AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Let's hear now from some people who have escaped a form of modern-day slavery. They are all African migrants who got stuck in Libya. They are some of the thousands of people being arrested on land or captured at sea as they try to make it to Europe. Many of them end up in jails run by militias. Then they are given a choice. Buy your way out, or be sold into bondage. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports from southern Tunisia, where she met with some of those who have escaped.
MONGI SLIM: You want we go to him?
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: I walk with Mongi Slim through an olive grove.
SLIM: You look.
SHERLOCK: Yes. There's people at the ladder.
He's the head of the Red Crescent aid group for a part of southern Tunisia, and we're here to meet a migrant he's helped find a job as an olive picker.
MOHAMMED: (Speaking Arabic).
SHERLOCK: Mohammed is from Niger. We agree not to use his last name because he's still afraid that the men who hurt him in Libya could find him here.
MOHAMMED: Even now I am in danger. I am fear my life because I am near Libya. You know Libya?
The border's just 60 miles away, he says. He looks haunted and terrified. He switches to Arabic, in which he's more comfortable.
MOHAMMED: (Speaking Arabic).
SHERLOCK: He says he left Niger after militants from Boko Haram moved into his city.
MOHAMMED: (Speaking Arabic).
SHERLOCK: Crossing undocumented through Libya, he was detained and thrown into a prison, what survivors call a slave market.
MOHAMMED: Souq in slavery.
SHERLOCK: His jailers held him for ransom, but when he couldn't pay, they sold him to a Libyan who used him for farm work.
MOHAMMED: (Through interpreter) I was like a slave, like I told you. He bought me from the militias.
SHERLOCK: He was made to pick tomatoes and feed camels, and he had to sleep outside in the dirt. His owner's behavior towards him was unpredictable.
MOHAMMED: (Through interpreter) During these seven months I spent with him, sometimes he would treat me well, and sometimes he wouldn't. He would hit me and beat me. It depended on his mood.
SHERLOCK: Mohammed couldn't believe what had happened to him. In Niger, he'd been an educated city kid.
MOHAMMED: (Through interpreter) I just kept thinking, I'm a human being just like him.
SHERLOCK: He escaped but then was detained again and then sold and resold for two years until he finally managed to get out of Libya on a smuggler's boat. Stories like Mohammed's are being documented more and more. In December, Amnesty International came out with a report on migrants in Libya that included the testimony of people sold into bonded labor. Marwa Mohamed, a researcher for that report, says a lot of this starts in detention centers for undocumented migrants. They're meant to be run by the Libyan authorities, but in Libya, that doesn't mean a lot.
MARWA MOHAMED: There are 33 official detention centers. They are in fact run by militias in certain areas, and there's very little oversight.
SHERLOCK: More than 20,000 migrants are in these centers, and thousands more are in jails run by criminal gangs. She says it's hard to know how widespread this slavery is because it's all caught up with the overall abuse that migrants face.
MOHAMED: It is a complicated web. It's so intertwined.
SHERLOCK: There's torture, kidnap, extortion. And somewhere in all that, says Mohamed, there's also modern-day slavery.
MOHAMED: We absolutely do know that everyone who gets out of these detention centers has either somehow miraculously escaped, has been sold or has to pay a large ransom in order to get out. These are your options.
SHERLOCK: She says European efforts to slow migration have actually made the problem worse. Italy and other countries train and pay the Libyan coast guard to intercept the migrant boats, but that just funnels more migrants to the detention centers where they're being mistreated and sold. The lucky ones escape to Tunisia.
SHERLOCK: A Red Crescent shelter not far from the olive grove where we met Mohammed is crammed full of hundreds of migrants who did get out. Some of their accounts are cruelly bizarre. A young man tells us he was dressed up as a woman by his Libyan owner, who then tried to sell him to a sex trafficker. We meet a woman and her baby.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY COOING)
SHERLOCK: She asks not to give her name as she nurses her tiny daughter in her arms. She doesn't know who the father is because she got pregnant when she was being held captive by a criminal gang who sold her for sex.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That is the only work they have for women. They sell women for not even up to a hundred dinars. And they don't normally pay you. They won't pay you.
SHERLOCK: At nine months pregnant, she boarded an overcrowded smuggler's boat. They broke down at sea, and there she survived for three days before they were rescued by the Tunisian coast guard.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I spent three days atop of that sea. I was pregnant - no food, no water. So God was there for me. It's not easy in Libya.
SHERLOCK: As she talks about her daughter, tears fall from her eyes.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I just want the best for her. That's all I want for her. I don't want her to live the same way I did.
SHERLOCK: She's applied for asylum in Europe and is now hopeful that she'll be able to reach there without having to board another smuggler's boat. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Medenine, Tunisia.
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