Libya today

Slavery in Libya[1][2][3] has a long history and a lasting impact on the Libyan culture. It is closely connected with the wider context of slavery in North African and trans-Saharan slave trade.


Further information: Slavery in antiquity and History of slavery in the Muslim world

Enslavement of the Berbers

When Amr ibn al-As conquered Tripoli in 643, he forced the Jewish and Christian Berbers to give their wives and children as slaves to the Arab army as part of their jizya.[4][5][6] Uqba ibn Nafi would often enslave for himself (and to sell to others) countless Berber girls, "the likes of which no one in the world had ever seen."[7]

Ibn Abd al-Hakam recounts that the Arab General Hassan ibn al-Nu'man would often abduct "young, female Berber slaves of unparalleled beauty, some of which were worth a thousand dinars." Al-Hakam confirms that up to one hundred thousand slaves were captured by Musa and his son and nephew during the conquest of North Africa. In Tangier, Musa enslaved all the Berber inhabitants. Musa sacked a fortress near Kairouan and took with him all the children as slaves.[8] The number of Berbers enslaved "amounted to a number never before heard of in any of the countries subject to the rule of Islam" up to that time. As a result, "most of the African cities were depopulated, [and] the fields remained without cultivation." Even so, Musa "never ceased pushing his conquests until he arrived before Tangiers, the citadel of their [Berbers’] country and the mother of their cities, which he also besieged and took, obliging its inhabitants to embrace Islam."[9]

The historian Pascual de Gayangos observed: “Owing to the system of warfare adopted by the Arabs, it is not improbable that the number of captives here specified fell into Musa’s hands. It appears both from Christian and Arabian authorities that populous towns were not infrequently razed to the ground and their inhabitants, amounting to several thousands, led into captivity.”[10][11]

Successive Muslim rulers of North Africa continued to enslave the Berbers en masse. The historian Hugh N. Kennedy observed that "the Islamic jihad looks uncomfortably like a giant slave trade."[12] Arab chronicles record vast numbers of Berber slaves taken, especially in the accounts of Musa ibn Nusayr, who became the governor of Africa in 698, and who "was cruel and ruthless against any tribe that opposed the tenets of the Muslim faith, but generous and lenient to those who converted."[13] Muslim historian Ibn Qutaybah recounts Musa ibn Nusayr waging "battles of extermination" against the Berbers and how he "killed myriads of them, and made a surprising number of prisoners."[14]

According to the historian As-sadfi, the number of slaves taken by Musa ibn Nusayr was greater than in any of the previous Islamic conquests.[15]

Musa went out against the Berbers, and pursued them far into their native deserts, leaving wherever he went traces of his passage, killing numbers of them, taking thousands of prisoners, and carrying on the work of havoc and destruction. When the nations inhabiting the dreary plains of Africa saw what had befallen the Berbers of the coast and of the interior, they hastened to ask for peace and place themselves under the obedience of Musa, whom they solicited to enlist them in the ranks of his army

Enslavement of Europeans

Main article: Barbary slave trade

There is historical evidence of North African Muslim slave raids all along the Mediterranean coasts across Christian Europe.[16] The majority of slaves traded across the Mediterranean region were predominantly of European origin from the 7th to 15th centuries.[17] In the 15th century, Ethiopians sold slaves from western borderland areas (usually just outside the realm of the Emperor of Ethiopia) or Ennarea.[18]

It is estimated that between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by pirates and sold as slaves between the 16th and 19th century. Reports of Barbary raids and kidnappings of those in Italy, France, Iberia, England, Ireland, Scotland and as far north as Iceland exist from this period.[19] Famous accounts of Barbary slave raids include a mention in the Diary of Samuel Pepys and a raid on the coastal village of Baltimore, Ireland, during which pirates left with the entire populace of the settlement. Such raids in the Mediterranean were so frequent and devastating that the coastline between Venice and Malaga[20] suffered widespread depopulation, and settlement there was discouraged. It was said that this was largely because "there was no one left to capture any longer".[21]

Enslavement of West & Central Africans

Further information: Afro-Arabs, Trans-Saharan trade route, Trans-Saharan slave trade, and Ottoman slave trade

A depiction of slaves being transported across the Sahara desert

The Tuareg and others who are indigenous to Libya facilitated, taxed and partly organized the trade from the south along the trans-Saharan trade routes. In the 1830s – a period when slave trade flourished – Ghadames was handling 2,500 slaves a year.[22] Even though the slave trade was officially abolished in Tripoli in 1853, in practice it continued.[23]

The British Consul in Benghazi wrote in 1875 that the slave trade had reached an enormous scale and that the slaves who were sold in Alexandria and Constantinople had quadrupled in price. This trade, he wrote, was encouraged by the local government.[23]

Italian postcard from 1937, purporting to show an enslaved Cyrenaican (Libyan) woman. Sensualised depiction of slavery was a common cultural trope of the early 20th century.

Adolf Vischer writes in an article published in 1911 that: " has been said that slave traffic is still going on on the Benghazi-Wadai route, but it is difficult to test the truth of such an assertion as, in any case, the traffic is carried on secretly".[24] At Kufra, the Egyptian traveller Ahmed Hassanein Bey found out in 1916 that he could buy a girl slave for five pounds sterling while in 1923 he found that the price had risen to 30 to 40 pounds sterling.[25]

Another traveler, the Danish convert to Islam Knud Holmboe, crossed the Italian Libyan desert in 1930, and was told that slavery is still practiced in Kufra and that he could buy a slave girl for 30 pounds sterling at the Thursday slave market.[25] According to James Richardson's testimony, when he visited Ghadames, most slaves were from Bornu.[26]

21st century

Human Rights Watch documented cases of migrants frequently being arbitrarily detained and sold in Libyan detention centers.[27] Amnesty International also noted that migrants traveling through Libya were subject to detention in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions, and torture.[28] The US state department also noted in their 2010 report on human trafficking: "As in previous years, there were isolated reports that women from West and Central Africa were forced into prostitution in Libya. There were also reports that migrants from Georgia were subjected to forced labor in Libya," and argued that the Libyan government did not show significant evidence of effort to prosecute traffickers or protect trafficking victims.[29]

Slavery in the post-Gaddafi era

Since Muammar Gaddafi's regime was overthrown during the First Libyan Civil War in 2011, Libya has been plagued by disorder, leaving migrants with little cash and no papers vulnerable. Libya is a major exit point for African migrants heading to Europe. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) published a report in April 2017 showing that many of the migrants from West, Central and Sahelian Africa heading to Europe are sold as slaves after being detained by people smugglers or militia groups. African countries south of Libya were targeted for slave trading and transferred to Libyan slave markets instead. According to the victims, the price is higher for migrants with skills like painting and tiling.[30][31] Slaves are often ransomed to their families and until ransom can be paid are tortured, forced to work, sometimes to death and eventually executed or left to starve if they can't pay for too long. Women are often raped and used as sex slaves and sold to brothels and private Libyan clients.[30][31][32][33] Many child migrants also suffer from abuse and child rape in Libya.[34][35]

After receiving unverified CNN video of a November 2017 slave auction in Libya, a human trafficker told Al-Jazeera that hundreds of migrants are bought and sold across the country every week.[36] Migrants who have gone through Libyan detention centres have shown signs of many human rights abuses such as severe abuse, including electric shocks, burns, lashes and even skinning, stated the director of health services on the Italian island of Lampedusa to Euronews.[37]

A Libyan group known as the Asma Boys have antagonized migrants from other parts of Africa from at least as early as 2000, destroying their property.[38] Nigerian migrants in January 2018 gave accounts of abuses in detention centres, including being leased or sold as slaves.[39] Videos of Sudanese migrants being burnt and whipped for ransom, were released later on by their families on social media.[40] In June 2018, the United Nations applied sanctions against four Libyans (including a Coast Guard commander) and two Eritreans for their criminal leadership of slave trade networks.[41]

A 2023 report by the UN Human Rights Council warned that crimes against humanity were being committed by state security forces and militia groups against migrants in Libya, which included women being forced into sexual slavery. The report highlighted that the European Union contributed to these crimes by sending support to such forces.[42]


The governments of Burkina Faso and the Democratic Republic of the Congo responded to the reports by recalling their ambassadors from Libya.[43] The CNN report incited outrage. Hundreds of protesters, mostly young black people, protested in front of the Libyan embassy in central Paris, with French police firing tear gas to disperse them. Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairman of the African Union Commission, called the auctions "despicable".[44] Protests also took place outside Libyan embassies in Bamako, Conakry[45] and Yaounde.[46] UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated that he was horrified by the auction footage and these crimes should be investigated as possible crimes against humanity.[47] Hundreds protested outside the Libyan Embassy on 9 December in London.[48]

President of Niger Mahamadou Issoufou summoned the Libyan ambassador and demanded the International Court of Justice to investigate Libya for slave trade. Foreign minister of Burkina Faso Alpha Barry also stated he had summoned the Libyan ambassador for consultations.[49] France on 22 November sought an emergency meeting of UN Security Council, while President Emmanuel Macron called the footage "scandalous" and "unacceptable." He called the auctions a crime against humanity.[50] President of Nigeria Muhammadu Buhari stated that Nigerians were being treated like goats and stated stranded Nigerian migrants in Libya will be brought back.[51]

The African Union, European Union and United Nations agreed on 30 November to set up a task force in Libya against migrant abuse. The task force's aim is to coordinate its work with the GNA to dismantle trafficking and criminal networks. It also aims to help countries of origin and transit hubs to tackle migration with development and stability.[52] African and European leaders agreed on the same day to evacuate the migrants trapped in camps.[53] Former Nigerian aviation minister Femi Fani-Kayode published images on Twitter claiming that slaves were having their organs harvested and some of their bodies are burnt. He also quoted a report claiming that 75% of the slaves are from southern Nigeria. It was unclear however whether his images were authentic.[54]

A Ghanaian lawyer, Bobby Banson, also claimed that the organs of the migrants were being harvested and they were not being sold for work. He requested African Union to set up an ad-hoc committee to investigate the slave trade.[55]

In 2017, the progressive media watchdog organization FAIR accused the mainstream media in Western nations of whitewashing the role NATO and the United States played in the resurgence of open slave markets in Libya, following the NATO-led ousting of Muammar Qadhafi in 2011.[56]

NCHRL accusations of exaggerated reporting

In November 2017, the National Commission for Human Rights in Libya (NCHRL) claimed that the media reports of slavery in Libya were exaggerated, and that while slavery existed in Libya, it was also rare as well.[57] Slave auctions, the commission said, are "such rare sights" and "are very discrete and clandestine".[57] The commission also called for the Libyan government to stamp out the illegal practice of slavery as well.[57]

See also


  1. ^ TRT World (12 April 2017). "Libya Slave Trade: Rights group says migrants sold off in markets". Archived from the original on 2021-12-21 – via YouTube.
  2. ^ TRT World (26 April 2017). "Profiting off the misery of others: Libya's migrant 'slave trade'". Archived from the original on 2021-12-21 – via YouTube.
  3. ^ "Immigrant Women, Children Raped, Starved in Libya's Hellholes: Unicef". 28 February 2017. Archived from the original on 30 March 2019. Retrieved 11 June 2017.
  4. ^ Pipes, Daniel (1981). Slave Soldiers and Islam: The Genesis of a Military System. Daniel Pipes. p. 142-43. ISBN 9780300024470.
  5. ^ Kennedy, Hugh (2007). The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In. Da Capo Press. p. 206. ISBN 9780306815850.
  6. ^ The History of the Conquest of Egypt, North Africa and Spain: Known as the Futuh. Cosimo. January 2010. p. 170. ISBN 9781616404352.
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  8. ^ The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise. Open Road Media. 9 February 2016. p. 43-44. ISBN 9781504034692.
  9. ^ The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain. p. 252.
  10. ^ The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain. p. 1:510n10.
  11. ^ The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise. Open Road Media. 9 February 2016. p. 43. ISBN 9781504034692.
  12. ^ The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In. p. 222.
  13. ^ Barbarians, Marauders, And Infidels. Basic Books. 26 May 2004. p. 116. ISBN 9780813391533.
  14. ^ The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise. Open Road Media. 9 February 2016. p. 42-44. ISBN 9781504034692.
  15. ^ The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise. Open Road Media. 9 February 2016. p. 100. ISBN 9781504034692.
  16. ^ Conlin, Joseph (2009), The American Past: A Survey of American History, Boston, MA: Wadsworth, p. 206, ISBN 978-0-495-57288-6, retrieved 10 October 2010
  17. ^ McDaniel, Antonio (1995), Swing low, sweet chariot: the mortality cost of colonizing Liberia in the nineteenth century, University of Chicago Press, p. 11, ISBN 978-0-226-55724-3
  18. ^ Emery Van Donzel, "Primary and Secondary Sources for Ethiopian Historiography. The Case of Slavery and Slave-Trade in Ethiopia," in Claude Lepage, ed., Études éthiopiennes, vol I. France: Société française pour les études éthiopiennes, 1994, pp.187-88.
  19. ^ "When Europeans Were Slaves: Research Suggests White Slavery Was Much More Common Than Previously Believed". Archived from the original on 2011-07-25.
  20. ^ "BBC - History - British History in depth: British Slaves on the Barbary Coast".
  21. ^ "BBC - History - British History in depth: British Slaves on the Barbary Coast".
  22. ^ K. S. McLachlan, "Tripoli and Tripolitania: Conflict and Cohesion during the Period of the Barbary Corsairs (1551-1850)", Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, Vol. 3, No. 3, Settlement and Conflict in the Mediterranean World. (1978), pp. 285-294.
  23. ^ a b Lisa Anderson, "Nineteenth-Century Reform in Ottoman Libya", International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 16, No. 3. (Aug., 1984), pp. 325-348.
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  25. ^ a b Wright, John (2007). The trans-Saharan slave trade. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-38046-1.
  26. ^ Wright, John (1989). Libya, Chad and the Central Sahara. C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd. ISBN 1-85065-050-0.
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  31. ^ a b "Migrants from west Africa being 'sold in Libyan slave markets'". The Guardian.
  32. ^ "African migrants sold as 'slaves' in Libya". 3 July 2020.
  33. ^ "West African migrants are kidnapped and sold in Libyan slave markets / Boing Boing". 11 April 2017.
  34. ^ Adams, Paul (28 February 2017). "Libya exposed as child migrant abuse hub". BBC News.
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  46. ^ Michael Ike Dibie (November 22, 2017). "Libya: Cameroonians protest against sale of migrants as slave". Africanews. Retrieved November 24, 2017.
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  54. ^ "Nigerian slaves have organs harvested, bodies mutilated and are set on fire, horrifying pictures claim". Newsweek. December 1, 2017. Retrieved December 24, 2017.
  55. ^ "Lawyer: Slaves In Libya Are Used For Organ Trade". Newsweek. December 3, 2017. Archived from the original on December 13, 2017. Retrieved December 24, 2017.
  56. ^ Norton, Ben (November 28, 2017). "Media Erase NATO Role in Bringing Slave Markets to Libya". Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Retrieved April 4, 2019. The American and British media have awakened to the grim reality in Libya, where African refugees are for sale in open-air slave markets. Yet a crucial detail in this scandal has been downplayed or even ignored in many corporate media reports: the role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in bringing slavery to the North African nation.
  57. ^ a b c "Libyan human rights body upset over CNN report of slave auctions in Libya - The Libya Observer". Retrieved 24 June 2019.