Looking Out: Slavery

Slavery still exists. The treatment of humans as property is not over. The world was reminded of this disgusting reality when a CNN video surfaced in November, showing a slave auction in Libya, a failed state in an on-again-off-again civil war. The sheer lawlessness of Libya allowed for slavery to go on in the open, with auctions we usually see in movies about the antebellum South. The footage is undeniable, and the value of life is so awfully low: The bidding for a person opens at $400.

The video of mostly West Africans being auctioned in Libya led to international outcry followed by a flurry of articles and protests. But there were warnings before November. Back in April 2017, the International Organization for Migration sounded the alarm on Libyan slave markets where kidnapped African migrants were being traded. The report received some coverage, but not to the extent of the video, nor did it cause similar outrage. Because people simply do not want to believe such a universally despised institution still exists. We feel guilty for having done nothing while people are being sold off. So, we choose the easier option of ignoring ongoing slavery and pretending that it ended. Yet slavery becomes impossible to ignore when we see a human auction unfold on our phones and computer screens.

The news about Libya should not only lead to protesting Libya and bringing about an end to the disgusting slave trade there, but also as an opportunity to remind ourselves that slavery happens elsewhere, too. And it will continue to happen and fly under the radar if we do not talk about it.

Slave ownership was legal in Mauritania until 1981, and was not a criminal offense until 2007, though to this day only one person has been convicted. One to four percent of the population of Mauritania are slaves. In North Korea, which is number one in the prevalence index of the Global Slavery Index, slavery is practiced by the government.

The situation is particularly dire in the Gulf states. In the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, mostly South Asian slaves are exploited and abused. The cases range from domestic servants to construction workers. These countries of immense oil wealth trap migrants in slavery conditions through a system of employer sponsorship, the kafala system. It allows for people to be abused, traded and work in fatal conditions, like in building Qatar’s football stadiums for the 2022 World Cup. Thus, it is the pinnacle of hypocrisy for Al Jazeera articles to criticize the Libya video when Al Jazeera, a Qatari state-owned outlet, has never and will never print a word about slavery in Qatar, or elsewhere in the Gulf.

Almost a month after the Libyan auction video, slavery has not ended in Libya, or in the Gulf, or North Korea, or Mauritania, or anywhere else. The only way this will change is if we know and talk about the fact that slavery exists. Make the Libyan auction video the beginning, not the end, of a frank discussion around modern slavery.