Migrants Day: Africa must reject modern-day slavery

As the world marks the International Migrants Day, on behalf of the United Nations family in Uganda, I would like to draw renewed attention, and call for each one of us to commit to a sustainable solution to the problem of modern-day slavery.

Every December 18, the United Nations stops to reflect on the contribution of, and constraints pertaining to the enduring reality of human mobility. This year’s Migrants Day theme: ‘The Challenges and Promises of Migration’, is particularly apt.

It is timely because the day comes at a time described by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres as a time in history when we are witnessing some of, “the most egregious abuses of human rights [that] may amount to crimes against humanity”. I am talking here about reports of the kidnapping, selling and buying of mostly African youths in Libya today in 2017.

Human mobility is as old as our presence on this planet. Historical records indicate the displacement of humans across regions, empires and nations looking for work, for trade or for political alliances to be established.

Ensuring the dignified right of human mobility is critical in this era in which all member states of the UN have pledged to implement the Sustainable Development Goals in their countries. Attaining the 2030 Agenda requires a focus on people regardless of gender, ethnicity or religion to ensure inclusive and sustainable development - this is what leaving no one behind means.

As early as April, the UN Migration Agency known as IOM, highlighted for the first time, the scandal of ancient-style slavery in modern-day Libya.

The reaction by the international community was muted. It is unthinkable that in the year 2017, on the continent that gave us Ubuntu, people are bought and sold, beaten and raped, and sometimes even murdered – for money.

Families are being ordered to pay or lose their loved ones. The situation is an affront to our shared humanity and to our dignity as human beings. We cannot talk about sustainable development and inclusive economic growth without ensuring the protection of all people in particular young African people.

Before April, IOM highlighted the perils of the Saharan route, where migrants were bypassing decomposing remains of Africans abandoned on the treacherous trek to Libya. To think that those who survive this journey end up being traded like voiceless slaves is beyond tragic. And it is not just Libya. Slavery continues to manifest itself in new forms around the world.

Uganda has had its own share of stories of mostly youthful labourers being held and treated like slaves in the Middle East, their passports confiscated, their fate resting with the recruitment agents who took them to find ‘well-paying jobs’.
Some of the Ugandans who have returned from Libya are too traumatised to talk about what they endured. We commend the government for recent steps taken to try to streamline the recruitment of Ugandan nationals as migrant workers, by reaching out to governments in the Arab world and updating policies governing this movement. This is an example of the international cooperation UN Secretary General, Guterres is calling for.

Let me reiterate that as IOM and the broader UN often state, migration in itself is not a problem to be solved, rather a reality to be managed as a contribution to sustainable development and innovative approaches to economic transformation. Migration only becomes a problem when it is clandestine, unofficial and inhumane.

That is why under Sustainable Development Goal 10, target 10.7 urges UN member States to “facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies.”

In his recent statement on the Libyan slave scandal, UN Secretary General Guterres said: “This also reminds us of the need to address migration flows in a comprehensive and humane manner: Through development cooperation aiming at addressing its root causes, through a meaningful increase of all the opportunities for legal migration and through an enhanced international cooperation in cracking down on smugglers and traffickers and protecting the rights of their victims.” But we need more of this in a concerted manner.

The people on this humane continent need their leaders to say a big ‘NO’ to the disguised slave traders that promise jobs and lead youths into slavery cells instead. This point was made in November by Dr Alpha Conde, the chairperson of the African Union Commission, when he urged Libyan authorities to identify and prosecute all perpetrators of slavery and their accomplices.

Holding those responsible for this inhumane treatment accountable in a court of law will require robust coordination between governments, civil society and security entities.

But beyond Libya, let our governments strengthen existing agreements on the free movement of people and goods as well as on job creation in order to increase the opportunities for young people in their home countries. Let’s transform migration into a choice and avoid it from being undertaken due to lack of choice.

The New York Declaration adopted in September 2016 at UN Headquarters, includes a pledge by Member States to develop a comprehensive global compact on migration. Let this tragic moment serve to energize further ongoing consultations on an African common position on migration that will help ensure that the new global compact enshrines the principles and best practices to ensure migration is safe, orderly and humane for all.

As we commemorate Migrant’s Day, let us all take time to think about the plight of thousands of migrants from this continent and around the world and let us identify action that we will take in our communities and place of work to promote respect for anyone working or pursuing work opportunities around us.
Let us also commit to teach our children to respect and empower others regardless of their status, gender or ethnicity. Together, we can ensure that no one is left behind as we pursue a shared vision of attaining sustainable and inclusive development.

Ms Malango is the UN Resident Coordinator and the UNDP Resident Representative in Uganda.