This Saturday morning, Libya appeared in three grim global news stories: The bodies of 31 migrants and refugees were pulled out of waters off the country’s west coast; insurgents calling themselves ISIS and linked to Libya are likely responsible for Friday’s deadly attack on a Sufi mosque in Egypt; and gruesome photos apparently show the torture and enslavement of African migrants, prompting calls for an investigation.
Taken in isolation, each of these things would point to a major human rights and security crisis. Together, they paint a disturbing picture that is becoming increasingly hard for the international community to ignore: Libya might be next frontier in the fight against both ISIS and human trafficking.
So far, the west has failed spectacularly in dealing with both. Italy led an effort to pay Libyan armed groups — the same ones who profited from trafficking migrants and asylum seekers to Europe — to help keep migrants in the country. It has cut down on the number of refugees crossing the Mediterranean (a trip that often kills migrants), but the program resulted those refugees being confined and abused in detention centers in Libya, constituting major human rights violations.
In addition to being horribly mistreated in dozens of detention centers, the influx of predominately African migrants to Libya has also created open slave markets, as detailed in the photos that were part of a CNN investigation. The images are horrific, showing men with guns to victims’ heads, some bound by their feet and suspended upside down, some with open wounds, some unconscious on the ground.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres asked the country’s leadership to hold those responsible accountable, and Libyan authorities have reportedly vowed to investigate these abuses. At the best of times, asking a government to investigate its own nation’s alleged transgressions is a naive move. For instance, Saudi Arabia absolved itself from committing any rights violations in Yemen, while the U.N. Human Rights Council found that investigation lacking and is pursuing its own.
But Libya has three governments, and none of them acknowledges the legitimacy of the other. The country is essentially run by militia groups. Even if the governments pursue an investigation, there’s little hope that the guilty parties will be brought to justice, and even slimmer chances the rights of migrants and refugees will be protected.
Libya has descended deeper into chaos in the years following the downfall of dictator Moammar Gaddafi in 2011; it is now becoming the next safe haven for insurgents, especially ISIS. While the U.S. has carried out airstrikes against the group, attacks such as Friday’s in Egypt show that ISIS has a footing in the region, and continues to have access to manpower and arms (including rocket-propelled grenades).
If fighting ISIS and human trafficking have been priorities of the west in Libya, then it’s clear that both of those efforts have largely failed. The attack in Egypt has left over 300 dead, and the International Organization for Migration has called the gambit to keep African migrants in Libya an approach that “is not only morally reprehensible but likely to be unsuccessful, given the context of extremely poor governance, instability and political fragmentation in Libya.”
While African politicians have renewed the calls for the International Court of Justice to investigate new evidence of Libya’s slave trade over the past week, the abuse of African migrants in Libya has been widely reported for years: Those who aren’t trafficked are locked up until they can pay off corrupt officials and militia commanders — much like the ones tasked with investigating themselves now.