Running from Hardship, Trapped Servitude: The Sad Realities of African Migrants in Modern Slavery
Written by Olusegun Akinfenwa
The rate at which Africans migrate within and outside the continent has been one of the major topical issues of the 21st Century. According to a 2020 report, as many as 36 million Africans already live abroad, and thousands are regularly joining the throng. But what is more worrisome is that many of these migrants get trapped in inhumane conditions before they even arrive at their destinations. Some of those who are lucky enough to arrive in their target countries also end up living in conditions much worse than what they intended to flee from at home.
For an average African migrant, good living conditions and security top the motivation behind relocating abroad. The main purpose is not to become wealthy but to escape the seemingly unending harsh and hostile realities confronting many parts of the continent. They want to have a job that offers enough income to meet their personal and family needs and access to basic infrastructure and quality of life. They are tired of civil wars, terrorism, and various forms of insecurity. Unfortunately, most African countries are not showing signs that they can provide the desired living conditions for their citizens in the near future. This is why millions of Africans have turned their face to foreign countries where they hope to live the life of their dreams. Their most preferred destinations are European countries and the USA, though many also travel to certain Asian countries.
However, the legal travel and immigration processes and requirements to enter those countries are somewhat stringent and unaffordable for many African travellers. Not all can meet the eligibility criteria for entering most western nations and some wealthy Asian countries. It also requires a series of documentation which usually takes a long time to fulfil. Some are also incapacitated by the required funds for legal travel routes even when they meet all other eligibility requirements. For example, a 2021 report shows that the chances of Africans being denied UK visitor visas is more than twice that of applicants from other parts of the world. African countries also rank high on the list denied visas by the USA. Despite the high rate of visa denials, many Africans are desperate to travel abroad at all costs and as soon as possible.
Driven by desperation and impatience, many of them adopt unconventional, illegal and dangerous travel routes. Such a medium leads them out of their original legal authority and strips them of protection by law. This often leaves them at the mercy of slavery and smuggling syndicates. These syndicates force them into conditions that are better imagined than experienced. According to the 2018 global slavery index, about 9.2 million Africans are ensnared in modern slavery, and many illegal migrants have been found to be victims of this menace, resulting from desperation on the part of the travellers and sheer greed and wickedness on the parts of human traffickers and slave masters.
There are several routes through which migrants from different parts of Africa try to get to Europe and other top-choice locations. Their irregular journey usually takes them through hot deserts and war-torn regions. It puts them at the risk of death before they reach Libya, which is one of the most popular illegal routes out of Africa. Smugglers and militiamen also cause problems for them along the way. From Libya, they cross the large Mediterranean Sea by boatto different European countries like Italy, France and Spain. They often cross the sea by boat rather than in safer, larger vessels to avoid attracting attention to their illegal voyage. These boats are usually overstuffed and unworthy of sea travel. Taking advantage of the migrants’ desperation, Libyan smugglers charge each passenger between $750 and $3500..
In the course of this dangerous journey, many migrants experience ill health and death. Some get defrauded or extorted by the agents coordinating the illegal traffic. They could also be arrested and punished by the Libyan authorities. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that close to 1 million migrants are stranded in Libya. Some of these migrants are held by smugglers or militias. Every year, thousands of migrants die on this dangerous journey through the Mediterranean Sea. In each year between 2013 and 2017, no less than 3,000 deaths were recorded. Drowning, thirst, hypothermia, suffocation and fuel inhalation are some of the common causes of fatalities on this route. Findings by the IOM also reveal that over 30,000 people have gone missing in the desert since 2014. However, despite the risks involved, more than 106,000 migrants have attempted to cross from Libya to Italy by boat in 2021 alone.
Unfortunately, many African migrants who have made it to their intended destination have their hopes of Eldorado shattered as they are faced with various inhumane treatments upon arrival. Factors such as their illegal, undocumented status and lack of adequate skills and qualifications often subject them to harsh economic realities. As a result, many are easily lured into shady and illegal businesses.
It is worth noting that not all African migrants in modern slavery relocated through illegal routes. Some went through the legal process but are still victims of servitude. This could be due to a lack of adequate skills and unrealistic expectations. For instance, Europe, the US, Canada and other developed economies often appear to many migrants as Eldorado. A place they do not need much effort to survive, only for them to be faced with the harsh reality after arriving. It is sometimes too late before they realize they lack the requisite skills that their new environment requires. And given the rate of modern slavery across the world, their vulnerability is easily exploited.
Imprisonment is another hurdle they are usually faced with. European authorities often arrest and deport illegal migrants who cross Europe back to Libya, as do the Libyan authorities. Investigations reveal that between 3,000 and 5,000 migrants are held in detention centres in Libya. In addition to these, an unknown number of people are being held captive by smugglers and traffickers across the country. They keep them in illegal prisons and warehouses, torturing, abusing and extorting them.
Thousands of female African migrants are forced into prostitution in foreign countries. This may happen while still in transit or on arrival. A good example is Nancy, a Nigerian migrant who has recounted her experience. A couple had approached the parents of 18-year-old Nancy, promising to take her to Europe and get her a job as a fashion designer. The young lady and her family were grateful, and they promised to repay the travel costs. But after some days into their journey, the couple she was travelling with gave her a wicked condition to fulfil. They claimed she owed them about $50,000 for travel expenditure and the cost of her fake documents. She had to work as a prostitute to pay them back. They threatened to kill her and her mother if she didn’t pay. This marked her journey into sex slavery.
Nancy’s story is just one out of thousands of African women and girls in forced prostitution abroad. They are transported on credit, with the agreement to pay the travel cost when they arrive and start working. Upon arrival, they are slapped with debt as high as 30,000 euros. They must trade their body to pay. This is excluding other costs such as boarding and utilities that their captors impose on them. Hence, they keep working for years and find it difficult to get out of slavery. The Los Angeles Times reported that 80% of about 10,000 female Nigerian migrants who travel to Italy via Libya become prostitutes. The figure is higher in Germany, where prostitution is legal.
Apart from prostitution, many African migrants are also forced to do menial jobs without pay. Traffickers approach them with promises of employment and good living conditions. They draft false contracts for them and end up demanding that they pay huge debts before they can be released. Instead of being released, the victims are often sold to new buyers, who repeat the same pattern of abuse and exploitation. In 2017, CNN aired footage of African migrants being sold at a slave auction in one of the detention camps in Libya. There was a huge outcry against the inhumane practice, yet, it still goes on. The migrants who make it alive to Europe are not free either from similar treatment. Time Magazine reported how 16 men from different African countries died in Puglia, Italy in 2018. They were victims of a slavery system called caporalato.
Drug barons also lure some African migrants into drug trafficking. This is common in the Americas and Southeast Asia, where the cartels often make their recruits believe they are invincible to law enforcement. They also put drugs in the luggage of some migrants without their knowledge. Many, however, get caught and receive long jail terms or death sentences for the crime. In 2019, hundreds of Nigerians were reportedly serving jail terms for drug-related crimes in various countries abroad. There were 650 in Thailand and 144 in Brazil, just as 73 others were also reported to be on death row in Malaysia. Out of 1,281 inmates on death row for drug-related offences in Malaysia in 2019, 199 were Nigerians. In 2016, three Nigerians were executed by firing squad in Indonesia for the same offence.
Frustration and suicide ideation are some of the resultant effects of the numerous challenges African migrants suffer. Recent research has shown that there could be a growing rate of suicide behaviour among migrants in different parts of the world, and those from Africa are among the most affected. Some of the factors responsible include physical and emotional trauma resulting from torture and other forms of human rights abuse. Labouring in the hot sun for hours every day without a day off, even on weekends, forced prostitution, drug trafficking and other related challenges, heavily impacts their mental health. With little or no chance of escape, some African migrants see suicide as the only option to their unending suffering. After living in their home countries, struggling for survival and facing similar or much worse conditions abroad, ending it all becomes the only escape route. In 2017, about 35 Ugandans in the United Arab Emirates reportedly committed suicide for these reasons.
Ordinarily, these increasing challenges should serve as deterrents and discourage young African migrants from exploring the illegal routes. Unfortunately, they are faced with a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea due to growing humanitarian and economic crises back home. This explains why many are ready to risk it all. It is high time African leaders show the required political will to create an enabling environment for their citizens and reduce the widening inequalities across the continent. This will drastically reduce the rate of illegal migration and modern slavery.
Olusegun Akinfenwa is a political correspondent for Immigration News, a news organization affiliated with Immigration Advice Service. IAS is a leading UK immigration law firm that helps people migrate and settle in the UK.