Liberating African slaves – again

The discovery of a slave auction in Libya has stirred both European and African leaders into action. Now they must deal with the mental chains that pushed African migrants into the clutches of smugglers.

Abdoulaye Dosso, an Ivorian migrant who voluntarily returned from Libya, talks with friends in Abidjan, Ivory Coast Nov. 25.


Many schoolchildren in Africa have been taught about the history of the slave trade and how it ended with a universal appreciation of human rights. Those lessons must have been very much in thought during a summit of 83 heads of state from Europe and Africa on Nov. 29-30. The gathering was set to focus on youth development in Africa. Instead, it turned into emergency planning to end the open buying and selling of slaves in Libya.

Many African leaders have been in shock in recent days after a CNN video showed a slave auction in Libya run by smugglers taking advantage of migrants trying to reach Europe. The slaves were being sold for as little as $400, either to be exploited as day laborers or used to extract ransom payments from their families back home. “Some Nigerians were being sold like goats,” said Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari.

At least 400,000 African migrants are living in dozens of repressive camps in Libya hoping to make the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean. But they’ve been blocked by efforts of the European Union and the Libyan Coast Guard to make the crossing. Many EU leaders, worried about the rise of anti-immigration sentiments in their countries, are desperate to cut off the flow of Africans to the Continent.

Thankfully, both the EU and African leaders meeting in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, recognized the need to again assert the basic rights of liberty and initiated plans to end the auctions and return thousands of migrants to their home country. They also agreed on ways to resettle the migrants and break up the criminal networks bringing them to North Africa. The United Nations promised to take the smugglers to the International Court of Justice.

This swift action might help the two continents better deal with the fundamental issues of mass migration. Africa needs more aid to improve living conditions while Europe must come up with better legal ways to admit more Africans. Africa is expected to more than double its population by 2050, creating even more pressure to migrate unless there is rapid development.

Physical slavery in Africa may again be ended after this summit. But the mental chains about economic growth and opportunity need to be broken. Perhaps the next EU-Africa summit can return to the topic of youth development.

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