Keeping Refugees in Africa

De Correspondent / Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

“I just want to know if I had a boy or girl,” said Abdullah Bashir Umar, a slight man in his early 30s, with a calm demeanor and expressive eyes. Umar says he came to Libya legally from his native Niger almost a decade ago, back when the government of Muammar Qaddafi tacitly encouraged labor migration from sub-Saharan Africa to Libya. Despite the fact that he never had any intention of boarding a boat to Europe, Umar had been detained for weeks in a filthy cell with a dozen other migrants from West Africa. They spent their days caged in a dimly lit box with a rotting ceiling overhead, playing checkers on a set made from scraps of cardboard. They passed the night willing themselves to sleep on mattresses infested with bed bugs. As of that day, Umar had not been able to contact his wife, 8 months pregnant at the time of his arrest.

Umar, it turned out, is collateral damage, caught in the dragnet of the counter-migration machine funded by Europe and carried out by militias loyal to Libya’s UN-backed government in Tripoli. The fact that Umar’s cellmates are locked up indefinitely in Libya and not on a boat to Europe is a success story in the eyes of EU policymakers.

As bad as it is being locked away indefinitely, Umar can at least take solace in having not been sold into slavery. While reports by human rights organizations and the United Nations had previously highlighted the existence of “open air” slave auctions in which Libyan businessmen purchase African migrants to work on farms and construction projects, it was not until CNN obtained footage of such auctions, in which young men were sold into slavery for only a few hundred dollars, that the plight of migrants in Libya garnered sustained international attention. In the days following the CNN report, both the United Nations Security Council and the African Union held sessions to address the issue.

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