The humanitarian crisis which has firmly taken hold of Libya in recent years is not new information, nor is the fact that it has become a primary point of departure for desperate migrants of all nationalities fleeing war and poverty in the hope of a new life in Europe.
Mexican photojournalist Narciso Contreras wished to observe the situation with his own eyes, and capture it with his camera. Therefore, early last year, he travelled to the war-torn country, to a place still reeling from the fall of Gaddafi over five years ago, and now collapsed into political and economic ruin.
What he found shocked him. While stationed on the west coast of Libya’s Mediterranean coastline, awaiting permission to travel further south into the rural heartlands, he came to realise that Libya had become far more than the transit point he had previously believed it to be. Instead, he observed former prisons now turned into detention camps, and all-powerful militias presiding over large trafficking operations, where human beings – migrants, refugees, aspiring asylum seekers – are bought and sold as commodities, resulting in handsome profits for the militias, and for the Libyan authorities who now run the country. ‘Beyond this crisis, there is actually a market for human beings,’ he explains. ‘Slavery.’
After gaining the support of Fondation Carmignac via the awarding of the 7th Carmignac Photojournalism Award – the first time the award has been given to a project covering an active warzone – Contreras spent over two months, spread across three separate trips between February and June 2016, travelling across Libya. Initially he participated on an official media tour of a detention centre, where he found himself being shown only the nicest parts, where human trafficking wasn’t apparent.
‘Two or three images were powerful enough to tell the living conditions inside the detention centre,’ recalls Contreras, ‘but you would never realise that human trafficking is there. Getting testimonies from people, interviewing some other characters along the process, militia commanders, and other people involved in the trafficking network, then it’s clear.’ By talking to these people and capturing photographic evidence of repeated violence, imprisonment and abuse, he exposed a barbaric story of slavery, of which little had previously made its way out of the country.
‘There is an unofficially recognised number of three million migrants flowing in and out of Libya today,’ he continues, pointing out that Libya’s official population itself stands at only six million. ‘Out of this number, 60 per cent of migrants stay in the country, while 40 per cent try to reach Europe. That’s a very interesting number, and helps us to understand how trafficking operates in Libya.’ Of the people he spoke to, many – such as Nigerians, Gambians, Cameroonians – were simply trying to escape from poverty and violence back home, and were pursuing an historical route north via Libya.
‘We have a picture (above) of a group of migrants that were sold by the militia in charge of this detention centre,’ he describes. ‘This same person, the director in charge of the centre, gave us access to interview two slaves. We got them right at the moment they were distributing migrants. The detention centre basically operates as a distribution centre for migrants.’
He points out that there is a fine line between smuggling – when someone pays to be illegally transported – and trafficking – when that person is transported against their will – both of which are occurring in present-day Libya, and are often very hard to tell apart. ‘When you become a slave in Libya, that’s because you are forced to do something that is against your will, and that’s the case for many of these migrants.’
Overall, all the migrants find themselves at the mercy of the various militias who have carved up the country amid the chaos of two feuding ‘governments’ – one self-appointed, one installed by the UN. Regardless of who is winning that fight, it is the militias who wield power, and who control all the financial flows in and out of the country, of which human trafficking forms one key component. ‘There is no money in the banks, but the militias have it,’ he explains. ‘Officially the country is bankrupt, but all the money is in the hands of the militias.’
The final collection of photos is devoted to what he describes as ‘the last part, where you end up dead’. From morgues filled with the dead lost in the desert or at sea, to several mentally-ill women he discovered permanently imprisoned in filthy conditions in one detention centre, he shines a spotlight on a place where, as he puts it, ‘there is no way to go. Finished.’
Contreras highlights the importance of the Carmignac Photojournalism Award in making his work. ‘This project was possible because we had time and resources,’ he declares. The award, founded in 2009, grants €50,000 annually to fund and promote an investigative photo report on human rights violations. Previous award winners include Christophe Gin, whose Colonie is a portrait of France’s lawless lands in French Guiana.