It started with grainy cell phone footage. A young African man stands solemnly, wearing simple clothes, as the men surrounding him shout out numbers.
A man not visible in the short video calls out, “big strong boys for farm work.” Only the man’s arm is visible.
The reports were unverified, but the footage, obtained by CNN earlier this Fall, seemed to show a practice more reminiscent of the 17th century than the 21st: a slave auction. So CNN sent reporters to Libya to investigate.
What emerged from their investigation is shocking.
According to a story published Tuesday by Nima Elbagir, Raja Razek, Alex Platt and Bryony Jones, human smugglers in Libya are selling migrants as unpaid laborers for as little as $400 per person.
Migrants who are sold into the trade are told that the prices they fetch at the auction will repay the debts they owe to smugglers, the report claims. Smugglers are also demanding ransom payments from family members back home.
The CNN report included a map of nine locations across Libya where slave auctions have reportedly been held, but noted that there are most likely more locations where migrants are bought and sold.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) first reported on “slave market conditions” in Libya in April.
“IOM learned of cases of slave auctions of destitute migrants earlier this year,” Joel Millman, Senior Press Officer at IOM wrote to Global Citizen in a statement. “We know of dozens of cases of migrants being extorted by traffickers who demand cash payments in order to continue their journeys and we know of cases where migrants are beaten and tortured and made to call family members outside Libya to secure payments to make the torture stop.”
Reports of mistreatment of refugees and migrants in Libya are rampant. Human Rights Watch reported “horrific abuse” of migrants at the hands of both smugglers and detention center guards.
The United Nations has called the conditions in Libya’s detention centers “inhuman.”
"If you look at most of the people here, if you check your bodies, you see the marks. They are beaten, mutilated,” one of the migrants told CNN.
The highest proportion of migrants in Libya come from Sudan, according to the United Nations. Most of these migrants are fleeing conflict and famine and come seeking passage to Europe by way of the dangerous Mediterranean Sea migration route.
Last year 4,576 migrants died on this route, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Refugees face abuse all along the journey, including once they reach Italy.
Libya is not the only country where reports of modern slavery have been made. The IOM reported in April that “hundreds of young men” are also auctioned off at slave markets in Niger, even before they make it to Libya.
Around the world, an estimated 40.3 million people were forced into modern slavery in 2016 — the majority of whom were forced laborers, working under “threat or coercion.” Others still (about 15 million) are subjected to another form of modern slavery: forced marriages.
Global Citizen campaigns against modern slavery, and is calling on the United Nations to investigate sexual slavery by ISIS against the Yazidi minority in Iraq. You can take action on this issue here.
Many of the migrants forced into modern slavery, the CNN report found, are ultimately deported back to their home countries.
“I go back and start back from square one,” one migrant told CNN. “It's very painful. Very painful.”