Volume 74, Number 34 | December 29 - January 04, 2004


Villager photos by Q. Sakamaki

Human trafficking in Libya

The situation of “human trafficking” in Libya is the subject of a photo essay by Q. Sakamaki, who visited the Northern African country in July. As the East Village photojournalist explains it, people from sub-Saharan Africa seeking a better life journey across the Sahara desert for many days to cross the border into Libya illegally. There they find work, often of the dirty or dangerous type that Libyans don’t want to do. Frequently, they purposely don’t bring passports, which makes it harder for them to be deported, since the authorities then cannot easily determine where they came from.

There are officially 1 million foreign workers in Libya, a country of 6 million, but the unofficial total of foreign workers — many of them staying illegally — is closer to 2 million.

The foreign workers try to earn enough money to pay the high price of getting to Europe. Each year, with the help of the Libyan mafia, tens of thousands of African workers attempt to make it to Italy, smuggled across the Mediterranean in boats for $2,000 per person. Not everyone makes it across alive, however, because of faulty boats and bad sea conditions, according to Sakamaki.

“It’s a very, super-hot issue right now,” said Sakamaki of human trafficking. “Now, the Libyan government is trying to close it down a little bit — but not completely, because so many African people would like to go to Libya…. Italy is complaining. Meanwhile, N.G.O.’s, human rights workers, want them to loosen regulations. They say the workers are victims of war, rape.”

Some of the illegal workers have stayed in Libya more than a decade and are now raising families. Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi has to keep an eye on them, says Sakamaki, in case economic conditions compel them to join dissidents.

“It’s a time bomb — 2 million, it’s a lot,” he said.

The photos on these pages show a group of workers from Niger on a smuggling route in the Libyan Sahara after a 25-day trek from their hometown; Sudanese workers collecting hay in Barjouj, where the desert has become fertile thanks to the Great Manmade River Project; Egyptians doing restoration work at ancient ruins, including a statue of Venus, at Sabratha — Libya is hoping to attract increased tourism now that international sanctions have ended; Ghanaian foreign workers at a construction site; a Sudanese man working in a tailor shop beneath a portrait of Qaddafi; non-Libyan Africans walking past a Qaddafi poster; and hanging out on the waterfront in Tripoli; and migrants hanging out and praying near an African migrant market in Tripoli.

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