libya, for those who find themselves trapped within the harrowing supply chain of human slavery, conditions are the utmost dire (Vick). Post-2011, the fall of the Qaddafi Regime has left life desolate. Political instability has critically affected the state, brigades affiliated with tribes and families throughout Libya have become disunified, and three different governments are currently vying for power. Additionally, Libya’s economic health looks grim. Stark vacancies remain in its public service department and there is a fall in hydrocarbon revenues, increasing public debt, unprecedented levels of inflation,  and a lack of diversity within its economy.

The political and economic backdrop seems to paint a picture of despair beyond belief—but that would be too scant of an observation. In fact, the best word to encapsulate this country’s—its people’s—mentality would be that of endurance. With an entrenched history in alternative forms of cultural and economic exchange, smuggling markets arose as an answer to address the needs of its people. And while this type of self-sufficiency and adaptability have become the country’s greatest asset, the attractiveness of smuggling markets have only intensified demand, making human smuggling the most lucrative of all.

Black Markets: “They are people’s markets”

For people now learning about the occurrence of modern day slavery within Libya, a closer examination reveals how the toppling of Libya’s authoritarian regime created a perfect formula for the human slave market economy. With the absence of an autocrat, fissures within the state quickly followed, revealing Qaddafi’s purposeful state design. In fact, Qaddafi’s Libya was one without a centralized state, characterized by weak political institutions and the surrendering of power to the people—a concept called personal sovereignty (Trint 105). This meant that resources were spread out across a multitude of sects, tribes, and interest groups, while the state had broad control managing oil resources. Yet Qaddafi also highly encouraged the emergence of licit and illicit economies, legitimizing trade on the black market. He was quoted back in 1988 speaking to a local revolutionary committee, “they [the people] establish a black market because they need it...What are black markets? They are people’s markets” (Pargeter 151). He also forewarned the world about what a Libya with a toppled regime would look like. “There are millions of blacks who could come to the Mediterranean to cross to France and Italy, and Libya plays a role in security in the Mediterranean” (Reuters). While playing on the world’s xenophobic and racist tendencies, he was still accurate in predicting a flood of migrants, which would in turn, fuel the demand for existing smuggling markets.

Igniting the Flame Within

Developing an effective way to address the existence of human slave markets in Libya will require not only a base knowledge understanding of the ways the smuggling market economy operates; it also demands recognition of how this economy came to fruition, acknowledging the initiatives taken on by the Libyan people. This will require moving past public outrage and into the realm of recognizing how local conditions led to the profitability of human beings. In essence, we must stop sensationalizing human slavery and actually do something about it. Rather than becoming enthralled in the consumption of new reports depicting Libya as being “devolved into a primitive state,” efforts need to be directed towards channeling the ingenuity of the Libyan people combined with outside assistance from the world (Vick).

Moving Beyond Complacency—It’s Your Turn, World.

Breaking Down Constructs

There is always more to a story than meets the eye—and this is especially apt to the complex phenomenon of the human slave market economy. This practice of human smuggling is a type of economic, cultural, and political action enmeshed in shared sovereignty. Dr. Thomas Huesken, a research fellow at the Department for Ethnology for the University of Bayreuth, describes the malleable nature of the term smuggling as its definition. “States label forms of trade and exchange as smuggling when these activities collide with border regimes, taxation laws or other legal regulations. History reveals how these regulations change over time and thus turn practices that were once legal into something illegal” (Huesken). This means that the perception of smugglers is heavily reliant on who is defining and framing the discourse surrounding the activity.

Conflating all forms of the smuggling market to the human slave market economy is simply unproductive and misleading. To only associate smuggling in a criminalized context, with hard drugs, weapons, and people, fails to recognize how smuggling arose out of necessity due to lack of economic alternatives and failure of state policies. This is not to diminish the severity of people—usually vulnerable populations like migrants and refugees—being sold into slavery. But to blatantly condemn slavery without evaluating the role of the state and its economic health in facilitating this occurrence misses the point entirely. Pressure should be applied towards the need to rehabilitate state governance in the borderlands of Egypt and Libya and re-evaluate Western beliefs in security and policing that often coincides with transborder populations and practices being protected.  

As a byproduct of a collapsed political state and conspicuous economic opportunity, the slave market economy has begun to cash in on the floods of vulnerable people seeking refugee through Libya, making it the perfect human marketplace with detention centers serving as distribution points. Part of the challenge of disrupting smuggling markets lies in its “quintessential free market” conception with no hierarchies or monopolies to target (Da Silva). Because a large amount of people are supplying the service, along with the increasing demand due to success narratives conjured up of migrants starting over in Europe, this market is highly lucrative and unregulated. Indeed, naval operations along the mediterranean remain unsuccessful in halting this market. Along the way, the welfare of the people seeking these services was neglected for the procurers’ sheer desire to make a profit at the people’s expense.

Fueling the Fire or All Burned Out?

At the heart of every humanitarian crisis lies the question of what can be done. It is clear that the situation is dire in Libya as a consequence of political instability and worsening economic conditions that both require addressing. One huge factor that makes addressing the success of the slave market economy difficult is the absence of a stable government in power. A case can be made that the international community cannot intervene and establish stability if various groups within a country cannot cooperate with one another, or at least show a willingness to do so. The last thing Libya needs is a liberal savior mentality trying to rescue the country from its atrocities.

While an understanding of the localized context of Libya’s smuggling market economy is necessary, this does not inhibit other actors from aiding Libya. The country currently lacks the infrastructure and means to instigate the recommended economic policies and social resources it seriously needs. Therefore, providing necessary funding would greatly improve conditions. By turning its back on Libya, the international community would be upholding its current trend of inaction. What needs to be done is restore confidence within the Libyan population by spurring economic growth and providing necessary infrastructure to the area.

Haste Makes Waste; Keeping the Spark Alive

While international attention to this humanitarian crisis is spreading like wildfire, it is crucial to take advantage of this opportunity. That being said, the last thing Libya needs is hasty action done more for show than actualized policies meant to last the long haul. Action must move beyond addressing short-term impacts as further destabilization could result if there is no long term imperative to address the conditions which gave rise to smuggling markets.

Only addressing macroeconomic stability will not be enough as Libya requires a comprehensive and targeted approach to addressing the humanitarian crisis. This can be done by providing aid programs and establishing deeper widespread structural reforms that are targeted to its poor and middle class populations that are especially vulnerable.

Understanding and even humanizing victims and participants of these slave markets helps create an accurate portrayal of what type of economic disparity is fueling this trade. This explains how some victims of abuse can still empathize with their captors. As a victim describes, “they are stuck in the desert and are very poor…[m]aybe they do not get paid their wages. I don’t know. They seemed desperate...It is terrible there” (Huesken).

Michelle Waters is an undergraduate student in Lewis & Clark College's international affairs and political economy programs.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.


Sources Cited

Da Silva, Chantal. “Inside the 'free market' of people smuggling,” Independent, 24 October 2017.
Elbagir, Nima, et al. “People for Sale,” CNN, November 2017.
Huesken, Thomas. “The practice and culture of smuggling in the borderland of Egypt and Libya,” The Royal Institute of International Affairs, April 2017.
“Libya’s Economic Outlook- April 2017,” The World Bank, April 2017.
Millstein, Seth. “Libya Is Selling Refugees As Slaves & The Atrocity Is More Widespread Than You Think,” Bustle, 26 November 2017.
Pargeter, Alison. Libya: The rise and Fall of Gaddafi, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012, 151.
Raghavan, Sudarsan. “They Are Not Treated Like Humans ,” Washington Post, 2 July 2017. Reuters staffl. “Western states need Libyan partnership--Gaddafi,” Reuters, 7 March 2011.
Tinti, Peter, and Reitano, Tuesday. Migrant, Refugee, Smuggler, Savior. New York, Oxford University Press, 2017, 105.
Vick, Karl. “Libya's Migrant Economy Is a Modern Day Slave Market,” Time, 21 October 2016.


Photo by By ليبي صح [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

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