TIME

AFRICA’S NEW SLAVERY PROBLEM

THE TRADE IN HUMAN BEINGS THRIVES ON THE ROAD TO EUROPE
Blessing, 29, a Nigerian woman trafficked into sex work, waits for customers in Sicily, Italy

By the time his Libyan captors branded his face, Sunday Iabarot had already run away twice and had been sold three times. The gnarled scar that covers most of the left side of his face appears to show a crude number 3. His jailer carved it into his cheek with a fire-heated knife, cutting and cauterizing at the same time.

Iabarot left Nigeria in February 2016 with a plan to head northward and buy passage on a smuggler’s boat destined for Europe, where he had heard from friends on Facebook that jobs were plentiful. The journey of more than 2,500 miles would take him across the trackless desert plains of Niger and through the lawless tribal lands of southern Libya before depositing him at the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. He never made it. Instead, he was captured the moment he arrived in Libya, then sold to armed men who kept a stable of African migrants they exploited for labor and ransom.

The brand on his face, he says, was both punishment and a mark of identification. Fourteen other men who attempted to escape the fetid warehouse where they had been held as captive labor in Bani Walid, Libya, for several months in 2017 were similarly scarred, though the symbols differed. Iabarot, who is illiterate, wasn’t sure if they were numbers or letters or merely the twisted doodles of deranged men who saw their black captives as little more than livestock to be bought and sold. “It was as if we weren’t human,” the 32-year-old from Benin City, Nigeria, tells TIME.

Iabarot is among an estimated 650,000 men and women who have crossed the Sahara over the past five years dreaming of a better life in Europe. Some are fleeing war and persecution. Others, like Iabarot, are leaving villages where economic dysfunction and erratic rainfall make it impossible to find work or even enough to eat. To make the harrowing journey, they enlist the services of trans-Saharan smugglers who profit by augmenting their truckloads of weapons, drugs and other contraband goods with human cargo.

But along the way, tens

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