Slavery is thriving in Libya, where thousands of black Africans hoping to get to Europe instead find themselves bought and sold, forced to work for nothing, and facing torture at the hands of their owners.
BENIN CITY, Nigeria — Jude Ikuenobe sensed the car following him before he saw it. Heart pounding, he turned around. Under the Libyan desert sun, the highway stretching behind him was so hot it shimmered in the distance.
Nobody’s there, he tried to reassure himself for the tenth time since he had stepped out a few minutes earlier in search of water, along with three of his friends. The sandy side streets were deserted, every shop and café shuttered. It was a Friday afternoon, which meant even the armed militias who ruled Sabha, a sprawling oasis city 480 miles inland from the coastal capital, had filed to mosques for the most important weekly prayers.
Then came the sound again — the unmistakable purr of an engine.
Wordlessly, all four men scattered.
Ikuenobe felt like he was running through quicksand. As the car sped closer, he knew a single misstep could mean being gunned down and dying anonymously in the street.
He glanced over his shoulder, and terror seized him: A white 4×4 with tinted windows was heading straight at him.
All the warnings he’d heard flashed through his mind.
“In Sabha, every black man is a target.”
“We black in Libya — we’re money to Arabs. The minute they get us, they can sell us.”
“If they are coming, just run. Run for your life.”
Ikuenobe ran, and kept running even as there was a screech of tires, the smell of burning rubber, and a volley of gunshots. He kept running as one of his friends hit the ground with a thud. He ran until his legs gave way in an unpaved alleyway, and he collapsed onto the sandy ground, drenched in fear and sweat.
It took him several hours, on shaky legs through labyrinthine back roads, to slip back into the walled compound where he had spent the last three weeks. The building was no sanctuary, and Ikuenobe knew the owner of the compound would dole out a vicious beating, but he had nowhere else to go.
At least he was alive — none of his friends had made it back at all.
That summer afternoon in 2015 was the latest reminder of how far his life had slipped from his control, and how far entangled he was in a web of paymasters who control the new African slave trade.
Slavery typically conjures up images of ships transporting black Africans across the Atlantic, or the death marches of the trans-Saharan slave trade. But this modern-day version has added a cruel twist — this time, people from sub-Saharan Africa are often selling themselves into slavery, believing they are buying a ticket from a life of conflict, poverty, or repression to a glittering future in Europe. In a grim irony, the very policies of a European Union that is hardening itself against immigration are largely responsible not only for preventing people from reaching the continent, but their becoming enslaved and dying in their attempts to escape.
Few places could be further from the promised land than current-day Libya, where tens of thousands are detained indefinitely, spend years working for arbitrary sums or without pay altogether, and are at constant risk of being kidnapped, sold, and auctioned from one militia to another. In a country where chaos is the rule, some experts argue that such treatment doesn’t amount to slavery, a view that downplays the racism underlying the situation.
Ikuenobe had ended up trapped in Libya after leaving his hometown of Benin City, a verdant city of low-rise buildings in southwestern Nigeria, in search of a better life in Europe. He had planned for a two-week journey northward across the Sahara desert into Libya, from where he would set off in a boat across the Mediterranean. Instead, he found himself spending more than two years trying to survive in the underbelly of modern-day slavery.
People at a naval base in Tripoli, after being rescued off the coast of Libya, on July 30, 2018.
Starting in 2014, images of desperate people crammed onto boats as they tried to cross the Mediterranean began to appear on TV screens. The “migrant crisis” soon upended European politics, unleashing a wave of far-right populism and anti-migrant rhetoric.
The European Union began pulling up the drawbridge, and debates flared up around the legality and morality of its “stop the boats” policy. But its darkest consequences were often erased from the narrative: the tens of thousands of black Africans entrapped in a growing slave market.
In November last year, a video that could have been lifted from a 300-year-old time capsule went viral. On grainy cellphone footage obtained by CNN, a group of black Africans were shown being auctioned as slaves somewhere in Tripoli, Libya’s capital. Offscreen, a slave trader repeatedly emphasized the strength of the black men for sale: “This is a digger, a big strong man,” he said, a proprietorial hand on another man’s shoulder. A Nigerian man in his twenties, his eyes blank with fear, was offered as part of a group of “big strong boys for farm work.” The men were sold for $400 each.
The Tripoli-based government reacted by launching a committee it said would bring those responsible to justice — although a year on, no findings have been made public. The UN-backed presidency said: “We, in Libya, are victims of illegal migration and we are not a source for it.” Shortly after the footage was published by CNN, Libyan media described it as “fake news,” using a tweet by US president Donald Trump that attacked the news channel as a way to discredit its reporting on slavery in Libya.
The slave auction video, it emerged, was the tip of the iceberg of a forced labor market estimated to be worth $150 billion worldwide. Images resurfaced of black Africans being detained by militias in cages in Tripoli zoo. There were videos of Libyan coast guards whipping terrified black women and children at sea.
Perched on the northern coast of Africa, some 120 nautical miles across from the Mediterranean coast of Italy and Malta, oil-rich Libya has long served as a launching-off point for Europe. For nearly four decades, migrant numbers were controlled by the country’s flamboyant dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. He periodically threatened to unleash an “influx of starving and ignorant Africans” who would turn the mainland into a “black Europe” — in order to wrangle cash-for-migration-control deals.
In 2008, he secured a $5 billion reparations deal from Italy, a former colonial power; in exchange, Gaddafi would stem the flow of refugees. That paved the way for both countries to start capturing asylum-seekers and returning them to Libya, until the European Court of Human Rights ruled the deal broke human rights laws. The self-named “king of kings of Africa” then began demanding 5 billion euros ($5.67 billion) annually from the European Union.
After the Arab Spring and the US-led bombing campaign toppled Gaddafi in 2011, Libya was carved up between a UN-recognized central government in Tripoli, another in the east, and dozens of militias vying for control of the south. Migrant routes that had previously been controlled under Gaddafi suddenly opened up again.
Panicked European governments turned to a familiar playbook. Through EU and UN security and funding agencies, they poured sophisticated surveillance equipment, warships, and billions of euros into countries across Africa — with Libya as the centerpiece — in an effort to push back, return, or contain would-be arrivals. With no strongman ally this time around, that money has been channeled toward training Libya’s coast guard and funding migrant-holding centers — even when news emerged of coast guards firing on refugee boats or militia-run labor camps.
But critics fear that without dealing with the root triggers of migration, these kind of border controls are short-sighted at best. Sealing one route simply opens another one. It’s like playing a high-stakes version of whack-a-mole — but the question is how long is it sustainable, and at what human cost?
Fewer people are making it to Europe, but more are dying, disappearing, or being abused en route — except it’s no longer happening on the shores of Europe. Yet every step of Ikuenobe’s journey into slavery was shaped not just by conflict or poverty in Africa, but also directly by Europe’s policies on migration.
Ikuenobe wasn’t willing to risk everything to get to Europe — he just believed slavery was a thing confined to the history books he’d read at school. Tall, broad-shouldered, and dimple-cheeked, Ikuenobe spent his free time playing football or attending activities organized by his local church. A political science graduate, he was often teased by friends who said he had squandered his true talents by not playing for Arsenal soccer team, whose colors draped his room at home.
His journey into captivity began one evening in July 2015, when he was scrolling listlessly through his Facebook feed after yet another visa application at the US Consulate office. It was the fourth time that year he’d painstakingly filled out the forms, forked over money from his dwindling savings, and sat through a humiliating interview in an embassy. And for the fourth time, his request came back: application denied.
Depressed, Ikuenobe was about to log off when a familiar face popped up under the “people you may know” tab. His initial joy at reconnecting with Asiri, an old school friend, was soon replaced with a typical reaction Facebook engenders: FOMO. Except this wasn’t a fear of missing out on concerts or travel or parties — his dwindling bank account saw to that every day. This felt like his whole life was slipping by.
His former classmate had ended up in Italy, where he’d found a job as a waiter. According to the glossy version of his life on Facebook, he’d saved enough to buy a Vespa and would soon be putting a deposit on an apartment. “Where he was, you know the atmosphere was different. Everything looked fresher. It looked good,” Ikuenobe recalled, sitting in the same room in his family home where he’d been that evening three years ago.
All Ikuenobe ever really wanted to do was work. After graduating in 2013, he’d traveled 7,000 miles across the Atlantic to Mexico, where he got a job in a textiles factory. It wasn’t exactly his dream job, and he was homesick every day, but the paycheck of $800 provided enough to send money back to his family and help put his five younger siblings through school. But just over a year later, he had to return to Nigeria to complete his compulsory national youth service — a requirement if he wanted to eventually settle down back home.
After finishing his service, his plans to find another job abroad were crushed by the reality of Nigeria’s job market — there weren’t enough jobs that allowed him to save, and every legal door to emigrating slammed shut. He began pawning treasured possessions, including the peacock blue Toyota Camry he’d bought when he first returned from Mexico.
The next day, he called the number Asiri had given him. The man on the end of the line sounded warm and friendly. He could open doors northward from Nigeria, through its landlocked neighbor, Niger, and finally to Libya. From there, Europe would be within his grasp.
“He told me that in one week, I will be in Europe. I was like —,” Ikuenobe opened his eyes wide for emphasis, “What?! And I’ve been suffering myself since. I have been spending money.”
But Ikuenobe had questions, so he arranged to meet for drinks.
“I told him, ‘But we’ll be passing [the] desert, the Sahara desert.’ I went online to check it — one of the largest deserts, one of the hottest deserts on the planet.”
The man reassured him that if Ikuenobe really wanted to put his mind at ease, he could pay a little more for what he called a VIP ticket, a package that came with extra security and what the man called “fine dining.”
For many, the chain that leads to slavery begins in Nigeria, where smugglers known as “trolleys” transport customers across the Sahara to Libya. When Ikuenobe handed over the last of his life savings of 800,000 naira ($2,200), he trusted the man would then send the right people to ferry him onward at each stage of the 1,500-kilometer journey to Libya’s coast.
The night before he set off, he paid his mom a visit. “Mom, I have a job now,” he’d barely begun, when his 74-year-old mother began screaming and jumping for joy.
She asked him what kind of job it was. Shipyard work, Ikuenobe lied. It gave him an excuse for why he wouldn’t be able to call — he’d often be at sea, he said.
He didn’t tell any of his siblings, knowing he wouldn’t be able to evade their questions so easily.
A woman and children wave as two pickup trucks leave Niger for Libya, on June 1, 2015.
The first time he saw the man who would enslave him, Ikuenobe was relieved.
In reality, the VIP ticket meant clinging onto the railing of a pickup truck as it maneuvered the vast expanse of the Sahara. In a convoy of eight trucks, each crammed with 30-odd West Africans, Ikuenobe’s fellow travelers ranged from doctors to entire families with toddlers. It took them three days to reach Agadez, a former trans-Saharan slave trading hub 900 kilometers deep into Niger’s hinterland, but still only on the southern edge of the Sahara. Nothing could have prepared him for the landscape beyond Agadez.
They drove for miles with no shade, until the endless heat and dunes made many wonder if they were going mad. “Sometimes you look at your colleagues and it’s like blood is gushing out of their eyes. Some people will just lose it psychologically.”
Children were more likely to survive, Ikuenobe said, since they needed less water. Twice during their 2,000-mile ordeal across the world’s hottest desert, Ikuenobe saw fathers die, then mothers, until only the youngest children were left.
“When they died,” Ikuenobe recalled quietly, “you don’t have [a] choice. You just cover them with sand, and put their [water bottle] on top of them.”
The convoy arrived in Libya 10 days after leaving Niger, late in August, pulling up at the gate of a crumbling mansion on the outskirts of Sabha.
As Ikuenobe walked through the gates of Ali’s “ghetto” — as the compounds named after their owners were called — he felt exhilarated. His new friends had nicknamed him “Big Big,” on account of his towering physical presence, which they thought had helped him survive the desert. In a country where the word for black person, “abd,” literally means “slave,” he had no idea the strength on which he prided himself had a price here, judged to be between $200 and $400.
After the trolleys have transported customers across the Sahara to Libya, charges are then handed over to a “connection man” who is part of a network of traders that ferries them through Libya to launching points along its 1,100-mile coastline. But the journey through Libya is rarely straightforward. Paying off and dodging officials, connections also sell off migrants and refugees among themselves, or herd them in migrant ghettos.
Ikuenobe’s approximate route from Nigeria to Libya.
Ikuenobe hoped to follow in the footsteps of the hundreds of thousands of others who’d undertaken the same journey that year. But one by one, he watched all his new friends leave Ali’s ghetto as their connection came to collect them. By nightfall, it was clear no one was coming for him.
Ikuenobe was alone in a foreign country he knew nothing about when the gunshots started.
In one corner of the courtyard, a crumbling brick staircase led to a roof terrace. A group of children were using cans filled with sand for target practice. “I saw a very small boy, I don’t think he could be up to 14 years old. He was carrying an AK-47!”
Ikuenobe had witnessed street violence in Nigeria, but nothing prepared him for Libya’s lawlessness. He watched, horrified, as the young boy pumped bullets into the air in celebration. “I was like, Jesus! Look at all these children!”
The next morning, a man came in and gave Ikuenobe an appraising look. “Don’t worry. Somebody will come for you,” Ikuenobe remembered him finally saying.
He had gone back to lying on the concrete courtyard floor when four men approached and told him to follow them. One had a Nigerian accent, and the familiarity made Ikuenobe feel a little less lost.
The men marched him into the main house, past a series of cratered, marble-lined corridors to a room with a bolted metal door. Inside, the worst part was not the lifeless bodies lying in the dark, or the puddles of urine and shit. It was the smell of fear.
The first man pushed him down to the ground, and Ikuenobe felt something wet and warm against his cheek, but his brain couldn’t process what. He looked up and could just make out the face of the man with the Nigerian accent.
“Please,” Ikuenobe whispered.
The man brought his foot crashing down.
The four men took it in turns. When Ikuenobe tried to stand, one of them held him down, and the others continued punching and kicking. At some point, a long, heavy pipe was smacked repeatedly against his jaw, shoulders, and thighs. Much later, after his body had dissolved into a pulpy mass of pain and he could barely see out of one eye, everything finally went dark.
Something cold woke him up — they’d poured water on him to revive him.
One of the men was standing above him. He had an electric cattle prod in his hand. A second man was holding a cellphone. He demanded Ikuenobe give him the number of his mother, whom he’d last promised to call as she poured drinks celebrating his new “job.” Through a mouth foaming with with blood, Ikuenobe instead gave his older sister’s number. As soon as his sister answered, the first man pressed the electric prod against Ikuenobe’s wet skin.
By the end of the call, Ikuenobe could no longer tell who was sobbing loudest — him, or his sister thousands of miles away. His tormentors finally hung up after she promised to send them 600,000 naira ($1,650) in exchange for his “freedom.”
Such brutal tactics have become the norm in post-Gaddafi Libya — where not a single militia member or official has been prosecuted for torture or disappearances since 2011. Extortion is so widespread that captives even have a market value depending on which country they’re from — Eritreans, who have a large, well-organized diaspora, command the highest prices, while West Africans fetch the smallest ransoms and are the most likely to be ill-treated, Libya experts say.
New prisoners drifted in and out of the cell every day. When their captors came to beat one of them, others would join in the wailing, so the noise was magnified to relatives listening on the other end of the phone. Ikuenobe tracked how long he was in the cell by the amount of money his sister paid. After each phone call, he knew she handed over roughly 500,000 naira ($1,370).
Roughly a week later, when a short man called Israel limped in and told Ikuenobe he was free to go, he had to restrain himself from hugging him. His family had paid him over 2 million naira ($5,500), Israel said.
Believing he now had a connection to take him on the last leg of his journey, Ikuenobe felt relieved when he saw Israel press a bundle of notes into Ali’s hands. “I saw that money changing hands, and I thought it was the right person coming for me.”
Israel took him outside to a waiting car, and they sped along the wide, dusty streets to another private home. Inside, more men and women sat side by side on the concrete floor. They looked tired and gaunt.
Ikuenobe’s heart sank.
Israel hadn’t come to rescue him. He’d bought Ikuenobe as though he were chattel.
People rescued from a ship off the coast of Libya on June 18, 2018.
Perhaps surprisingly, many Libya experts tread carefully around calling experiences like Ikuenobe’s slavery. Othman Belbesi, head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Libya, said up to 800,000 sub-Saharan Africans face various abuses at any time in Libya, but he was cautious about naming it. “We need to agree about the definition of slavery before we use such strong words,” he said.
This reluctance stems, in part, from the different legal definitions of various forms of slavery, from trafficking to forced labor. But it also comes from a misconception that slavery is only the outright ownership of a person, according to Jakub Sobik, a spokesperson with Anti-Slavery International. “However you look at it, what’s happening in Libya is slavery.”
For Ikuenobe, the debate is purely academic. “I’m working. I’m not earning any money. I’m a slave already,” he said.
The city of Sabha, where he found himself, was in constant conflict, ruled by asma boys, as many sub-Saharan Africans called the militias and armed gang members. Ikuenobe was terrified. He was undocumented and jobless in a country where he was a moving target just walking down the streets.
He took the only real option available to him: to work for the man who was holding him prisoner until he’d earned enough money to buy his freedom. “I thought, ‘I’m already in Libya, it’s better I face the sea than for me to pass through that [Sahara] sun, better to die drinking saltwater than thirsty.’”
Israel, his new owner, also ran a car wash, where Ikuenobe was put to work for 12-hour shifts, with barely any food or water, in blistering temperatures.
Ironically, once at the car wash he was comparatively safe — he was marked as someone else’s property as surely as if he’d been branded. The asma boys tormented him with this knowledge at every opportunity.
“They hated us,” Ikuenobe recalled. “If you come near them, slap! Sometimes you don’t even do anything, they’ll —” he mimed being grabbed by the collar, “and blow gunshot near your ear like this.”
Am I going to die like this? he often wondered.
Sometimes desperate, Ikuenobe would use the few Arab phrases he’d picked up.
“Asma, maloush. Fi maya?” he’d ask after washing their cars. Please, boss, give me water.
“Go fuck your mom. You stink of shit, get out,” would come the reply, as the men mockingly pulled up their shirts to cover their noses.
For many of the estimated 800,000 black African migrants and refugees in Libya, the situation is just as perilous. “If you’re dark-skinned and you’re from sub-Saharan Africa, … you’re at a very, very high risk of being assaulted, exploited, and detained,” said Hanan Salah, a Libya researcher with Human Rights Watch. “Libya is an accountability-free zone at the moment. Which police station is even going to take this complaint?”
One day blurred into another day for Ikuenobe, until three months had gone. He felt ever more paralyzed by his situation. His new owner refused to tell him how near he was to earning his freedom. Then one morning, Israel sent Ikuenobe on an errand. Ikuenobe considered it a breakthrough — it meant he was trusted. Perhaps he had paid off the arbitrary sum he owed?
Ikuenobe went completely still for a moment as he recalled what came next. “I had just arrived so I didn’t understand — Libya, it’s a place that you can even sell your brother. You really need to shine your eye because anybody can put pepper in it at any time,” he said, using a Nigerian phrase that means you have to constantly be on your guard.
Israel had not sent him out to run an errand. He had arranged for Ikuenobe to be snatched by a group of asma boys as soon as he stepped outside, pocketing the money in exchange for passing him into the hands of a violent militia. Ikuenobe was taken to another dreary compound in Sabha, and the now-familiar routine unfolded: He was tied down and beaten as he made the call back home. “I begged my family they should just settle [pay out] so I can cross [to Europe]. I had to cross.”
Ikuenobe’s family ended up paying the asma boys for his release, a sum that included his passage across the Mediterranean. This time, he was shoved into the back of a Toyota Camry — the same car he’d once loved cruising in when he’d had money back home — with three other men. They took turns praying aloud to keep themselves from passing out on the 480-mile-long journey to the coastal city of Sabratha, whose pretty whitewashed houses belie its reality as a watery graveyard for thousands of people trying to get to Europe.
Just after sunset one day in March 2017, Ikuenobe stood on the shore of a beach and gazed across the blue stretch separating him from Europe.
At last, he thought, his nightmare was coming to an end.
But in the 16 months since Ikuenobe arrived in Libya, the political tides had turned drastically. In August 2015, when he had first reached Sabha, the numbers fleeing across the Mediterranean had surged to historic highs, driven in part by the war in Syria. The dangers of the journey were illustrated in the last photo of Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian toddler who washed up facedown on a Mediterranean beach, his red shirt clinging to his tiny torso. Politicians across Europe seized on public outrage to say “never again” — but their way of doing so was to make sure fewer boats left North Africa in the first place, no matter the cost.
So when Ikuenobe and roughly two dozen others boarded a rubber dinghy, they had no way of knowing they were sailing straight into Europe’s “stop the boats” policy.
Last year, the African Union began to take a bigger role, which has helped. “They started paying attention to the fact it’s their own people suffering,” an IOM official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. It became easier, for example, for trapped people to obtain papers to allow them to leave the country. That helped some 20,000 people return to their country of origin aboard IOM-run flights from Libya.
“Voluntary returns isn’t being presented as a solution to address the current situation,” Belbesi, head of the IOM Libya, told BuzzFeed News. “It’s just one of the solutions that are available for people that are stranded in the country.”
Many don’t want to go home. For those fleeing war or repressive governments, Libya is not much better or worse than going home. A handful of African countries are accepting “third-country resettlements,” but experts say it’s just a stopgap solution until those who really need asylum can be given viable routes to do so. Although the EU has successfully lobbied to close down 25 Libyan detention centers this year, no North African country has accepted controversial proposals to set up official migrant-processing centers.
With so many people alongside him in the camp, Ikuenobe had little hope of being rescued, and spent most of his time in a bleak fog.
But one day is etched in his mind. On Wednesday, Nov. 22, last year, the door to Ikuenobe’s cell was thrown open, and two officials began reading out a list of names — those whose return applications had been processed.
Crouched in a corner, Ikuenobe barely raised his head as the list of names grew longer. In an act of self-preservation, he didn’t dare hope.
When his name was called out, he staggered to his feet in a daze. He was physically wasted from the months of grinding work, his mind clouded by the constant trauma.
Two years and three months after leaving Nigeria, he was finally going back home.
Ikuenobe stands at the gate of his sister’s house in Benin City.
For many, the euphoria of going home is short-lived. In Nigeria, returnees find themselves deeper in debt — often having saddled their own families with additional debts, too — and with even fewer prospects than ever. Rather than facing the shame of returning empty-handed, many people attempt another trip to Europe, often using a different smuggler who offers an “updated” route.
The lack of government resources available to help returnees or to stop others from wanting to leave is compounded by the fact that many returnees don’t want to help with prosecutions of people smugglers. “You can’t prosecute and do humanitarian work at the same time. People won’t even come near you if you’re prosecuting aggressively — we’re talking about their mothers, fathers, people close to them,” said Yinka Omorogbe, attorney general of Edo state, where around three-quarters of families have sent at least one member abroad.
Ikuenobe has made it his personal mission to stem the flow of Nigerians abroad. Still unable to find a decent job, he spends his days visiting schools and churches to share his experiences, borrowing money from his sister to cover his transportation fees. But his lectures often fall on deaf ears, and Ikuenobe understands that, too.
“I don’t tell them not to migrate. Migration is good. But they shouldn’t go the Libya route — they should apply for a visa, legitimately. These traffickers, they can poison your mind.”
He usually drives his point home by showing students a picture of when he first returned from Libya — gaunt, his eyes hollow, and cheeks sunken. A stunned silence always follows.
After months searching, he recently found out what happened to one of the three friends he had stepped out with to buy water in Sabha. He learned via a fellow returnee that after shooting the man in the leg, the asma boys had dragged him to their ghetto. For months, the man’s parents kept sending money, hoping he’d be released. They didn’t know their son had bled to death a few days after he was shot. ●
A previous version of this story said Trump described the CNN video of the slave market as “fake news.” He in fact called CNN “fake news,” but did not make specific reference to the video.
The name of the organization Anti-Slavery International was misstated in an earlier version of this story.