A man called out numbers against the murky darkness of the Libyan night: “400, 500, 600, 650.” These were bids in Libyan dinars during a slave auction. Video footage of these scenes, aired in mid-November by CNN, thrust concerns about the conditions facing migrants at Europe’s borders back into the spotlight.
In response, the EU called for “swift action”, and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, announced a plan to launch “concrete military action” against the perpetrators. The Nigerian government also said it had begun to bring home some of its citizens stranded in Libya.
Efforts to enable people to escape from situations of slavery, violence and exploitation in Libya are certainly welcome. But they will need to go beyond the short-term perspective that so often accompanies responses to proclamations of crisis. And these new efforts will reek of hypocrisy if they do not also recognise the relationship between existing migration control policies and the vulnerability of migrants using routes into and through Libya.
The story of young men sold as slaves in Libya was the focus of debates at the UN Security Council and topped the agenda at a major summit of European and African leaders. Slavery and other abuses are an “abomination” that “can no longer be ignored”, stated Filippo Grandi, the UN’s high commissioner for refugees.
“I was arrested and imprisoned in southern Libya… I was sold to a slave trader, along with other Eritreans, Somalis and Nigerians. This person took us to a farm, where we could not leave except to go to work at a construction site and return. We were always guarded by armed people.”
But stories of forced labour, exploitation and the buying and selling of migrants are not particularly new. I heard them myself in 2015 when I was part of a research team which carried out interviews with nearly 200 people who had departed from Libya by boat, towards Italy and Malta.I was arrested and imprisoned in southern Libya … I was sold to a slave trader, along with other Eritreans, Somalis and Nigerians. This person took us to a farm, where we could not leave except to go to work at a construction site and return. We were always guarded by armed people.
These words, from a young Malian man, were mirrored by many others who spoke of being held captive, put into forced work or bought and sold. Some were set free once they had gathered enough ransom money, wired over to them by family and friends. Others might be released when their labour was no longer required or if they managed, somehow, to escape. But it was also not unusual to hear people being beaten and even see others die at the hands of their “owners”.
Our project has not been the only one to report such findings. In 2016, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) found that 71% of migrants who crossed the central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Europe had experienced exploitation, particularly kidnapping, forced labour, carrying out work without being paid and being kept at locations against their will. In February 2017, a Sky documentary described Libya as “hell” for migrants and a study of trafficking and smuggling there referred to “the extortion economy and new slave trade”.
Public figures are right to condemn people being sold as slaves in Libya. But their concern has an air of insincerity when they have known about it for years. The EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, expressed her “total condemnation of these despicable acts” but also stated that “this is not something that began one month ago. Everybody has known about it for years”.
For officials to say now that violence, exploitation and slavery can “no longer be ignored” belies the fact that these issues were downplayed and pushed aside as the EU pursued collaboration with the Libyan authorities to control migration.
The primary objective of European approaches has instead been to stem the flow of people departing Libya by boat. Since the declaration of a migrant crisis back in 2015, the EU has given increasing amounts of funding and training to the Libyan coastguard and to detention centres to keep migrants on Libyan soil.
In the summer of 2017, an emboldened Libyan coastguard then made threats of violence to international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) engaged in search and rescue missions at sea. Soon after, an armed militia west of Tripoli with backing from the Libyan authorities – who are themselves supported by Italian and EU authorities – stepped in to intercept boats and prevent people leaving towards Italy.
These policies to stop boats arriving on European shores have had significant implications for the conditions of migrants in Libya. Many of the people we interviewed told us that they saw boats to Europe as the only way to flee. Now, once they are pushed back to Libya, they are held in detention centres, many of which have been criticised by international observers as overcrowded, unsanitary places where migrants are exploited.
Research reports point to “abundant evidence” which shows that “detention facilities in Libya are the site of sustained criminal activity, as recruitment grounds for smuggling activity but also processing centres for ransom extraction and slavery.” Another report by the NGO Refugees International noted how often “in Libya the policeman is a smuggler, and the smuggler is a policeman”. Despite this, just a few months ago Macron claimed that Libya could be an appropriate place to process asylum requests.
The containment of migrants in Libya is therefore likely to be reinforcing the very situation that Europe’s leaders appear to be so angry about now. Médecins Sans Frontières described it as “feeding the business of suffering”.
Moving beyond a crisis
European approaches to migration across the Mediterranean have repeatedly been shaped by urgent attempts to address sudden crises. But the situation in Libya cannot easily be addressed by such a short-term response. People smuggling has been a thriving economic sector for years. The profits from smuggling, exploitation and now slavery provide important funds for different groups around the country. One report describes migrants as “simply another commodity to be exploited” by the various armed groups vying to control parts of Libyan territory.
An important contribution to finding a longer term solution could come from a newly announced “transit and departure facility” in Tripoli providing opportunities for people to escape from Libya. They would be resettled elsewhere, transferred to UNHCR facilities in other countries or returned to their country of origin. But so far there are only 10,500 places available – far below the number of places required – and this is little more than the nearly 9,000 returns already carried out by the IOM in 2017.
After a decade of repeatedly declaring migrant crises and emergencies at their borders, it is time the EU took a broader, longer-term approach. This has to recognise the structural relationship between policies of border control, dynamics of migration and patterns of migrant vulnerability and exploitation. Intensifying border controls without addressing the reasons why people move or providing alternatives is likely to reinforce the dangers that they face.
Quarantine Reflections: How Businesses Must Lead From The Heart Now
Bisila Bokoko, born in the Equatorial Guinea, raised in Spain and now resident in New York as a businesswoman, communications consultant and motivational speaker, is a global citizen like no other.
Straddling these regions for her wine and sports retail businesses and a library project she is spearheading in Senegal, Bokoko has been on self-quarantine for the last four weeks in her Manhattan apartment, after a recent work trip to Spain.
Here, she sheds light on the Covid-19 crisis that she says has made her more reflective of how she needs to rethink her businesses. “It is an extremely confusing and challenging time with such a huge impact on everything,” she says. “Life is never going to be the same again.”
The coronavirus outbreak has changed the way we eat, shop and consume, she adds, with the most dramatic change happening in retail, because of changing values and new priorities.
“The center is going to be the human being, and the wellbeing of the human,” says Bokoko. “And this will not be from an individual perspective, but in relation to each other. We have to be a more collaborative economy, because how we are, will affect everyone else. As leadership, we now need to lead from the heart.”
In this FORBES AFRICA interview, Bokoko speaks to Managing Editor Renuka Methil, also about how the current crisis will throw up new opportunities for local African art and the fashion business.
New York On Lockdown
As I walk through Brooklyn Bridge Park, gazing at the magnificent Manhattan skyline on the East River, at first glance it looks as crowded as it usually does. However, if you look closer, it’s not your typical mixture of tourists with their cacophony of foreign languages, photographers with tripods, or teenagers on skateboards. The park is filled with lone joggers, parents in yoga pants pushing double strollers and carefully guarding kids on scooters. No one plays volleyball in the sand by the river. No one picnics in the barbecue area. Everyone keeps a friendly and polite distance, some people wear face masks. And yet, it doesn’t really look like social distancing, or the lockdown that it is–ordered by the mayor and the governor of New York in an effort to contain the spread of the Coronavirus.
That peaceful picture of joggers and children playing shouldn’t fool anyone. The five boroughs of New York City – Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx — are hit hard by the rapidly spreading Coronavirus. With the death toll rising – 678 patients had died in overcrowded New York City hospitals by March 28, and the number of cases in New York state has surpassed 53,000; the five boroughs of New York have become the epicenter of the pandemic.
The healthcare system is overwhelmed. I spoke with four medical professionals in the city and they all confirm the disturbing reality that is in the news. The hospitals don’t have enough protective gear, single use masks have been reused, hospitals do not have enough beds and ventilators. Medical personnel intubate patients non-stop, assisting them with breathing. The city hospitals have set up makeshift tents to triage COVID-19 patients as well as to act as morgues. The government’s delayed response to the virus’s spread is costing many, many lives.
One thing that is striking about New Yorkers – my home of seventeen years – is how people come together and support each other. After the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001; during the power outage in 2003, when the entire city went dark for hours; and after the devastating hurricane Sandy in 2012.
On the day when Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, New Yorkers, predominantly liberal democrats, were especially sensitive with each other, calmly sharing their sadness and expressing worry for the future of their country. Today, when schools, non-essential stores, bars and restaurants are closed, and many people are isolating and trying to follow social distancing guidelines, members of communities come together to help each other: buying food for older neighbors, helping with disinfecting door knobs and elevator buttons. Mental health professionals volunteer their services to the anxious and scared. At grocery stores and pharmacies only a few people are allowed in at a time, people are waiting outside, standing about two meters apart, and the doormen pour out hand sanitizer into people’s palms.
Besides solidarity and respect, there is also fear and anxiety. Service and food industry workers are out of work, facing months of hardships. According to the New York State Labor department, during the first days of the lockdown, in some parts of the state, there was a 1,000% increase in unemployment claims as 1.7 million people called to file for benefits. Well over a million children from financially strained families relied on school lunches, and those are now provided at meal sites. But that also means the disparity in incomes in New York has been underscored by the Covid 19 impact, and the inequality between the haves and have-nots will continue to be exposed.
Forbes headquarters in New Jersey has been working remotely since the first week of March. We quickly re-organized: the entire company of 400 people has migrated into a virtual workplace, with a highly mobilized virtual newsroom. Besides holding daily meetings and video calls, our teams get together for virtual hangouts to keep each other’s spirits up.
The city authorities were slow to respond to the Covid-19 spread. For weeks, when it was clear the crisis was imminent, eight million New Yorkers commuted in crowded subways, went to crowded restaurants and bars, and also traveled to and from crowded international airports, breathing in each other’s air.
In the absence of the pandemic team, fired by Trump in 2018, the federal government’s response was slow to respond to the disaster. The Trump administration failed to prevent this crisis underestimating the danger of Covid-19: “We have it totally under control,” he said in January, when the virus was already spreading. “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control.” The government failed to test people in a timely manner. In New York, Mayor Bill De Blasio and the governor Andew Cuomo stepped in and tried to help the hospitals secure supplies and additional testing stations. They are still trying.
Meanwhile, the city is contemplating closing parks and other public places. Maybe even prohibiting people from leaving their homes, or perhaps prohibiting them from leaving New York itself. For the next few weeks, the Big Apple will stay confined indoors. Stay home, don’t spread, save lives.
–Katya Soldak, Forbes Staff, Business
Here’s How Much It Could Cost If We Stop Social Distancing
Topline: This week, President Trump floated the idea of easing up on social distancing measures on the theory that the damage caused by shutting down the economy might be greater than the cost of letting the virus run its course—some models suggest, however, that reopening the economy too soon could be exponentially more expensive.
- If the United States were to abandon aggressive social distancing measures after 14 days, more than 125 million people will contract the virus, some 7 million could be hospitalized, and 1.9 million people will die (accounting for other factors like infectiousness and hospitalization rates), according to a model built by the New York Times.
- If social distancing goes on for two months, the model predicts that 14 million will contract the virus, with fewer than 100,000 deaths.
- There’s no debate that the broader economy is going to suffer even at the current rate of spread. Morgan Stanley is predicting a 30% drop in GDP next quarter. U.S. GDP is currently $21.43 trillion. A drop of 30% would mean a value-loss of more than $6.4 trillion (for context, the economic relief bill signed by President Trump this afternoon is worth about $2 trillion).
- If the outbreak worsens due to relaxed social distancing measures, it’s not unreasonable to anticipate even greater economic losses.
- Economists can calculate the average value of one life saved using a model called the value of a statistical life. It’s a fuzzy metric used by some government agencies that is based on how much a person is willing to pay to reduce the risk of death. Right now, that figure hovers around $10 million.
- “If we could prevent a million deaths, at the usual way we value [them] of around $10 million each, that’s $10 trillion, which is half of GDP,” says James Hammitt, a professor of economics in Harvard’s health policy department.
- University of Chicago economists have arrived at a similar conclusion: they’ve found that under “moderate” social distancing measures, 1.7 million lives and at least $7.9 trillion could be saved.
Big number: The average cost of a hospital stay for a mild case of pneumonia is $9,763, according to Peterson-KFF analysis (pneumonia is commonly associated with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus). The median total cost balloons to $88,114 for the most severe cases that require more than four days of ventilator support. Seven million hospitalizations for patients with mild cases would cost more than $68 billion. If 17% of those patients required ventilator support, as was the case in one Chinese study, the cost of hospitalizations alone could add up to a staggering $161 billion, and that’s before the cost of other health complications related to the virus is accounted for.
Crucial quote: “Anything that slows the rate of the virus is the best thing you can do for the economy, even if by conventional measures it’s bad for the economy,” University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee told the New York Times.
Key background: In some ways, all of this discourse is more than a century old. A new paper released yesterday found that during the1918 flu pandemic—the closest historical analogue for the current coronavirus outbreak—cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively to slow the spread of the virus through social distancing and isolation of cases suffered no greater economic damage than those that didn’t. “On the contrary,” the authors write, “cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively experience a relative increase in real economic activity after the pandemic.” Seattle, Oakland, Omaha, and Los Angeles, for instance, implemented stronger containment measures than Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Philadelphia and all saw a much larger surge in job growth after the crisis was over in 1920.
Tangent: Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick suggested earlier this week that grandparents might be willing to die to preserve the economy for their grandchildren. “No one reached out to me and said, ‘as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’” he said. “And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.” His and Trump’s comments sparked a backlash among progressives on social media on Tuesday, when the hashtag #NotDying4WallStreet trended on Twitter as users voiced their fears of the pandemic, and of the government’s response to it. “I’ll let Wall Street flat line before my grandma does,” wrote one Twitter user.
– Sarah Hansen, Forbes Staff
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