In November, CNN broke a story about modern-day slavery in Libya that went viral. Grainy video showed men and women being beaten and being sold for less than the cost of a smartphone.
There were no happy endings, no 12 Years a Slave escapes; thousands of people seeking refugee and asylum were being put in shackles. For a good week, there was a serious discussion in the news about America’s role in this tragedy, and what our obligation was as a nation to fix it.
Then Roy Moore happened. Then Meghan Markle got engaged. Then net neutrality got gutted. Then the GOP tax bill happened. Then, sprinkled in between these stories, President Donald Trump tried to start five different nuclear wars. America lost track of slavery, which is particularly ironic because one of the main reasons half a million people in Libya are at risk of enslavement is that former President Barack Obama decided to go all “Call of Duty” on Libya in 2011 and left the nation a mess.
The question now is what is being done to stop this human rights tragedy and, more important, who in America is just talking, and who’s really doing something? To find out, The Root spoke to Janette Yarwood, Democratic staff director for the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa.
“It was on the news, it got a lot of attention, but it’s up to the media and the people to keep attention on the story,” Yarwood tells The Root.
Brought on by Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) in 2017, Yarwood is the kind of hidden congressional hero you seldom hear about. Like the IT person who works on servers all day so you can play “Minecraft,” Yarwood’s job is to keep focus on an issue that isn’t sexy, isn’t getting a lot of attention but is simply a moral imperative.
Why is Libyan slavery a moral issue for the United States? Not only is the U.S. partially responsible, but the situation has gotten demonstrably worse for refugees since the story broke in November.
The majority of the refugees are from Eritrea or the Sudan seeking asylum in Israel or Europe and using Libya as a jumping-off point. However, political winds have been changing in Europe, making it harder for refugees to enter, and at the end of December, the Israeli government gave African refugees 90 days to get out of the country or face arrest.
Of course, news travels slow when you’re running for your life, so many people don’t find out that there are refugee restrictions until they’re already in Libya. By that point, slavers offering a way out are able to take advantage.
When Muammar Qaddafi was in charge of Libya, his iron rule kept a lid on certain illegal practices, slavery being one of them. Since the United States helped topple him, slave traders have been profiting off of the refugees who arrive in the country seeking a better life.
To address this issue, Bass has introduced House Resolution 644, which calls on the Trump administration to formally condemn the slave trade in Libya, implement policies to correct the problem and set up programs to monitor what the Libyan government is doing.
“The bill doesn’t really face any opposition,” Yarwood says. “It’s bipartisan, but there are still people who haven’t signed. Sometimes these things take time.”
In the meantime, members of the Congressional Black Caucus have met with the Libyan ambassador to the United States and held hearings to discuss how to prevent slavery from spreading throughout North Africa. At this point, it seems like the Libyan government is committed to solving the problem but lacks the resources on the ground.
“The camps that are government-controlled are working with us,” Yarwood says.
But given that the slave trade is often done underground, it takes more pressure and work from the United States.
On the Senate side, reaction to the Libyan slave trade has been more piecemeal. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has tweeted about it, and at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in December, he questioned Trump State Department officials about it.
Still, it’s clear the bulk of the action has been on the House side of Capitol Hill. The Senate hasn’t introduced companion legislation to H.R. 644.
Bass’ office and the CBC are seeking bipartisan solution, and there are many Democrats and Republicans who want to stop what’s happening in Libya. But let’s be honest: Part of why this legislative process is moving so slowly is that stopping African slavery isn’t a real priority for the Republican-controlled House and Senate. It wasn’t that long ago that they were climbing over themselves to support Roy Moore, who said slavery was great for families.
Organizations like the American Black Cross have been contacting members of Congress to push the resolution, and will formally launch the #SlaveryMatters hashtag this month.
However, if change is really going to come, Libyan slavery needs to stay in Americans’ mentions, timelines and conversations just as much as #BringBackOurGirls or #Kony2012 did. Members of Congress will only move on the legislation if they think the public actually cares about the issue. They will only put it on Trump’s desk if they think it’ll score points with voters.
With the 2018 midterm elections coming up, H.R. 644 is the kind of feel-good legislation that everyone on both sides can get behind, if they get enough cues from the public.
The United States has never fully addressed its complicity in the American slave trade; the least it can do today is not repeat those mistakes in another country.