Modern-day slave markets in Libya were on the lips of African and European leaders at the opening of a joint two-day summit of their continental bodies in Abidjan – culminating in a last-minute emergency meeting on the matter on Wednesday night.
German chancellor Angela Merkel, who jetted out straight after the meeting on Wednesday night to tend to her post-election troubles at home, told journalists that she would meet with French president Emmanuel Macron, Libyan prime minister Fayez Serraj, and representatives of the Niger, Chad, the United Nations, as well as the European Union andthe African Union.
They will look at ways to help the UN refugee agency UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration with access to the detention camps in Libya, where people have reportedly been auctioned like slaves. Sexual abuse, starvation and murder also reportedly take place in these camps.
The emergency meeting followed on a trilateral between AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, and UN secretary general António Guterres, where they agreed to create a joint EU-AU-UN task force to “save and protect the lives of migrants and refugees along the routes and in particular inside Libya”.
They also agreed to accelerate the “assisted voluntary returns to countries of origin, and the resettlement of those in need of international protection”.
The Pan-African Parliament and the European Parliament also vowed to send a mission to investigate the reports.
Leaders were unanimous in their condemnation of the “crime from another era” during opening speeches at the fifth three-yearly African Union and European Union summit in Abidjan on Wednesday afternoon.
The devil, however, is in the detail of what exact cure was needed. A South African official said the Libyans, as well as the Egyptians, who were against the “naming and shaming” of countries, objected to the issue of slavery being on the summit agenda. “Even this morning [Tuesday] the Libyans were circulating a document to say there is no proof of people being sold into slavery. They were accusing CNN of fake reports.” He said Libya needed help in rebuilding its collapsed state so that these problems could end.
The source also said that there were accusations that Europe was giving billions of euros to “militias” to operate in detention camps to ensure people did not cross the ocean. This even extended to “border management” in West Africa, where free movement of citizens was being restricted. The region should be a borderless zone for goods and people.
“We are seeing Africans abusing Africans but Europe is quiet about it,” he said. “Every time there is a moral argument, you will see euros being passed over the table.”
He said Africa was advocating for “voluntary returns and re-integration”, while Europe was emphasising “re-admission”.
It was hard to guess the underlying tension from the smiles displayed at the summit opening session, however. But President of the European Council Donald Tusk’s words hinted at the delicate diplomacy at play. He said the worst leaders could do was “start the blame game”, and urged “common solutions to allow people to live in dignity”. Libya needed help from the AU and the EU, not condemnation, he said.
Mahamat in turn said illegal migration was a “common challenge” and a “shared responsibility” between the AU and the EU. “I speak to you horrified and haunted as much of the world by the images of African slaves auctioned on the territory,” he said.
Guterres called on countries to manage their borders in a “responsible and sovereign manner”. This should, however, happen with international law in mind. People should also be able to see a future for themselves in their home countries, he said.
South Africa’s department of international relations and cooperation in a statement on Wednesday urged the Libyan authorities to publish the outcome of its investigation into the atrocities. “We further urge the Libyan authorities to do everything in their power to improve the conditions of African migrants in the camps meant to house migrants on their territory,” it said.
President Jacob Zuma was also expected to speak out about the issue in closed summit sessions.