Enslavement of Black Africans (Libya) Debate

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Department: Department for International Development

Enslavement of Black Africans (Libya)
John Howell Excerpts
Monday 18th December 2017

(2 years, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Department for International Development
Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully (Sutton and Cheam) (Con) - Hansard
18 Dec 2017, 4:29 p.m.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 205476 relating to the enslavement of black Africans in Libya.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I would like to read the petition into the record. It reads:

“Put pressure on Libya to take action to stop enslavement of Black Africans.

CNN has released video footage of black Africans being sold into slavery in Libya. I am asking the UK government to put pressure on the Libyan government to take immediate action to stop these criminals from selling more people, to set current prisoners free, arrest the criminals and end this.”

I am delighted to welcome the petitioner, Constance Mbassi Manga, who has done a fantastic job in raising this issue and getting so many signatures in such a short space of time. I am delighted that she is able to join us today.

As of this morning, 265,272 people had signed the petition within only about three weeks of it going live, which is a real testament to people’s strength of feeling. It is interesting: the likes of Cara Delevingne, Naomi Campbell and Rihanna, and a whole load of rappers who are far too cool for me to even know who they are, have taken up this issue, put it on social media and shared it. All of that, including the petition system, is really part—not the end—of a campaign to make people aware of the horrific things going on in another part of the world that they might otherwise not have been aware of at all. Hopefully, as well as raising awareness, we can start to effect change.

It was international Human Rights Day a week last Sunday. A number of us were out and about, raising issues; I was talking about the situation that the Rohingya Muslim community face in Burma, the Tamils, the Ahmadiyya Muslims and a number of other issues that are close to me and to my constituents, given the various diaspora groups in my constituency. Only a week later, we are talking about something that we thought had long since passed. When the Prime Minister was Home Secretary, she brought in the Modern Slavery Act 2015—a fantastic achievement—which recognised that slavery still existed in hidden pockets of this country. However, this is not hidden; it is absolutely brazen and out-and-out across parts of Libya and its migrant routes. It has to stop.

I was chatting to the Minister a little while ago—I do not know if he will remember this—and we shared the view that when people believe that another group of people are subhuman, there is no depth to which they will not stoop in their treatment of them; they are treated worse than animals. People started being aware of this situation when the International Organisation for Migration started to hear stories and went to document people’s experiences, write reports and share what those voices were saying. However, it was only when CNN covered the issue a few weeks ago that it really came to the public’s wider awareness.

I want to read one piece of documented evidence from the IOM to illustrate what is happening. One of the operations officers in Niger reported on the rescue of a Senegalese migrant. He referred to him as SC, to protect his identity. SC was returning to his home after being held captive for months.

“According to SC’s testimony, while he was trying to travel north through the Sahara, he arrived in Agadez, Niger, where he was told he would have to pay 200,000 CFA—about $320—to continue north towards Libya. A trafficker provided him with accommodation until the day of his departure, which was to be by pick-up truck.

The journey—over two days of travelling—through the desert was relatively smooth for this group. IOM has often heard from other migrants on this route who report seeing the remains of others abandoned by their drivers—and of trucks ransacked by bandits who siphon away their fuel.

SC’s fate was different. When his pick-up reached Sabha in south-western Libya, the driver insisted that he hadn’t been paid by the trafficker, and that he was transporting the migrants to a parking area where SC witnessed a slave market taking place. ‘Sub-Saharan migrants were being sold and bought by Libyans, with the support of Ghanaians and Nigerians who work for them’”,

the IOM reported.

John Howell Portrait John Howell (Henley) (Con) - Hansard
18 Dec 2017, 4:36 p.m.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. He mentioned Nigeria; when I visited it as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy, I had a discussion about this problem. We all agreed that if we did not help to get sub-Saharan Africa right, the catastrophe waiting to happen in Europe would be colossal, as more and more Nigerians put themselves in the hands of unscrupulous traffickers on the way to Libya and the Mediterranean coast. Does he agree that that is a realistic view of the situation?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully - Hansard
18 Dec 2017, 4:36 p.m.

I understand my hon. Friend’s expertise and knowledge of the area and totally agree with him. There is a real risk. We can tackle the atrocities of the slave trade in Libya, and Libya’s power vacuum, but ultimately the biggest threat to that part of the world and many others is migration—and not necessarily just migration through conflict. Economic reasons, climate reasons and any number of other reasons are moving such a mass of people, which causes other situations.

Break in Debate

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully - Hansard
18 Dec 2017, 4:47 p.m.

I absolutely agree, because it is a matter of pull factors, and stopping people having to make the choice to migrate over such a treacherous route. They have so far to go: there are human traffickers; people may just be ditched at the side of the road as I have described, or sold out of a bus in the back of a car park, and then sold on again and beaten with wires; they may then be on the Mediterranean on a boat—and the technique used with those small boats is that as soon as a navy cutter comes to the rescue, they are deliberately capsized to tip the people in the water. The rescuers have to pluck them out of the water; they cannot just pull the boat somewhere. To return to the Greek example, while I was there I met a Yazidi Christian—someone on a different migrant route—with a 10-day-old child. They had gone through that whole process. How the child, who by then was aged three months, was still alive, I shall never know. Those are the most treacherous circumstances, so anything that can be done to stop the migration in the first place must be the only course of action.

John Howell Portrait John Howell - Hansard
18 Dec 2017, 4:48 p.m.

I want to pick up on the previous intervention. I think that there is a huge role for British companies in educating people in their country. I went to see Unilever in Nigeria; it has eradicated modern slavery from its whole supply chain, and that has had a big effect in the effort to convince Nigerians that they should stay and make something of themselves in their own country. Unless we do that, we shall run into a lot of problems.

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully - Hansard
18 Dec 2017, 4:50 p.m.

My hon. Friend makes a typically insightful point, and it is right to use some of our big companies working in the areas in question to provide education and secondary industries. As we move into looking at trade agreements with Africa but while we are also a member of the EU, we could seek tariff reduction as well. Obviously a big concern is tariffs on the least developed countries, but with the slightly better-off countries such as Nigeria, the “Everything but Arms” rules do not apply. They are charged a lot in tariffs on coffee and chocolate and similar things, and cannot build up the secondary industries that would help to develop gainful employment, so that people would have a stake in their own area and not feel the need to leave to find a better life.

I have talked about the Modern Slavery Act 2015, and it is nearly 200 years since the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 that William Wilberforce worked for. Only last year there was a remake of the seminal television programme of the book “Roots” by Alex Haley. I watched the original version, but the one I watched last year seemed to be of a time gone by. There have been other fantastic films about slavery that have also really hammered their point home, but they give the sense that “This happened so long ago; isn’t it wonderful that we have stamped it out?”—but we have not; that is the news. It is still going on every day.

I ask the Minister to answer my questions. Finally, what more we can do as a country to support Libya, improve conditions and ultimately end the need for detention camps there?

Break in Debate

Eleanor Smith Hansard
18 Dec 2017, 5:01 p.m.

I totally agree. That was not in my speech, so I am glad my hon. Friend added it.

Although the Prime Minister has made tackling modern slavery a foreign policy priority, my question to the Government is: how will they actively tackle human trafficking and modern day slavery in Libya?

John Howell Portrait John Howell (Henley) (Con) - Hansard
18 Dec 2017, 5:03 p.m.

The number of refugees in the world is colossal; I think it is in the region of 60 million people. It is certainly more than the population of Britain. We need to remember that when we discuss the refugee situation and how to stop making it worse in the future. We have the opportunity in Africa to get the situation right the first time, and I hope we will take that opportunity.

In my intervention, I mentioned that I spend a lot of my time in Nigeria as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy. That is not just about trade; it goes right across the spectrum of political and DFID-related activities that occur in that country. I would like to say a little bit more about the conversations I had the last time I was there, because it is a very good example of how we can get it right if we try.

Nigeria has enormous problems with a terrorist group in the north-east and has contributed hugely to human trafficking in Africa. It has the potential to make an even bigger contribution, which I would not wish to encourage. Why would that occur? Why would people leave their homes and move away from where they live to entrust themselves to unscrupulous people traffickers on the coast of Libya? There are several reasons. One is clearly the terrorist situation in the country. The only way we will deal with that is not a military option but by ensuring that the growth we want to see in the country is shared out across it to the people who are participating in generating that growth. That goes to the heart of the second group of people involved, which is the population at large.

Unless we help to get sub-Saharan Africa right, which means contributing to the activities that Governments want to carry out to improve their countries so that growth can spread more evenly and more people can participate in it, the effect on Europe could be colossal. I mention Europe in that context because that is where we are and the perspective from which we are looking at the situation. We have to redouble our efforts as a Government and with companies there to ensure that that happens.

Many British companies are looking at the market in sub-Saharan Africa, and the Prime Minister’s emphasis on tackling modern slavery is providing an enormous competitive advantage to those companies. They can turn up in the Nigerian market and say, “We fully subscribe to the Prime Minister’s modern slavery agenda.” The people in Africa absolutely rise to that challenge, and it is really heart-warming to see.

As I mentioned, I have been to discuss this issue with Unilever, which is part-Dutch but principally a British company. It has been very successful in stamping out modern slavery from its entire supply chain. That company works, among other areas, in the agricultural sphere, in which many poor people are in need of something to live for and aspire to. It is a great triumph to have got rid of modern slavery, because that is just the sort of thing that will make the country right and ensure that people there have something to live for when they get up in the morning and go to work. I am very pleased to have been able to help with that.

I know there is a lot to do in the world in this area. For instance, there is a crisis that I do not think we have ever talked about in this Chamber: the second largest group of displaced people in the world is actually not in Syria or in Africa, but in Colombia.

I do not underestimate what we have to do to tackle this problem, but unless we are prepared to put the effort into tackling it and making sure our companies do the same, we will never solve it. That will not only be to the loss of Africa, which is an immensely rich and opportunistic continent—I mean that in the nicest possible sense of the word—with so much going for it, but it will also affect us. We all ought to bear that in mind. There is an element of self-interest in this, as there always has to be. By putting the emphasis on this issue and getting it right, we will help to make sure that the African situation does not extend into mass migration, with many millions of people putting themselves into the hands of unscrupulous people traffickers.

Marsha De Cordova Portrait Marsha De Cordova (Battersea) (Lab) - Hansard
18 Dec 2017, 5:09 p.m.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I pay tribute to every single individual who has signed the petition. It is also a pleasure to speak in the same debate as my hon. Friends the Members for West Ham (Lyn Brown) and for Wolverhampton South West (Eleanor Smith).

The recent news coverage of slavery in Libya and the slow and steady stream of harrowing footage emerging from the region, including cameraphone images, have shocked many of us. I have been contacted by a number of my constituents, many of whom identify as being from the African diaspora, who are outraged at what is going on. This is modern-day chattel slavery, and a window into practices that form part of a particularly traumatic collective memory for many communities. That human beings are again going through such horrific violence and injustice in 2017 is deeply concerning.

There has been an international spotlight on these practices since CNN broadcast its footage, but the reality is that they are not new. As more and more migrants make their way towards the Mediterranean, criminal elements have sought to exploit vulnerable migrants. That is of course not unique to north Africa. The trafficking of migrant women and children takes place in Europe as well as on the shores of Libya, but what Libya shows is how such wickedness and criminality can grow amid political turmoil.

The conditions that lead to migrants being exploited will not go away any time soon. Demographic changes on the African continent and climate change will see more and more migrants looking for opportunities in Europe. Just as “Fortress Europe” relied on Gaddafi to detain migrants, we now see a complex partnership between the EU and the Libyan authorities that seems to prioritise protecting European borders over the human rights of refugees and migrants.

Amnesty International has made some key demands to end these practices—demands that I support. I hope that the Government act on them and support Amnesty in its approach to the crisis. First, there is a clear demand by Governments that the arbitrary detention of refugees and migrants in Libya arbitrary. The second demand is that international partners work together to investigate all allegations of torture and other ill treatment of refugees and migrants in Libya, and to ensure that the suspected perpetrators are prosecuted in a transparent and fair trial to put an end to the vicious cycle of abuse. The other demands are for EU states to review how they co-operate on migration policies; to prioritise protecting the human rights of refugees and migrants instead of trapping people in Libya; and to recognise formally the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and allow the organisation to carry out its full mandate, including the protection of asylum seekers and refugees.

The stories and images from Libya are shameful, and I hope that the Government act to end these practices. In the words of my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, African lives matter.

Break in Debate

Fabian Hamilton Portrait Fabian Hamilton (Leeds North East) (Lab) - Hansard
18 Dec 2017, 5:21 p.m.

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.

I would like to start by congratulating, as other hon. Members have, those who organised the petition that has prompted this very important and timely debate, especially Constance Mbassi Manga. I understand that as of 2 pm today, 265,278 signatures had been received, of which 666—I do not know whether that is significant—were from my constituency.

I also want to congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who opened the debate. He read us the text of the petition, and it is important to remember what is in that. He talked about the Modern Slavery Act, which other hon. Members have referred to. It is a very important piece of legislation that I hope will help to pave the way for this country being a prime mover in the abolition of slavery worldwide. He also pointed out that what is happening in Libya is not hidden, and it has to stop—all hon. Members have agreed with that. He mentioned the role of the International Organisation for Migration, which I will speak of again in a minute, and talked of the inhumane treatment of human beings who are being bought and sold as commodities. Sadly, 200 years since Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery in the UK, slavery still exists in other parts of the world. The hon. Gentleman also asked what more we can do for Libya.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) talked of her shock, and the violence towards and the betrayal of those cheated by an evil deception and left utterly alone and terrified in a foreign country, where they suffer torture, beatings and violence by traffickers. She also talked of the systematic abuse of those migrants and of their murder. The UN estimates that there are about 700,000 migrants in Libya at the moment. It is estimated that 40% of the children are forced into labour, as she mentioned. What are the Government going to do? She said something that has been echoed by many speakers this afternoon: “African lives matter.” All lives matter.

We then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Eleanor Smith), who mentioned her shock, as a black descendant of slaves, that this can still be happening in the world. There was also an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), who said that we have to do something about the state of Libya.

The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) talked of his role as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Libya and, I imagine, the Maghreb countries as well—I do not know.

John Howell Portrait John Howell - Hansard
18 Dec 2017, 5:23 p.m.

Just Nigeria.

Fabian Hamilton Portrait Fabian Hamilton - Hansard
18 Dec 2017, 5:24 p.m.

Just Nigeria; okay, sorry. The hon. Gentleman asked why people would leave their homes and trust themselves to unscrupulous traffickers in Libya, but we have had the answer this afternoon from many hon. Members who have contributed. He said that unless we get sub-Saharan Africa right, the effect on Europe could be colossal. I agree with him, but it is absolutely vital that we destroy this appalling practice of slavery not just because of the effect that it will have on us in Europe, but for the sake of the welfare of our fellow human beings on that continent.

John Howell Portrait John Howell - Hansard
18 Dec 2017, 5:24 p.m.

I did make it clear in my speech that we need to get rid of slavery both for the sake of Africans’ lives, and for the sake of our lives. It is a win-win situation.

Fabian Hamilton Portrait Fabian Hamilton - Hansard
18 Dec 2017, 5:25 p.m.

I entirely accept that. I do not think that any hon. Member in this room or in this House would condone what is going on, not just because of the effect on us but because of the effect on those individuals, families, communities and nations. I totally accept that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) made a very powerful contribution. She talked of the harrowing footage that CNN showed, which shocked us all. She said that her constituents were extremely upset because many of them have that collective memory of slavery, and that she was shocked it was still happening in 2017. She said that these practices are, of course, not new and that this exploitation of the vulnerable has grown under the political turmoil. She also mentioned that climate change had a role in migration, as other hon. Members have done. She asked whether the Government could make their feelings felt on ending the arbitrary detention of migrants in Libya, and also talked of a vicious cycle of abuse.

I am sure that, like the petition organisers, everyone in this House was utterly appalled at the video footage of the apparent slave auction. That was something that we felt had been left behind in the world in a previous century, but sadly and tragically it is very much still with us today.

On its website, CNN talked about the United Nations-backed Libyan Government of national accord, or GNA, who apparently say that they are keen to address violations against illegal immigrants but call on regional and global partners to provide assistance. The website says:

“Libya ‘is going through difficult times which affected its own citizens as well. It is, therefore, not fair to assume responsibility for the consequences of this immigration, which everyone unanimously agreed that addressing this phenomenon exceeds the national capacities,’ the GNA statement read. ‘We affirm again that the practical solution is to address the real reasons that drive people to leave their home countries, treat them and develop final solutions for them,’ it continued.”

CNN went on—this was back in November—to say:

“On Tuesday, Libya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterated that a committee has been established to investigate the auctions but asked ‘the international community to intensify in a spirit of responsibility and joint co-operation to assist Libya.’”

It says, as we know and have heard this afternoon from many hon. Members, that:

“In recent years, Libya has been flooded by migrants hoping to travel to Europe. The United Nations estimates there are now between 700,000 and a million migrants in the country. Those who have crossed the Mediterranean have shared stories about beatings, kidnappings and enslavement. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres said Monday”—

I guess that is Monday last week—

“he was ‘horrified’ at reports of migrants being sold as slaves, which could amount to crimes against humanity.”

They certainly do, from what we have heard this afternoon. The website continues:

“Guterres called on the international community to unite on the issue and said the auctions were a reminder of the need to manage migration flows in a humane manner that addresses the root causes, increases opportunities for legal migration”—

which has been referred to by many hon. Members this afternoon—and, most importantly,

“cracks down on smugglers…Mohammed Bisher, head of the government’s Anti-Illegal Immigration Authority, said detention facilities are overwhelmed and he urged countries from which migrants travel to take more responsibility. ‘We are 278 million Libyan dinars (nearly $210 million) in debt. We have to provide food, medicine, transportation... If the African Union wants to help, they can help,’ Bisher told CNN. Bisher said Italy has been providing some assistance, co-ordinating with Libyan officials and, in some cases, helping with deportation but more needs to be done.”

The Guardian reports:

“The latest reports of ‘slave markets’ for migrants can be added to a long list of outrages [in Libya]”.

It says that Mohammed Abdiker, IOM’s head of operation and emergencies, says:

“The situation is dire. The more IOM engages inside Libya, the more we learn that it is a vale of tears for all too many migrants.”

It continues:

“Even growing international awareness of the problems migrants face is being exploited. IOM has had credible reports of criminals posing as aid groups that help migrants to lure in people who have escaped or bought their freedom and want to return home.”

How horrific is that, Mr Walker?

“The organisation is working to spread awareness across west Africa of the horrors of the journey through the personal stories of those who return. Though most migrants know the boat trips to Europe are extremely risky, fewer realise they may face even worse dangers in Libya before even reaching the coast.

‘Tragically, the most credible messengers are migrants returning home with IOM help,’ said spokesman Leonard Doyle. ‘Too often they are broken, brutalised and have been abused. Their voices carry more weight than anyone else’s.’”

In the short term, it is clear that action is needed from Her Majesty’s Government, including protests and maybe even sanctions. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham made some suggestions, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea. We must ensure that the Libyan Government stamp out such practices and that humanitarian assistance is provided for individuals from other countries left displaced and destitute in Libya after the civil war, including, where possible, help to return home.

In the medium term, it is obvious that Libya needs stability and order. It needs to move away from its current lawlessness in which life is cheap and human labour is bought and sold—not in the interests of British corporate investors, as the Foreign Secretary has argued, but in the interests of the Libyan people themselves, to whom we owe an enormous debt.

I would like to mention somebody who is about to leave the Foreign Office: our current ambassador to Libya, Peter Millett, whom I am fortunate enough to know extremely well. Just two and a half months ago, I had the opportunity to meet him in Tunis, where he is based because it is too dangerous for him to be in Tripoli. He briefed me on the current state of lawlessness, disorganisation and effective lack of any governance in the country to which he is supposed to be ambassador. Tragically, and sadly for me, he is leaving the service at the end of December, but I know that he will carry on being an important factor. He will continue to lobby and talk about the horrors that he has seen with his own eyes and about what he thinks can be done. He will be a great asset to our country long after he leaves the service.

That brings me to the long term. It behoves all of us in this House to reflect on the shocking failure to prepare for the aftermath of our intervention in Libya in 2011. I believe that it was a lesson unlearned from Iraq and repeated even while the Chilcot inquiry was conducting its work. It was as a direct consequence of that failure to plan for the aftermath, and the abandonment of Libya to civil war, anarchy and the scourge of Daesh, that so many Africans from neighbouring countries—whether there as mercenary soldiers, migrant workers or refugees from other related conflicts—were left penniless, helpless and defenceless against exploitation by slavery gangs. We must all take our share of the responsibility for their plight. We must do whatever we can now to alleviate it. That is the very least that we can do.