Modern Slavery: A Case Study of Libya

Libya is both a transit and destination country for migrants originating from various African countries travelling to Europe. With more than 90 percent of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Libya, the country has been considered the main departure point in North Africa.

Migrants who plan to cross the Mediterranean to Europe and those who seek the country as a final destination for employment, are highly vulnerable to forced labour and human trafficking whilst in, and transiting to, Libya. They often face increased levels of violence and human rights violations including physical and sexual assault, abduction for ransom and arbitrary killings. Within these migrant communities, female migrants are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault by armed groups and smugglers along the routes to and through Libya. Migrant women from Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Cote d’Ivoire, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and other Sub-Saharan countries are often subjected to forced labour and recruited into prostitution in different ways: fraudulent recruitment, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or non-payment of wages and debt bondage.

Trafficking: An Outline

The United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime defines Trafficking as:

“The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”

Thus, trafficking consists of three fundamental elements: The act (what is done): recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons. The means (how it is done): threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability or giving payments or benefits to a person to control the victim. The purpose (why it is done): for the purpose of exploitation which includes prostitution, other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or similar practices, servitude or removal of organs. Both the aforementioned definition of trafficking and the constituent elements should be taken into consideration when examining whether circumstances amount to trafficking or not.

Trafficking involves the movement of persons from their place of residence, to other places within their communities or to other countries, for the purpose of exploitation. This exploitation often takes various forms, including: the sexual exploitation of women and children and the labour exploitation of men, women and children being forced into domestic servitude, the agricultural sector, as well as working in the textile and construction industries. In addition, children may be exploited as beggars, to smuggle drugs or be sold into adoption. Furthermore, women and young girls may be exploited through fraudulent marriages.

Trafficking is thus an illegal trade where humans are a commodity. Various factors contribute to the increase in trafficking, such as: war, displacement, income inequality, demand for cheap labour or services and widespread corruption.

Trafficking has been recognised by scholars as the modern form of slavery.

Migrant Smuggling: An Outline

Migrant smuggling is distinct from human trafficking. Smuggling occurs when a person voluntarily agrees with a smuggler to illegally cross an international border and enter another country. According to the Smuggling Protocol, smuggling involves the use of fraudulent documents and transportation across borders.

Smuggled persons can be vulnerable to human trafficking or other crimes due to their illegal existence in a foreign country and the owing of huge debts to their smugglers. Smuggled persons can be exposed to human trafficking either whilst in transit or in the destination country. Importantly, not all smuggled persons face human trafficking.

Libya: Mapping Abuse

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 161,010 migrants have arrived in Europe by sea since January 2018, most of whom had departed from Libya. Pivotally, Libya has been at the forefront of the vast migration flow from Africa to Europe. The IOM has also reported that 348,372 migrants and asylum seekers are currently present in Libya.

Migrants and asylum seekers are highly vulnerable to human rights infringements by Libyan officials and security forces. Moreover, they are often exposed to abuse by armed groups and smugglers. In November 2017, CNN broadcasted a video showing a slave auction in Libya and in so doing highlighted some of the ways in which migrants and asylum seekers have been exploited. It was also estimated that around 20,000 people were being held in Libyan detention centers which are run by the Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM)- a division of the Ministry of Interior. These migrants experience horrific conditions whilst in detention, including lack of access to medical care, being subject to torture, sexual violence, beatings and extortion. The number of centers controlled by DCIM is estimated to be between 17-36 centers, but for the most-part centers across Libya are run by armed groups and criminal gangs as a way to facilitate the smuggling trade.

It was reported by Human Rights Watch (HRW) that Italy and the European Union have invested in providing training and material support to the Libyan coast guard, in order for them to locate boats in their territorial waters and return migrants back to Libya. Despite these training efforts, when these migrants are brought back to Libya, they are frequently taken to detention centers where they face abuse and widespread human rights violations, as aforementioned.

Formally, the Libyan government has criminalised the illegal entry into its territory; however, there is a lack of domestic legislation for the protection of asylum seekers. The result of the legal limbo is the mass arbitrary detention of migrants.

Aside from the struggle to control the Libyan borders, the government lacks the capacity to combat trafficking. Pivotally, the domestic law in Libya does not prohibit all forms of trafficking in persons. Legislation does prohibit trafficking of women for the purposes of prostitution, sexual exploitation and child sex trafficking but makes no direct reference to forced labour. The penalties for sex trafficking and slavery range from 1 to 10 years imprisonment for the former and 5 to 15 years for the latter; which makes the penalties for sex trafficking disproportionate when compared with other crimes such as rape.

The Libyan government has neither the structures nor the capacity to protect vulnerable victims of trafficking such as women in prostitution, girls forced sexual exploitation, or the abuse facing street children. The government has also treated victims of trafficking as illegal migrants and has as such exposed them to detention, punishment and deportation. Migrants are continuing to face arbitrary detention in horrific conditions of ill-treatment and sexual assault in the official detention centers of Libya.

The government has not formally taken any steps to prevent human trafficking. They do not have the capacity to stop officials or armed groups from forcing migrants to work. In addition, they have not adopted any measures to combat the recruitment of children by militia groups, and furthermore the government does not have a national body or a plan to combat trafficking in persons.

International & Regional Responses

The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights has condemned the acts of trafficking and slavery taking place in Libya. Libya is a party to the African Charter, however such acts, which are targeting African migrants, constitute a severe violation to the provisions of the African Charter, in particular Articles 2,3,5,6 and 12.

Libya has also signed and ratified the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime on 13 November 2001 and 24 September 2004 respectively. Pivotally, Libya is not party to the 1951 Geneva Convention and lacks domestic law on the asylum process and protection of vulnerable migrants.

According to the UNHCR – the UN refugee agency – an agreement was reached between the organisation and Libyan authorities in November 2017 to host people who were in need of international protection. Nevertheless, there remains limited progress with regard to the presence of UNHCR operations in Libya. The UNHCR estimates that as of 1 December 2017, 44,306 migrants were registered as refugees and asylum seekers, but the number in reality is considered to be much higher. The IOM assisted in the voluntary return of around 19,370 persons to their countries of origin. In November 2017, the UNHCR also transferred 25 migrants to Niger in order to be resettled in France and 162 persons to Italy in December in the same year.

The government in Libya still has a lot to do to combat trafficking, but is faced with a lack of capacity to do so. In this respect, cooperation between the countries of origin, destination countries and Libya as a transit country is a must in order to develop tools to counter such heinous crimes.


African Commission for Human and people’s rights, Press Release on the Trafficking in Persons and Slavery in Libya (22 December 2017), available at: [accessed 22 April 2018]

Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 2017/18 – Libya, (22 February 2018), available at: [accessed 22 April 2018]

Amnesty International, Libya’s wretched web of collusion, (12 December 2017), available at: [accessed 22 April 2018]

Human Rights Watch, World Report 2018 – Libya, available at: [accessed 22 April 2018]

United nations General Assembly, Resolution adopted by the General Assembly, 55/25. United nations Convention against Transitional Organized crime, fifty-five session, 8 January 2001, available at: [accessed 19 April 2018]

United States Department of State, 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report – Libya, 27 June 2017, available at: [accessed 19 April 2018]

UNODC, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Combating Trafficking in persons in accordance with the principles of Islamic Law, New York, 2010, available at: [accessed 19 April 2018]

UNODC, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Human Trafficking, available at: [accessed 19 April 2018]

US department of State, office to monitor and combat trafficking in persons, Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling: Understanding the Difference (Factsheet, June 2017).

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