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War-torn Libya has become a 'torture archipelago' for migrants sold into slavery

Migrants arriving at IOM's Transit Center in Agadez, Niger.
Amanda Nero | IOM
Migrants arriving at IOM's Transit Center in Agadez, Niger.

Wracked by civil war, terrorism and political instability, Libya is now grappling with the resurgence of a pernicious old problem: an active slave trade that sees countless migrants forced into a life of exploitation and abuse.

On a yearly basis, thousands of desperate African refugees attempt to make their way to Europe, fleeing instability in their home countries, but many end up exploited by modern-day slave traders. According to an April report by the UN Migration Agency, North Africans are held in parking lots and private prisons in the oil-rich country, and eventually sold on the black market for only hundreds of dollars.

"We talk to returning migrants every day and we hear this stories every day — stories of exploitation, psychological, physical and sexual abuse," Giuseppe Loprete, Niger-based chief of mission of the UN International Organization for Migration, told CNBC recently.

For thousands of migrants paying to be smuggled out of North Africa, Libya remains the only route to Europe, and is a "black hole" where many disappear into exploitation, he said, adding: "The situation is only getting worse."

The going price for kidnapped migrants ranges from $200 to $500 in Libya, according to survivors who have returned to the IOM's transit center. In the last few months, the organization has arranged for the repatriation of 1,500 migrants back to their homes, which include Nigeria, Senegal and Gambia.

Libya is a gateway to Italy from Africa, with an estimated 25,000 migrants having crossed the Mediterranean Sea this year. Although Italy has taken measures to stem the flow of migrants from Libya, IOM data suggest crossings are on pace to challenge the nearly 182,000 migrants who landed in Italy last year.

"Migrants who go to Libya while trying to get to Europe, have no idea of the torture archipelago that awaits them just over the border," Leonard Doyle, chief IOM spokesman in Geneva, said in a recent statement. African migrants "become commodities to be bought, sold and discarded when they have no more value," he added.

'Terrible situation'

African migrants interviewed by the IOM have provided harrowing tales of smugglers capitalizing on their misfortunes. One man from Senegal was transported to a parking lot in southwestern Libya by his smuggler, where he witnessed a slave market taking place — and some were even held as hostages. Migrants from all over sub-Saharan Africa were being bought and sold by Libyan nationals, with the support of helpers hailing from Ghana and Nigeria.

Although it's not clear just how large the Libyan slave market is, Loprete said "there is a huge business here and we have underestimated" its size.

"It is a terrible situation thriving in the shadows created by the larger conflict in Libya," Eric Pelofsky, a National Security Council official under former President Barack Obama, told CNBC.

Conditions have worsened since 2011, when former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown. The festering conflict has left a power vacuum that's been filled by warring factions and ISIS, which has fomented violent struggles in Libya, Iraq and Syria.

Around 200,000 Libyans were displaced during the onset of the Libyan war, IOM data show, adding to the instability seen in five of the six countries that border Libya and are themselves roiled by political unrest and civil war. Prior efforts to bring the Libyan conflict to a close were stymied by regional rivalries.

"It was very difficult to reach the necessary alignment of our partners in the region," said Pelofsky, now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

In a recent press conference with the Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, President Donald Trump sought to play down a strategic interest in Libya beyond eradicating terrorism.

"I do not see a role in Libya. I think the United States has right now enough roles," Trump said at the time. "We're in a role everywhere. So I do not see that. I do see a role in getting rid of ISIS."

Pelofsky said the U.S. needs to renew its diplomatic leadership on Libya, even as Trump suggested that he was not interested. "Instead Trump said the United States would focus on counterterrorism" Pelofsky told CNBC.

"Any long-term reduction in terrorism depends on political progress on the ground, so our diplomacy is critical," he added.