Slavery and dispossession in the modern Middle East

As a nation of immigrants, and following two thousand years of oppression, there are many who feel as though Israel should be more sympathetic to the plight of those seeking refuge from tyranny.

A MIGRANT looks out of a barred door at a detention center in Gharyan, Libya, on October 12 (photo credit: HANI AMARA/REUTERS)
A MIGRANT looks out of a barred door at a detention center in Gharyan, Libya, on October 12
(photo credit: HANI AMARA/REUTERS)
Shocking images surfaced this week of sub-Saharan Africans apparently being sold into slave markets in Libya. The footage released by CNN appears to show youths primarily from Niger being purchased for as little as $400.
The reemergence of slavery in Libya is part and parcel of the thriving illicit migrant trade to Europe, with horror stories regularly reported of packed-to-the-brim boats – the naval equivalent of rickshaws – being forcibly capsized by cutthroat smugglers who care nothing of life but only of money.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 2016 was the deadliest year ever for migrants attempting to reach Europe, with more than 5,000 fatalities. Another 3,000 people have lost their lives so far in 2017. Earlier this month, the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel published the names of more than 33,000 migrants who died trying to reach the European mainland since 1993.
The migrant crisis entered mainstream consciousness when, in September 2015, images of three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi lying face down on a beach after having drowned at sea made global headlines. Already, Europe was facing a major influx primarily via northern Africa from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, among other countries.
The root cause for much of the displacement is the ongoing hemorrhaging of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), which has left entire populations completely destitute aside from the dim hope of reaching pastures not drenched in blood.
The mass movement to Libya of Africans seeking to reach Europe has left millions of individuals at the mercy of smugglers, who in many cases hold people for ransom. In April, IOM chief in Libya Othman Belbeisi provided an overview of the system. “Apparently they [the migrants] don’t have money [to reach Europe] and their families cannot pay the ransom [when they are kidnapped], so they are being sold [by the smugglers who] get at least a minimum benefit from that,” he said.
Mohammed Abdiker, IOM’s head of emergencies, elaborated: “The latest reports of ‘slave markets’ can be added to a long list of outrages. 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.”
Speaking to The Media Line, Joel Millman, senior press officer at the IOM, explained that the prevalence of slavery in Libya is a dramatic, albeit not entirely unexpected, outgrowth of preexisting abuses directed at migrants: “We know that migrants are subjected to all kinds of horrific exploitation, including being tortured while on the telephone with their families in order to extract payments. There are many incidences of migrants being forced into prostitution. We are talking about a completely vulnerable people who have nobody to turn to.”
Slavery in the region long persisted after its abolishment by western countries. Saudi Arabia, for example, formally ended the practice only in the 1960s amid pressure from its ally Washington. Yet it still exists in various forms in the Middle East, including in the case of migrant workers who are paid low wages, if at all, for hard labor while living in squalor.
This is still true in Saudi Arabia – which is notorious for its “slave maids” – and notably in Qatar, where the growing death toll among workers imported to construct World Cup venues has caused humanitarian organizations to call on football’s governing body to move the games elsewhere.
According to the 2016 Global Slavery Index, nearly 3 million people are enslaved in the MENA region, representing some 6.4% of the total population. Victims include involuntary recruits in state and non-state armed groups; those forced into marriage or commercial sexual exploitation; and those subjected to forced labor and debt bondage.
The atrocities committed by Islamic State since 2014 have contributed in large part to the subjugation, including the wholesale enslavement of tens of thousands of Yazidis in Iraq.
According to Jens Laerke, deputy spokesman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, to fully alleviate peoples’ suffering obliges “tackling the mitigating crisis at its root. Particularly in the MENA region, including in Syria and Iraq, these are man-made disasters. They are fundamentally political in nature and these need political solutions.
“At the same time,” he stressed to The Media Line, “there is an immediate responsibility to provide humanitarian aid to those affected while the crisis is being resolved. Those who require life-sustaining supplies must receive them as a fundamental tenant of humanity.”
The scope of what such entails, Laerke elaborated, is monumental. “Currently, on a global scale, there is an annual need for at least $20 billion for UN-coordinated humanitarian operations. In the Middle East, where much of the funds are diverted to, there is a willingness from donors to contribute and this has been consistent over time.
“The main problem,” he concluded, “is that the requirements are rising at a faster rate than the incoming dollars. There is going to be a growing gap between what is necessary and what will be provided. And this said, as a rule of thumb, today we only receive approximately 65% of what we need.”
In terms of Israel, the Jewish state is often blamed for the dispossession of millions of Palestinian refugees, while others contend they have been held hostage by their own leadership – as a sort of ideological weapon against Jerusalem, empowered by the tale that they will one day triumphantly return en masse to retake the country.
So powerful is this narrative that only for Palestinians does the term “refugee” constitute a hereditary trait, passed down from generation to generation, so that today Palestinians claim a diaspora numbering some 5 million traceable to the original estimated 750,000 who left their homes during the war waged by Arab nations against nascent Israel in 1948.
In Saudi Arabia, an estimated 500,000 Palestinians are not allowed to hold or even apply for citizenship. This is likewise in Jordan, where Palestinians, who make up some 70% of the population, are virtually barred from holding office and regularly have their rights arbitrarily revoked.
The circumstances in Lebanon are so bad that Amnesty International has reported that the treatment of Palestinians is in violation of (a) the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; (b) the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; (c) the Convention on the Rights of the Child; (d) the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; and (e) the International Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, nearly 500,000 Palestinians have been targeted by President Bashar Assad’s Alawite regime, primarily in the Yarmouk camp, with an estimated 3,500 people killed, or nearly three times the number of civilian deaths in the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas.
Moreover, neighboring countries have done their utmost to prevent any influx of Palestinians, even as hundreds of thousands of other asylum-seekers have otherwise been absorbed.
On the flip side, Israel has itself been widely condemned by rights organizations for its treatment of African migrants, tens of thousands of whom crossed into the country prior to Jerusalem’s construction of a wall along its southern border in 2012 that effectively stopped the influx.
This week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed that he would begin to speed up the deportation of these migrants – many of whom have been held at the controversial Holot detention center – to third-party countries so as not to endanger their lives. As a signatory to the Convention on Refugees, Israel is prevented from deporting illegals back to their states of origin if they would face persecution.
As a nation of immigrants, and following two thousand years of oppression, there are many who feel as though Israel should be more sympathetic to the plight of those seeking refuge from tyranny.
In Syria and Yemen, where millions are now on the verge of starvation, entire peoples continue to flee such devastation. So too in Afghanistan and Iraq, where western intervention is as much responsible for the magnitude of suffering as internal Middle East dysfunction. In Libya, one of the hubs of modern-day slavery, the NATO-led effort to depose Mu’ammar Qaddafi and a subsequent lack of planning and foresight left the country fractured between warring governments and militias and created the gateway for the greatest mass migration since World War II.
While slavery may have been formally abolished in the US by then-president Abraham Lincoln in 1863 following the American civil war, waged primarily over the south’s desire to uphold the institution, there remains paradoxically a close association between the actions of Washington and Brussels in the Middle East and the modern-day explosion of one of the ugliest human practices ever conceived.
It is a reality that so-called “enlightened” countries might internalize as they continue to engage in a region that left to its own devices is sufficiently backwards.