Modern Slavery of African Migrants: Fleeing from Hardship to Servitude

Hundreds of people of African descent took part in the Afrikan Emancipation Day Reparations March on August 01, 2017 in London, England. Photo: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Im/Barcroft Media/Getty Images

Most discussions about slavery are often depicted by shackles, chains, padlocks, handcuffs, ships and other experiences of the transatlantic era. But over a century since the abolishment of slavery around the world, the menace still exists and has evolved into a modern version. From Africa to Asia, Europe, and the Americas, an estimated 40.3 million people are still trapped in modern slavery, according to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, with 71 per cent of the victims being women and girls. Just like many other humanitarian issues, modern slavery is most prevalent in Africa, followed by Asia and the Pacific. Africa has 51 countries and makes up just 16 per cent of the world’s population. But despite that, it grapples with the highest slavery issues globally, with 7.6 per 1,000 people in modern slavery.

African Migrants Slaving Abroad

Unfortunately, not only do Africans experience servitude in their home countries, but so many of them are also victims of modern slavery in other countries and continents. Due to the unending armed conflicts coupled with natural issues, such as droughts, heavy rainfall and other unfavourable weather conditions, resulting in a serious refugee crisis, many Africans seek greener pastures abroad. But in their search for a better life, many have moved from hardship to regrettable servitude.

Risky Journey through the Mediterranean Sea

In 2017, it was reported that 400,000 to 1 million migrants from various parts of Africa were trapped in Libya. In their bid to enter Europe through the Mediterranean Sea, most African migrants on this deadly journey must transit through Libya. Unfortunately, that is the end of the road for many of them, as they are trapped in the Libyan slave market where hundreds of refugees were reportedly being sold. And at the detention centre in the country, these refugees daily experience robbery, rape, murder and all forms of devastating occurrences. Sadly, Libya still remains a breeding ground for slavery to date, just as many young Africans won’t stop embarking on this dangerous adventure.

For many of them who make it out of Libya alive after suffering various kinds of dehumanizing experience, there exist several other hurdles ahead. This includes being exposed to wind, cold, waves, and hunger, which usually leads to many fatalities in the Mediterranean Sea. Between January and March 2021, 163 migrants presumed to be from sub-Saharan Africa and 33 from North Africa died in the Mediterranean Sea. In 2020, more than 350 African migrants were believed to have died in the sea while trying to manoeuvre their ways to Europe. With around 200 deaths from January to March this year, the Mediterranean Sea accounted for the largest number of missing cases and deaths of people who migrated. Unfortunately, it is always hard to ascertain the origin of these victims.

For many African migrants who make it to their intended destination, their hopes of Eldorado in these foreign countries are sometimes shattered because many of them came through illegal means and had unrealistic expectations. With no marketable skills and academic qualifications, several young Africans are lured by traffickers who deceivingly take them abroad for slavery.

Forced Prostitution

According to the International Labor Organization, forced labour, forced sexual exploitation and forced commercial sexual exploitation are among the most prevalent modern slavery. Dishearteningly, many African migrants are victims of all these in different parts of the world. Between 2016 and 2019, more than 20,000 Nigerian women reportedly crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Italy, and an estimated 80 per cent of them ended up in prostitution. The prostitution ring is usually run like a syndicate whereby an individual or group of people facilitate the migration of young women and girls to various destinations with promises of high paying jobs abroad. Upon their arrival, their passports are sometimes confiscated, and they are forced into prostitution, making profits for their ring leaders. Most of them ply their trade in Italy while others move to parts of Europe.

For instance, many women prostituting in Germany are from Nigeria, and most of them are victims of human traffickers. Nigerian women accounted for 61% of African trafficking victims in Germany in 2018. Also, in Dubai, there are various cases of African women engaging in prostitution under the leadership of the so-called madams, the masterminds of these human trafficking cum slavery deals. The victims are sometimes made to undergo some voodoo practice involving blood-drinking and other diabolical ceremonies. They are compelled to swear that they would abide by the leaders’ instructions or face deadly consequences. The situation is the same in United Arab Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Central Asia.

Forced Labour

Forced labour is another form of slavery several African migrants undergo. Many of the low-wage and semi-skilled migrant workers in the UAE are from Africa. A great number of them are trafficked into forced labour and are usually recruited by agents who collect high recruitment fees to get them employment and work permits in the UAE. Upon arrival in UAE, they will be asked to sign contracts that they sometimes do not understand and have conditions totally different from what they promised before leaving their home countries. They would then be forced into long hours of work in cramped labour camps, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace reports.  They also endure poor living and sanitary conditions and are compelled to accept different unpleasant conditions imposed on them, including falling into debt bondages. This situation is common among African migrant workers working as domestic, construction, and lower-level service workers.

Drug Trafficking

Drug trafficking is another modern slavery African migrants engage in. This is also usually run in syndicate like most other organized crimes involving African migrants. The drug lords at the top of these cartels sometimes set up legal cover businesses, such as canneries, and fisheries to cover for the illegal act. They have built strong links across Africa from where they recruit young people who carry the drugs to intended destinations. In 2019, it was reported that hundreds of Nigerians were serving jail terms in various countries in connection with drug trafficking. This included 650 in Thailand and 144 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Another 73 were also reported to be on death row in Malaysia. In 2016, three Nigerian drug convicts were executed by a firing squad in Indonesia.

Poor Working and Living Conditions, Frustrations, Suicide

The situation has resulted in the untimely deaths of many of these young victims. In August 2017, a Ugandan 36-year-old migrant jumped in front of a train in Noor Bank metro station, Dubai. Upon investigation, he was said to have been likely “frustrated” by poor working conditions experienced in the Middle East country. According to a Ugandan parliamentarian committee, at least 35 Ugandans committed suicide in the United Arab Emirates in 2017, mostly due to abuse and unpaid wages. Many African migrants are also involved in the building of stadiums, hotels, roads, and other facilities in preparation for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Since named the host in host for the next global footballing event, an estimated 6,500 migrant workers have died in the country, many of whom were believed to be employed on these World Cup infrastructure projects. Though the death records did not show migrant workers from Africa, many African migrants, especially from Kenya, are said to be involved in the massive construction projects.


It is often said that there is no place like home. But in many African countries, the depictions of a home include famine, war, and daily experience of various kinds of human right abuses by the authorities. Politicians, who are usually the major cause of these crises, often escape the hardship by buying expensive properties abroad and acquiring citizenship of developed countries where they keep their families. They usually lavish their loots from public funds on this frivolous, extravagant and self-centred lifestyle. For average citizens who cannot afford the same luxury and would like to escape by all means, risky and desperate journeys, including through the Mediterranean Sea and human traffickers, become desirable. This explains why many of them are stuck in various countries abroad, daily experiencing poor living conditions. Africa is too endowed to be undergoing the humanitarian crises it is currently suffering. African leaders must rise to their responsibilities and create an enabling environment where young people can thrive and realize their dreams without undergoing servitude in a foreign land.

About the Author

Olusegun Akinfenwa is a correspondent for Immigration News, a news organization affiliated with Immigration Advice Service (IAS). IAS is a leading U.K. immigration law firm that helps people migrate, settle, and acquire British citizenship.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.