“Human traffickers are the slave traders of the 21st century, and they should be brought to justice”, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi recently wrote. When the problem is framed in this way, their vow to “identify, capture and destroy” the vessels of those who move migrants looks like a ‘tough choice’ forced upon EU leaders by the sudden appearance of a far greater evil—a modern slave trade. But this is patently false and entirely self-serving. As scholarship on the history of slavery makes painfully clear, what is happening in the Mediterranean today does not even remotely resemble the transatlantic slave trade. Enslaved Africans did not want to move. They were held in dungeons before being shackled and loaded onto ships. They had to be prevented from choosing suicide over forcible transportation. That transportation led to a single and utterly appalling outcome—slavery. Today, those embarking on the journey to Europe want to move. If they were free to do so, they would be taking advantage of the flights that budget airlines operate between North Africa and Europe at a tiny fraction of the cost of the extraordinarily dangerous sea passage. And it is not ‘slavers’ or ‘traffickers’ who are preventing them from accessing this safe route. It’s true that would-be migrants are sometimes held in terrifying conditions in Libya, but not in dungeons as a precursor to being forcibly shipped as slaves. Rather, many are held in immigration detention centres, partly funded by the EU, where both adults and children are at risk of violence, including whippings, beatings and torture.
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