Migration to Europe Faces a Continuous Threat from Slave Networks

Erika Fedorova
Migration to Europe Faces a Continuous Threat from Slave Networks
Rescued migrants in a detention centre in Tripoli, Libya Source: CNN

Since 2015, almost two million migrants have arrived in Europe’s Mediterranean countries by land and sea. This includes sub-Saharan African migration from countries like Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan. However, this is also the group most disproportionately affected by emergent slave networks along the routes to Europe. Thousands of these migrants’ journeys are derailed by criminal enterprises which force them into exploitation (Mafu, 2019).

Instead of reaching their desired destinations, migrants are subjected to a multiplicity of human rights abuses, the most extreme being slavery. Libya has become a notorious hub for slave trading along the course to Europe, however even countries within the continent have posed a danger to incoming migrants. Italy has also become home to criminal groups seeking out migrants to exploit. There is therefore little contrast between European criminal enterprises and those in Libya when it comes to the mistreatment of migrants. The risks associated with each transit point between a source country and a destination country highlight the lack of security and therefore heightened vulnerability individuals experience as migrants.


Shocking news of the Libyan slave trade first received global outcry in late 2017. A secretly filmed slave auction in Tripoli exposed the selling of sub-Saharan African migrants to anonymous buyers, who would use and exploit them for their own economic gains. Later discoveries indicated that migrants en route to Europe were being trapped in Libya, where they underwent severe dehumanizing treatment, including torture, sexual violence, and forced servitude. While male migrants tended to be sold into hard labour, female migrants were favoured for sex trafficking.

Libya became a crucial stop along the way for migrants moving from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe via the Central Mediterranean route. For many of them, however, their journey would end there, as smugglers promising to get them to Europe would instead sell them to Libyan criminal gangs. Smugglers conspiring with these gangs force migrants to pay the debts for their journeys by working as labourers for their ‘owners’. Volatile conditions fostered in Libya’s failed state, following the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi, means the country lacks the stable governance and organisation to mitigate and prevent such industries. Vulnerable migrants arriving in Libya are therefore prone to further violation. Where powerful organisations exist, they are often responsible for industries like the slave trade. From these criminal enterprises, many are militia opposition groups, associated with larger organisations like ISIS, who conspire with smugglers to capture migrants and reduce them to commodities.

While the UN-backed Government of National Accord is the internationally recognized governing body in Libya, the country’s continued position as a failed state means that it has little power to dismantle the slave networks. Although peace plans between the western GNA and opposing Eastern Government have progressed within the last month, it is still uncertain whether these will ultimately succeed and lead to a government that can take control of the country’s illegal enterprises. Currently, the extent of the GNA’s ability to prevent abuse to migrants in Libya has been the initiation of rescue and repatriation operations, in cooperation with international bodies.

Migration to Europe Faces a Continuous Threat from Slave Networks
President of France Emmanuel Macron (left) and Prime Minister of the GNA in Libya Fayez Al-Sarraj (right), 2017 Source: Associated Press

Following the 2017 discovery of the slave trade, international responses reflected the urgency posed by the crisis. European and African leaders coordinated repatriation efforts and launched plans to dismantle the slave trade, relocating migrants from Libya and, in many instances, returning them to their home countries. In 2018, the United Nations also began to sanction smugglers responsible for aiding and operating the slave networks. The GNA relies on this global assistance and outrage; partly due to its conviction that the international community bears some responsibility for the illicit industry pervading Libya, but also partly because it lacks the manpower to do it on its own. This, however, indicates a bleak future for migrants passing through the country as such outrage is dying down, and with it, the initiatives aimed at rescuing rising numbers of migrants from captivity.

The European Union has since reinstated its hard-line approach to migration. The Union’s determination to limit migration from Africa especially, spearheaded by countries like Greece, Hungary and Italy, has led to the transmission of greater power to authorities such as the Libyan Coast Guard. Responsible for detaining migrants in Libya and preventing them from reaching Europe, the Guard ultimately traps migrants in the volatile conditions that endanger their human rights further. Until they are returned to their source countries, migrants continue to be prone to exploitation in a lawless state. Once returned to their source countries, they are brought back to the socioeconomic conditions that drove them to leave in the first place.


Migration to Europe Faces a Continuous Threat from Slave Networks
A migrant worker camp in Cassibile, Sicily. Source: The Guardian

Migrants who succeed in passing through the Mediterranean are still at risk of enslavement on European ground. Southern Italy has become notorious for its criminal gangs and their exploitation of migrants, particularly those arriving from Africa and the Middle East. Migrants are put to work on farms across the region, harvesting produce for very low wages and being subjected to poor working and living conditions. As in Libya, female migrants arriving in southern Italy are in danger of being sold into sex trafficking, with some forced into prostitution further across the continent. Violent and sexual abuse often accompanies these varying situations; hence, while not directly manifested in the form of slave auctions, Italy presents a danger of yet another form of slavery that preys on vulnerable migrants.

In many instances, farm labour in southern Italy is organized through contracted middlemen. These contractors are principally part of Italian organized crime and allow farmers to retain greater revenue by taking on the responsibility of ‘hiring’ desperate migrants. Without formal residency, migrants do not receive any worker protections and only meagre pay, but often have no choice but to accept any immediate work offered to them. Many migrants arrive in Italy already in debt, often to the smugglers that got them there. Desperate to pay off their debts, migrants are faced with almost no way out of this bondage as recurrent instances have shown employers withholding wages and/or deducting high percentages to cover living and travel expenses. Many migrants also have their documents withheld, further hindering the possibility of escaping this exploitation. This is yet another example of the heightened vulnerability that makes migrants more susceptible to the exploitation of criminal organisations, who are easily able to bypass EU and national union labour standards.

Migration to Europe Faces a Continuous Threat from Slave Networks
Prime Minister of Italy Giuseppe Conte speaking at the European Parliament, 2019 Source: European Parliament

Southern Italy’s farming practices have been openly acknowledged by Italian authorities, however the recognition has often failed to fully disband the enslavement of migrants in the country. Previous attempts to further outlaw these practices have been ignored by criminal gangs. Although proposals to increase the crackdown on agricultural contractors and their employment of migrants have been established in 2016, they have made little progress. Even Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte recognized the weakness of the initiative and the need to intensify the efforts. Most recently, the government has been engaging in efforts to regularise migrants and grant them temporary residency in Italy as a result of the strain created by Covid-19 on Italy’s agricultural sector. Although this should lead to migrants being afforded greater worker protections, they are still expected to cater as the cheaper foreign labour that the country is currently in need of. Furthermore, recent reports suggest that regularisation efforts have done little to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on migrant farm workers, as the pandemic has led to substantially poorer working conditions.


It is not just on the road to Europe where migrants and refugees fall victim to slavery. Following the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, many Syrian refugees in neighbouring Lebanon have also been forced into slave labour. This includes child labour and is accompanied by sexual exploitation and assault. The fact that migrants are always most likely to fall into patterns of exploitation and slavery highlights the upsurge in their vulnerability as soon as they leave their source countries. The influx of migrants into Europe in the past five years has demonstrated this, as irregular migration routes and the illicit industries fostered along them continue to endanger migrants and their prospects for finding a better life.

Increasing anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe, exhibited by the growth of far-right parties and movements across the continent, contributes to the neglect of migrants and the ease with which they can be exploited (Davis, Deole, 2017). However, push factors contributing to migrants’ decisions to leave their home countries should also be considered. These factors include lack of educational and employment opportunities, as well as citizen social wellbeing and environmental issues (Asongu, Kodila-Tedika, 2018).

Therefore, while European immigration policies need to be tailored to take greater consideration of the by-products of derailed migration, investments also need to be made in source countries, where citizens can gain the opportunities they currently feel without and seek elsewhere.

  • Are rescue operations to Libya the only solution to a criminal industry run by groups rivalling the GNA?
  • Considering the difference between the state systems of Libya and Italy, what is then the primary factor sustaining the slave enterprises in both countries?
  • Would additional protections to individuals’ status as migrants be enough to reduce their vulnerability and help them to avoid slavery? Or, will this not make a difference if they are still migrants?

Suggested Readings

Awokoya, Ayo; Jones, Tobias (2019). “Are your tinned tomatoes picked by slave labour?”. The Guardian, 20 June, 2019.

Baker, Aryn (2019). “‘It was as if we weren’t human.’ Inside the modern slave trade trapping African migrants”. Time, 14 March, 2019.

Bryant, Katharine; David, Fiona; Larsen, Jacqueline (2019). “Migrants and their vulnerability to human trafficking, modern slavery and forced labour”. International Organization for Migration.

Mafu, Lucas (2019). “The Libyan/Trans-Mediterranean slave trade, the African Union, and the failure of human morality”. SAGE Open, 6 February, 2019.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Migration to Europe Faces…

by Erika Fedorova time to read: 7 min