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There are slave markets in Libya – so why doesn't Australia care?

Tuesday, 28 November 2017  | Andrea Tokaji

So, slavery was abolished years ago – right? Not so much.

In fact, there are more slaves in the world today than there ever have been before in history.

There are several push and pull factors and ‘reasons’ for slavery - including economic, social, psychological, criminal, and ideological – but the greatest reason, aside from the money it makes criminals, is demand.

According to the latest UN Reports, we know that the majority of the world’s slaves are women and girls, and they are predominantly found in brothels across the world, however slavery and trafficking of displaced persons is on the rise. And, according to UNHCR data, there are currently 65.6 million forcibly displaced persons in the world today – and all of these people are not only vulnerable to smugglers, but also to abuse, traffickers and criminals.

Last week, it was reported that there was an alleged slave market in Libya – I’m talking about people in chains in a public market … the last time we saw images like this … was in the slave markets of ISIS.

You’d think that this would have been all over the news here in Australia – right?

So, what’s with the apathy? The lack of action? The lack of political statements and condemnation?

On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this is extremely concerning – not only for Australia but also for the global community.

According to recent reports, the Libyan Government have announced that they will be investigating the video footage released of African migrants introduced to North African buyers and sold for as little as $400 per person. Four hundred dollars – the going rate for a life … apparently.

During its investigation, CNN witnessed a dozen men being sold at an auction outside of the Libyan capital of Tripoli in auctions, and are aware of nine other slave markets across Libya.

Libya has long been recognised as a major transit country for migrants trying to reach Europe, but many of them are experiencing abhorrent human rights violations including trafficking and slavery.

The United Nations estimates there are 700,000 migrants in Libya who have fled armed conflict, persecution or severe economic hardship from sub-Saharan Africa. Estimates are that more than 2,000 of these migrants have died at sea this year alone. If they survive the journey at sea, forced labor, sexual abuse and torture are awaiting them in camps along their journey, according to the United Nations.

The Guardian reported back in April that West African migrants were being sold in modern-day slave markets in Libya, based on information from the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency. IOM has also reported that criminals are posing as aid groups.

Trafficked people passing through Libya have also previously reported violence, extortion and slave labour. In other words – these grave human right violations were on the global radar before. What was done about it? The famous quote, ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’, comes to mind.

The emergence of slave markets has been attributed to the sharp fall in migrant arrivals in Europe recently, and the apparent backlog of customers for Libya’s smugglers, who have responded by auctioning off migrants.

The New York Times reported hundreds of protesters demonstrating in front of the Libyan Embassy in central Paris in response to the footage aired by CNN of migrants being auctioned off in Libya.

‘How can it be that, in the 21st century, we're selling human beings like merchandise?’, one woman interviewed by CNN Reporters at the Paris protest said. ‘I cannot get my head around that!’

Neither should we. The moment we grow accustomed to human rights abuses internationally is the moment our international soul dies.

It is our agreed international standards of human rights and practiced principles of dignity of all persons that are withholding the flood of criminality, cruelty and abuse that would be all the more common otherwise.

On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is more important than ever before to speak up on international human rights violations – because it takes all of us to ensure that the principles within the UDHR are not only adhered to, but also enforced.

The United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for an end to the Libyan migrant slave trade this week – and Australia should follow suit. Not because we have a perfect record, and not because we want to follow a trend, but because we genuinely are outraged by the images, the stories, and most of all because we have heard the cries of the victims.

Free democracies such as Australia are relied upon by vulnerable communities internationally to speak up for them – my family and I certainly did, as we were accepted as Humanitarian refuges into Australia in the late 1980s.

Australia is known internationally for our harsh migration laws, and it seems hypocritical to comment on the human rights violations of migrants in another country when we do not come to the comment with ‘clean hands’. But, there is a deeper problem to the silence of the Australian Government on this matter.

The day we lose our compassion and empathy for the most vulnerable globally is the day we forget who we really are. The effect will be beyond just a humanitarian impact, but this shift in priority will be reflected in our budget, policy initiatives, international priorities and, ultimately, our soul as a nation.

The question remains: What do we as a nation want to be remembered for? What side of history do we want to be on?

We should always prioritise speaking up for the most vulnerable – and for the voiceless, no matter where they are in the world.

Andrea Tokaji is a trained international human rights lawyer, the Founder of Fighting for Justice Foundation and a PhD Candidate.

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