INTERVIEW - World turns blind eye to Libya slave trade: photographer

by Astrid Zweynert | azweynert | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 17 May 2017 15:14 GMT

Mexican photographer Narciso Contreras is pictured at the opening of his exhibition "Libya: A Human Marketplace" at London's Saatchi Gallery May 16, 2017. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Astrid Zweynert

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Migrants in Libya are caught in a complex trafficking web largely ignored by the outside world, photographer says

By Astrid Zweynert

LONDON, May 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Libya has become a modern-day slave market, with migrants caught in a complex trafficking web largely ignored by the outside world, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer said on Wednesday.

Narciso Contreras, who spoke to migrants turned Libyan slaves, said most attention focused on the North African country as a gateway for migrants attempting to reach Europe by sea.

"What I found is that it's a slave market, it's like an industry but the world is looking at Libya as a transit country," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Sub-Saharan illegal migrants and refugees are pictured begging for their release in one Surman Detention Centre, Surman, Libya. Photo supplied by Narciso Contreras for Fondation Carmignac

Six years after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is still a lawless state where armed groups compete for land and resources and large weapons and people-smuggling networks operate with impunity.

Frustrated by official bureaucracy, Contreras, winner of the 2016 Carmignac Photojournalism Award, forged his own contacts with migrants, people smugglers and tribespeople as he travelled through Libya last year for a documentary photography project.

"The humanitarian crisis of migrants trying to reach Europe is well documented, and it is a story the Libyan authorities want to be told," he said in an interview.

"But that vast market trading in human beings is largely undocumented," said Contreras. "It's a human rights violation that needs to be addressed by the international community."

He spoke at the opening of "Libya: A Human Marketplace", an exhibition of his photographs at London's Saatchi Gallery.

Contreras met two West African migrants who had been held as slaves. One of the slaves' owners ran an immigration detention centre and the second was a local militia leader, he said.

"These seemed to be typical stories of the impunity you find in Libya," said Mexican-born Contreras, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for his work in Syria.


Such accounts by migrants are hard to verify.

However, the U.N. migration agency (IOM) said last month that growing numbers of African migrants were being traded in what they call slave markets before being held for ransom, forced labour or sexual exploitation.

Migrants are traded for between $200 and $500 and are held on average for two or three months, the IOM said.

The migrants - many from Nigeria, Senegal and Gambia - are captured as they head north towards Libya's Mediterranean coast, where some try to catch boats for Italy. Along the way they are prey to an array of armed groups and smuggling networks that often try to extort extra money.

Many of them are used as day labourers in construction or agriculture, the IOM says. Only some of them are paid.

Contreras also took pictures of the detention centres where migrants endure overcrowding, lack of sanitation and beatings.

In one image, people are pictured begging for their release while the detention centre's director stands in front of their cell, threatening to beat them with a stick if they don't calm down.

"There is no humanity in these places," said Contreras.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor expressed alarm this month at the inhumane detention of thousands of vulnerable migrants in Libya and said she was examining whether an investigation could be opened into crimes against them.

*For more photos by Narciso Contreras from Libya please click here*

(Reporting by Astrid Zweynert @azweynert, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit

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