Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

The transatlantic slave trade ended in Britain in 1807 with the passage of The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. It was not until 1865, after the end of the American civil war, that slavery was abolished through the passage of the thirteenth amendment. This did not however mean that former slaves were free. Involuntary servitude was still legally imposed as punishment for a crime, and former slave states enacted a series of racially discriminatory laws known as the ‘Black Codes’ which recreated slavery in all but name.

Slavery was an utterly barbaric practice that is unthinkable in the 21st century. Why then is it still happening?

Back in 2017, a video emerged of black men being sold at auction in Libya. Ever since this emerged reports of such horrors have been flowing out of North Africa on a semi-routinely basis. As recently as May 2020, footage of open air markets selling men into the slave trade were circulated.

How has this came to be in a world that is getting smaller every day?

The answer: the global refugee crisis. Due to extreme poverty, civil wars and inhabitable conditions, there has been an ever increasing flow of refugees desperate to make it to Europe. The most common way to do this? Through Libya and into Europe through Italy and Greece. Over the last three years an estimated 450,000 people have uprooted their lives to seek asylum and a better life in Europe. However, the Libyan coastguard, funded by the EU, has cracked down on people smuggling; this means thousands are ending up in detention centres in Libya. The people in these facilities are kept in cages like animals and suffer abhorrent human rights abuses, with reports of robbery, rape and murder. It has become a place where slave traders come to abduct vulnerable people and sell them into the modern day slave trade.

After the ousting of Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has been in a constant state of civil war. It is ruled by three different region factions – the western-supported transitional government in the capital Tripoli, a conservative Islamic government also in Tripoli, and an anti-Islamic government in the east. There is no rule of law and it is effectively a failed state. The lack of government control, combined with low population density means that people smugglers and kidnappers are able to evade any sort of consequence. There has been international outcry and condemnation of the practice, and an investigation by UN migration agency the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), yet the trade continues. Amnesty International has asserted that European countries are complicit for the atrocities happening in Libya due to destabilising actions in 2011.

Libya is not the only country to have a modern day slave trade, with an estimated 10-20% of the population of Mauritania enslaved. It remains one of the only countries where you can still be born into slavery, with mostly black people facing a lifetime of abuse. Likewise during the Sudanese civil war there was a resurgence of the slave trade, with the government accused of supporting slave-taking militias in the country.

Whilst these practices are absolutely abhorrent and have no place in modern society, white Westerners have to take a step back and look at their complicity in this. These African nations would not be in such a desperate position had it not been for colonialism. The Western intervention in Libya, removing a head of state when there was no viable alternative, destabilised the country. The worsening climate crisis is making large parts of Africa inhospitable. Instead of turning refugees and asylum seekers away and forcing them into the modern day slave trade, we should reach out and help. It is a moral duty, and blood is on our hands if we do not.