The war on smugglers 

Libya Refugees
Hundreds of refugees from Libya line up for food at a transit camp near the Tunisia-Libya border

At the end of January, a tweet by Leonard Doyle, spokesperson of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), was doing the rounds on the Internet. In it, William Swing, head of the IOM, congratulates Becky Anderson, a CNN host, for the cable news network’s “courage” in “confirming the IOM’s report of migrants sold as slaves in Libya with video” and for effecting “a coalition of the AU and EU to help bring thousands home to safety.” By “home,” Swing and Doyle meant back to their countries in Africa.

The praised CNN “video,” titled “People for sale: Where lives are auctioned for $400,” went viral last November and shows a grainy clip of twelve Africans (said to be from Niger) being “sold” by an unseen Arab auctioneer through a megaphone. CNN did not film the scene, they merely edited the video purchased from or provided by a “local contact”, as the field crew says in a subsequent CNN studio interview (titled “Libya’s migrant slaves wanted their stories told”).

The story itself is a few months old as we showed before. This scandal was already public knowledge in April 2017 and reported by the BBC and Quartz Africa (the latter basically recycled the BBC report).

The “discovery” of the video has ignited the press and a consuming public in need of symbolism and scapegoats, a long-standing orientalist trope of Arab slave auctions, which European and African policy makers are now making work for their own objectives. The EU’s primary means to end the “migration crisis” remains an imperial, pink, ham-fisted attempt to militarily disrupt smuggling networks or what they call, Reagan-style, the “war on smugglers.” Watch the not-so-subtle encouragement in this direction apparent in this more recent CNN piece, reporting on France’s “urgent” demand to the UN to consider “sanctions,” and failing that, a more forceful intervention to stop migrants “being sold between human trafficking gangs.”

To intervene (again), the European branch of NATO needs to plug into a narrative that can find legitimacy in the western press and a sub-section of first world and global middle classes. The revived “slave auctions” being stomped out through a new western moral and military show of force is a tried and tested avenue for this — a cathartic one popularized amongst others by the irrelevant tweeting of aging rapper LL Cool J (“Remove the slave holders by force”).

Doyle ends his tweet by announcing that at Davos he and others were now planning “a coalition of the AU and EU to help bring thousands home to safety” — presumably considered to be a type of evacuation before any co-ordinated militarized intervention can proceed. Vast sums of money are currently being leveraged and released to have African states “take back” their citizens. The IOM is undertaking these new logistics and they are finding their recruits primarily amongst those held for months or longer in the state-sanctioned detention centers in Libya, and who are having their hearts, hopes and health crushed.

In another surreal turn in what writer Teju Cole calls the “White Savior Industrial Complex,” the closest any foreign journalist or researcher has come to a continuous abortion of circumstance from the bottom up in Libya, is a one-hour special by Ross Kemp. Kemp is a strikingly bald, British working-class soap opera star turned professional TV show survivalist, who lacks the white middle class and “Oprah” sentimentalism that Cole put his sharp finger on. Instead, Kemp has pioneered a kind of Gung-ho version of a Vice magazine “white balls complex” — deep reconnaissance and irredeemable. Kemp’s TV travelogue, Ross Kemp: Libya’s Migrant Hell, is from early 2017 and there he singlehandedly outdoes every major international news agency in sincerity and insight by traveling and chatting for weeks side by side with West African migrants throughout their free entry, thwarted exit and subsequent detention in Libya.

The West African press is more discerning and less inclined to peddle easily confused and strictly binary narratives. A recent article in the most widely read Nigerian newspaper, gives returnees a chance to elaborately explain their experience in Libya. They recount the interweaving of a shocking territorial militia kidnapping for ransom, with the desperate gathering of enough funds to pay smugglers for the next leg of the journey. “Anyone is the police in Libya. They all have arms. They catch you and tell you that you have to pay money or else you will never get out,” a Gambian migrant who was held for ransom a few years ago told Amnesty International. He was not referring to his smugglers whom he eventually paid to get out and reach Italy.

Smugglers are the only ticket out of the country for the estimated half a million Nigerian migrants “stranded” in Libya and its detention centers. Except the IOM itself, a UN organization funded largely by the EU, whose renewed mission is to deflect the route to Europe by offering up anything from 400 to 7000 euros to any illegal “economic” migrants willing to be repatriated or return. This counter-payment ecosystem has even led to the rise of scammers posing as the IOM, promising “visa facilitation and transportation assistance, resettlement opportunities as well as job openings and recruitment abroad,” which in the eyes of most migrants is a better try than going back home broke with nothing to show. It also explains why more people have opted for the service of smugglers — and probably fallen for these scams — than have taken up the IOM’s offer of repatriation. 

The economic situation in Nigeria has gotten worse over the past year. As The Other News, the Nigerian satirical news program modeled on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, says in its review of 2017, a year of harmful currency devaluations, severe inflations in the price of basic goods and fuel shortages, the “year has been so bad.” Even Okey Bakassi, the Trevor Noah-like host, joked he was “considering escaping through Libya.” In Nigeria, having little money or no way of making new money, or having one’s wealth shrunk and destabilized through structural economic factors, means not only a reduction of a material standard of living, but also a degradation of the means of social existence and rights. As an article from Stears, a think tank gathering many of Nigeria’s exceptional young economists says, this is because in Nigeria “your poverty does not just exclude you from material goods, but from everything else – political power, healthcare, justice. Those who can afford to will buy their access to these rights, those that can’t get no rights.” 

A prominent figure of “Nigerian twitter” tweeted a Facebook post (a much more popular and less elite-laden platform in Nigeria than Twitter) written by one Ephraim Okonkwo, who  reminds everyone: “If you want to help Libya slaves/immigrants, don’t bring them back home. Help them reach their destination in Europe. There’s a very good reason they left home in the first place.” The tweet is followed by a provocation of the avatar Nigerian Troll: “Please run away. Don’t let this Libya propaganda discourage you.” This is a common sentiment I encountered on the streets of Lagos and elsewhere in West Africa: “Of course I want to go to Europe,” “You must suffer for greener pastures,” “Libya is bad but not that bad,” “One merely must pass through quickly.” 

As almost no long-term, independent investigations have been possible in Libya in recent years, it is not clear if conditions have worsened. I believe my impressions from 2015 (also here) are still valid, and so is the new academic research of Paolo Campana. His research is based on the wiretapped mobile phone of heterogeneous smugglers who used the Libya route in 2013-2014. He suggests that that there is solid empirical evidence that there is a “clear separation between actors involved in the provision of smuggling services” from those involved “in kidnapping for ransom and in the ‘management’ of detention centres.” This “goes against narratives that conflate these separate sets of activities.”