The New York Times breathlessly reported this week that African migrants face prejudice at the hands of Arabs in Libya:
When Kalilu Drammeh arrived in Libya he was in many ways similar to thousands of other migrants from across Africa, all of them desperate to cross the sea to get to Europe and, they hoped, a better life.
But in Libya, Mr. Drammeh, like many other people from his native Gambia and other sub-Saharan countries, stood out among the swirl of migrants and was an automatic target for abuse for one obvious reason: his skin color is darker.
Libyan smugglers call them “burned,” a racial epithet sometimes used in the country for people whose skin color is black. And while many of the migrants who pass through Libya hoping to set sail for Italy are beaten and otherwise abused by smugglers, Mr. Drammeh believes his treatment was especially harsh because of his skin color.
Fellow Muslims — even children — refused to let him pray alongside them. “They think they’re better than us,” Mr. Drammeh, who is 18, said by phone from a refugee camp in Italy. “They say we’re created different from them.”
Bigotry against Africans in North Africa is not news. But, reading between the lines of the NYT piece, Western journalists appear shocked—shocked!—to discover that race prejudice exists in other cultures too. The ill treatment of black Africans at the hands of Arab human traffickers should not surprise anyone with a grasp on the history of the region, particularly the trans-Saharan slave trade that endured for centuries. Of this historical context, the NYT has only this to say:
“Tensions between North Africans and sub-Saharan Africans have long existed.”
We may have a winner for “understatement of the millennium.” But by focusing only on the color prejudice of Libyan traffickers, the NYT misses the larger story: the centuries-long Arab slave trade, known to continue to this day in Sudan and Mauritania, has returned to the Mediterranean Basin.
Here’s the historical context the NYT omitted. Writing in BMC Evolutionary Biology, a team of scientists found that the long-lasting Arab slave trade reshaped North African genetics, with one-fourth to one-half of North Africans bearing significant sub-Saharan ancestry. They summarize the best estimates for the Arab slave trade:
Till now, the genetic consequences of these forced trans-Saharan movements of people have not been ascertained, being over-shadowed by the Atlantic slave trade towards the New World. In fact, the huge number of sub-Saharan people introduced in the New World from the 16th century onwards allowed to investigating in great detail the genetic consequences of this historical event, and the complete sequencing of L-lineages is indicating very precisely about the origin of lineages observed nowadays in America. Nonetheless, some authors affirm that the Arab slave trade of black slaves was much the same in total to the Atlantic slave trade, and interestingly far longer in the time scale. It began in the middle of the seventh century (650 A.D.) and survives still today in Mauritania and Sudan, summing up 14 centuries rather than four as for the Atlantic slave trade. Although estimates are very rough, figures are of 4,820,000 for the Saharan trade between 650 and 1600 A.D., and, for comparison purposes, of 2,400,000 for the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean trade between 800 and 1600 A.D.
The NYT alludes to the harsh conditions and forced labor African migrants face in Libya, but stops short of suggesting the connection to slavery. Libyan smugglers are not merely ferrymen for Africans on their way to what they hope will prove a better life in Europe—often, these traffickers are modern-day slave traders who keep their “clients” in appalling conditions. The parallels to the Arab slave trade are all too apparent. The Guardian, from April of this year:
West African migrants are being bought and sold openly in modern-day slave markets in Libya, survivors have told a UN agency helping them return home.
Trafficked people passing through Libya have previously reported violence, extortion and slave labour. But the new testimony from the International Organization for Migration suggests that the trade in human beings has become so normalised that people are being traded in public.
“The latest reports of ‘slave markets’ for migrants can be added to a long list of outrages [in Libya],” said Mohammed Abdiker, IOM’s head of operation and emergencies. “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.”
The story in Libya certainly includes racism—a phenomenon familiar to Western readers, and hopefully a frame that will provoke interest in and concern for the African migrants in Libya. But the story, bound up in the historical context of the Arab slave trade, is larger than prejudice alone. It is one thing to say that Africans are being discriminated against in Libya because of the color of their skin. It’s another thing entirely to suggest that the trafficking and forced labor of Africans in Libya amounts to modern-day slavery. The longer we delay calling what’s facing Africans in Libya by its real name—slavery—the more we postpone the day of their liberation.