Libya's Slave Markets Show We Must Challenge Racism Wherever We Find It

Tunisian poet Anis Chouchène’s impassioned anti-racist plea ‘Peace be upon you’

At a time when we see appalling news every day, the shocking reports of slave markets in Libya have affected me like almost no other story. The horror of people reduced to the status of property in the region in which I live and work was all too much.

Here were desperate people I could relate to only too closely.

I know what it is like to run from conflict. I know what it is like to realise that your homeland offers you and your family no future. I also know what it is to experience life North Africa as someone from Sub-Saharan Africa. To find that you do not need to go far to have your very humanity doubted by those around you.

The tragic path that has led to young men being bought and sold for $400 in Tripoli markets is a complex one. The crisis that has seen refugees and migrants trapped, abused, kidnapped and worse in North Africa has its various roots and causes. Certainly it has been exacerbated by the European Union’s supposed prevention tactics. There has been much criticism of EU policies that have enriched and empowered militias and other troubling forces. This criticism is valid and necessary.

There is however another issue that has been critical to the appalling human rights abuses and human bondage we are now witnessing. It is an issue that has too often been overlooked, locally and internationally. That issue is the deep and pervasive anti-black racism found in North Africa.

The rise of nativist and openly racist movements in Europe have shown that prejudice based on no more than skin colour and nationality remains a deep-rooted problem there. The clashes over the memorialisation of white supremacists in American cities, and the marches of real live white supremacists lay bare that race remains a profoundly troubling issue too in the United States.

Awareness of a problem is very different from the will and strategy to deal with it. But without first recognising a problem exists and being prepared to discuss it, it is difficult if not impossible to successfully eliminate it.

I am afraid that many of us in Africa and the Middle East cannot claim that a real awareness or willingness to discuss and challenge racism and exists in our own countries. It simply cannot be denied that racist and bigoted attitudes and behaviours persist in the region.

The exploitation and abuse of foreign workers cannot exist without racism. The persecution, exclusion and marginalisation of ethnic minorities cannot exist without racism. Slave markets cannot exist without racism.

All of these things are going on right now in our region.

It is perhaps no surprise that Libya plays host to the logical conclusion of deep, and visceral prejudice - the complete and utter dehumanisation of people of other races. The country has frequently experienced racist violence, both under Gaddafi and in the immediate aftermath of the civil war, when many black African labourers were labelled mercenaries and subjected to brutal treatment.

What we have seen in Libya is certainly at the extreme end of the spectrum, but racism exists across the region, particularly toward migrant workers from Sub-Saharan Africa. Witness the experience of its domestic workers, the vast majority of whom come from overseas. Their treatment and working conditions have become so shocking that for over a year the Ugandan government instituted a ban on its citizens taking up domestic work in Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

The situation for migrant workers in Lebanon became so terrible that the Ethiopian ambassador in Beirut memorably claimed that he was no longer running an embassy, but a morgue. And when a Kuwaiti woman found her Ethiopian maid dangling from a window earlier this year, rather than helping, she reached instead for her mobile phone to film the poor woman’s fall. It was an all too telling glimpse at the value placed on African women by their employers.

In the face of this problem there have been heartening efforts to challenge racist attitudes in the region. Activists from across North Africa have engaged in campaigns to confront the prejudice experienced by migrants, especially Sub-Saharan Africans. This work is essential. We in the region are disgusted by the racism faced by people of Arab and African descent in Europe and America. We are outspoken in our condemnation of Islamophobia and xenophobia when we see it across the Mediterranean and Atlantic. We must be equally intolerant of bigotry on our shores, in our streets.

As we mark Human Rights Day, we recognise the universality of rights, and the need to be vigilant against racism wherever we find it. We have a problem with racism in our region. We need to talk about it. We all need to do something to put an end to it.

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