Often in our modern world, we deem ourselves to have progressed to a point of social civility, political advancement and moral growth that has allowed us to shed major social injustices from our societies’ trajectories of perpetual development and steady enlightenment. We view the phenomenon of slavery as an unfortunate aspect of our national histories that has been successfully eradicated from the cultural enclaves in which we live. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
In prevailing social discourse, slavery is frequently made synonymous with a number of historical developments that leave particularly deep imprints in man’s collective consciousness. Among these widely recalled circumstances are the transatlantic slave trade during European colonialism, the sectarian mutual enslavement of peoples from Christian and Muslim nations anchored around the Mediterranean as part of the gains of war and the bondage of 40 percent of Ancient Greece’s population between its dark ages and antiquity.
40.5 million. The approximate number of people who are classified as modern slaves today. The financial profits of human trafficking constitute around $150 billion per year, more than nine times the global revenue for the music industry last year. These shocking statistics appear more relevant than ever with the advent of a social travesty that has rendered many uncertain as to whether we have really unshackled ourselves from the underbelly of our past. In mid-November, video footage exhibiting scenes from a human slave auction at an undisclosed location in Libya was made public, showing individuals from Nigeria and various other Sub-Saharan countries being sold for £300 and other similar sums.
Since the startling news broke, seas of protests have erupted across various countries, from mass demonstrations in France, Senegal and Benin to a march in London earlier this month which saw hundreds take to the streets. Over 260,000 British people have signed a petition urging the UK government to put pressure on the Libyan government to put an end to the Libyan slave auctions. The widespread awareness of the auctions has lodged the issue of the exploitation of refugees and migrants seeking to cross European borders, right at the heart of political discourse.
A UN survey conducted to track the pervasiveness and frequency of human trafficking found that more than a staggering 70% of all migrants travelling to Europe by boat from Africa were trafficked or subjected to exploitation, whether it be through black market organ trade or the involuntary carrying out of labour without pay under the threat of violence. A significant number of these victims reported their experiences being held against their will for ransoms, forced to give their own blood or bequeath their own organs in order to fund their journeys, incidents which took place in Greece, Turkey, Albania, Serbia and Macedonia.
Can these circumstances in which some of the world’s most vulnerable citizens are subjected to appalling acts of abuse and mistreatment continue be largely ignored as they has been for so long hitherto, or alternatively dismissed as just a part of the risk involved in attempting to find refuge in already overburdened European states with enough socio-political problems? And when the issue is addressed, as with the situation in Libya, can the notion that simple migration policy changes involving a tightening of restrictions in European states – without any real alteration to the social and economic circumstances of the countries from which migrants flee – suffice to stem the influx of these prospective residents?
Globalisation, the interconnectedness of the economies between states and consequently the significance of the political and social disposition of one country in the eyes of another, means that the mass migration of individuals from North and Sub-Saharan Africa to Europe cannot be brushed under the rug. Whether a migrant is classified within the portion of refugees fleeing the threat of death in their war-torn native country, or as a traveller hoping to escape economic hardships and the risk of famine, illness and – again – death, he or she makes the decision to forgo his or her home nation because they deem themself to have no other choice.
It is a conviction so steadfast in their hearts that they are willing to risk death in order to fulfil it. When the economic and social circumstances of their home country are so dire that such a decision is made, the deterrence policies of European nations seeking to halt the flow of migrants through their borders does little to sway the resolution of these travellers to escape their intolerable existences. However, at the same time, it is necessary to highlight the fact that it has often been argued that Europe’s governmental bodies have in fact adopted a constructive role with regard to this issue. Several prominent political figures and diplomatic bodies have voiced strong condemnation towards the human exploitation taking place in Libya, including French President Emmanuel Macron. Additionally, the EU has developed a Marshall Plan-style initiative which, if enacted in its entirety, would see up to 15,000 people evacuated from Libya.
While this sort of concerted support is certainly beneficial, a necessary aspect of the current discourse concerning the inhumane exploitation practised by human traffickers requires a discussion of the relationship between Europe’s migration policies and the vulnerable predicament in which migrants find themselves that allows them to be exploited by traffickers. The EU, in conjunction with Italy, has trained and aided the Libyan coastguard in detaining migrants and returning them to states where there is a significant risk that they fall victim to trafficking. Although the emergence of the slave auction footage has deeply disquieted countless ordinary citizens, to many political figures, the occurrence of these kind of practises does not come as a surprise.
The EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, publically condemned the development before stating “this is not something that began one month ago. Everybody has known about it for years”. Consequently, the strong wave of condemnation of human trafficking espoused by political leaders globally raises the question as to why they chose to silently ignore the issue before it recently gained such wide-spread, public attention? It begs the question of why, when cognizant of the problems of trafficking, authorities were simultaneously seeking to stem the flow of migration to Europe and ensure these refugees remain in vulnerable predicaments which put them at risk to trafficking?
Of course, this exploitation of socially and economically vulnerable migrants is fundamentally carried out by criminals, traffickers, who operate in the lawless underbellies of states, a portion of society that these governments would undoubtedly like to see eliminated. These human traffickers exploit for economic gain, the vulnerability of predominantly African migrants seeking to secure a better quality of life for themselves – or simply endeavouring to escape the very pressing risk of famine and war. An exchange of man for capital. It is not a novel concept, but as a mode of financial gain it exists as a practice as deleterious and dangerous as ever.