A grainy video aired on CNN last month shows a group of men being auctioned off to new owners, to begin life as slaves.
The auctioneer praises their muscled bodies and says they are “strong boys fit for farm work”. Others, he says, would make good diggers. He is only trying to fetch the best price, and finally manages to sell two men for a measly Sh41,000 each.
The entire scene is straight from a dystopian existence, where the world has seemingly made no progress from the chattel sale and ownership of people that marked the last century.
The only difference is that the men up for sale in Libya are not chained together with heavy manacles; instead, life itself has imprisoned them. They seem worn down by the vagaries of life and resigned to fate, no matter how cruel.
This is the reality of slavery in the 21st Century. A vice thought confined to dark websites on the internet, where transactions are quick and anonymous, is captured on video playing out brazenly to the rhythm of an auctioneer’s voice, the buyers eager to outbid one another for prime human flesh.
Many of the enslaved men are economic and socio-political migrants from West Africa, who left behind miserable lives marked by poverty and violence to brave the treacherous journey across the Sahara into North Africa and, hopefully, cross the Mediterranean Sea in rickety boats to finally make it alive into Europe.
But many of those attempting to get into Europe also hail from the Horn of Africa — Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia — fleeing hunger, conflict and political persecution in an attempt at changing the narratives of their lives. Europe is the new American Dream, re-imagined: A mythical land where suffering ends and new lives filled with meaningful work and fair wages begin.
Data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) shows that, as at September, 114,000 refugees had crossed the Mediterranean into Italy while 2,655 people have died or gone missing at sea this year alone. The statistics do not capture those who died in transit on land or were stuck in Libya at the mercy of slave traders and traffickers, unable to proceed to Europe as planned or return home.
Those headed to Libya from the Horn have three possible migratory routes: The East, through Yemen; the North, through Ethiopia; and the South, through Kenya and on to Sudan.
The UN says it costs Sh500,000 for a person to be smuggled from Somalia to Libya. And since many of the refugees cannot afford the exorbitant fee, they are put on a “travel now, pay later” programme with the agreement that they will work to pay off the smugglers once they reach Europe and get a job. But they usually never get to Europe, their journey ending in misery in North African human pounds.
“Once in Libya, the refugees are forced into slavery and sexual servitude, which they are told is to pay for their passage,” said Christa Odinga, a project manager at UNHCR. “They are not given a choice about this, and it is at this point that many are trafficked and sold as chattel.”
She added that, due to the known dangers of Libya, many refugees have started going the Egypt route — which is even more perilous because there have been cases of organ trafficking.
Another popular destination for smuggled Africans has been, bizzarely, Yemen, which is in the throes of war and a cholera outbreak that has been described as “the worst in the history of the world”. Many who flee to the Middle East country use Djibouti as their port of departure and then cross the Red Sea.
The irony is that thousands of Yemenis are making the trip in the opposite direction — crossing into Djibouti as they flee conflict and disease from their country. According to the UN, Djibouti hosts 40,000 Yemeni refugees.
So why is Yemen still so attractive to Africans, with latest statistics putting the number of those who have gone to the country this year at 120,000?
“Smugglers lie to the refugees that Yemen is a great transition point to the rest of Middle East or Europe because the Yemeni government does not keep too close a watch on its borders due to the war,” said UNHCR consultant Mans Nyberg.
It is true that Yemeni borders are porous, but it is also true that the prevailing conflict has created a breeding ground for lawlessness and criminality. Bandits lurk for the refugees at the shore and, immediately they step off the boat, they are kidnapped and promptly sold into forced labour. Those who resist are shot. As in Libya, there is little government redress for the migrants, whose only chance of redemption is escaping from their slave masters and fleeing to UN-run refugee camps.
But then, there are the lucky ones who, by hook or crook, make it into the promised land — Europe.
“They get to the shores of Italy in great physical and psychological distress and many of them suffer post-traumatic stress disorder for years to come,” said Ms Odinga. “Some turn to alcohol and substance abuse to try to get through it.
“And there have been suicides.”
Once in Europe, life does not automatically get better for them. Many dock in Italy, where they are supposed to register with Italian officials and apply for asylum. But many choose not to, instead going underground and getting in touch with smugglers in Europe who then help them to go to other countries in the European Union (EU), where they believe they stand a better chance of asylum and jobs.
However, in recent years many European countries are closing their borders to refugees, citing huge financial constraints and the ever-present security risk. Migrants from Africa are also fighting for space in a Europe already unwilling to accommodate hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria.
The misconception that immigrants and refugees are a threat to security has seen public perception turn against them and heavily influence policy decisions in many European countries. The Brexit vote, for instance, was partly fuelled by British mistrust of refugees and promises by pro-Brexit politicians that leaving the EU would mean tighter restrictions on entry to Britain.
While countries such as Germany have remained relatively friendly to refugees and asylum seekers, they, too, are grappling with increasingly growing migrant numbers and resistance from citizens. Last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s popularity slumped due to her determination to keep German borders open to refugees.
The odds against refugees pile everyday. While harsh conditions at home make it impossible for them to stay, the journey to a better life becomes more perilous and the dream destination increasingly hostile — a set of conditions that has sparked one of the greatest human rights crises of our times.
And despite the UN’s intensive campaigns aimed at raising awareness about the danger of attempting to get into Europe illegally, it will take much more than a few songs and workshops to stop the deluge. Perhaps if young people had more employment opportunities at home, if their governments could resolve conflicts that precipitate into protracted violent clashes, perhaps then the smugglers would run out of business and no one would be willing to risk dying in the desert or drowning at sea in pursuit of a ‘better’ life.