More than 80 African and European leaders met in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire on Wednesday and Thursday last week for the fifth annual African Union – European Union summit.
Top of the agenda was the issue of slavery.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) – a UN body – first reported in April that African migrants – now numbering a reported 700,000 - travelling north through Niger and Libya were being kidnapped by people traffickers and sold into forced labour for as little as £400.
A CNN report last month brought slavery in Libya to wider prominence with grainy video footage confirming the first visual evidence.
But it was not until Manchester United’s Paul Pogba celebrated a goal in his comeback match against Newcastle at Old Trafford a couple of weeks ago that slavery in Libya forced its way into the general consciousness.
Pogba crossed his hands, held them aloft and mimicked a man in chains. Many inside Old Trafford and indeed watching around the world were probably wondering what it signified. Thanks to Pogba’s follow-up post on Instagram following the game, they wondered no more.
“There has been a 100-fold increase in interest in this after the simple gesture Pogba made,” said Itayi Viriri, head of the IOM’s online communications told Goal.
“He could have celebrated any other way that he wanted but he chose to do that. That resonated so much with so many young people around the world - especially people who look like him and whose background could be like his.
“What it meant was that most people who follow football around the world and the young people who adore these football stars like Pogba had their attention piqued.
“These young stars can mobilise so many young people around the world and get so many people interested in a topic that a few weeks ago no one really knew or cared about.
“Now we are talking about it and that can only be a positive thing."
Pogba – born in France to parents from Guinea – was supported in this campaign by Cedric Bakambu - of Villarreal - and Valencia’s Geoffrey Kondogbia. Senegal’s Cheikhou Kouyate and Cote d’Ivoire’s Cheikh Doukoure also followed suit.
“Outside of football, I am not for sale,” ran Doukoure’s message while Bakambu’s was shorter to the point. “Fuck slavery.”
Bakambu and Kondogbia, like Pogba, are French-born. Bakambu is an international for DR Congo while Kondogbia’s brother Evans has turned out for Central African Republic.
“It’s always one of our dreams to get as many of these football stars especially from the continent or who have African heritage to work with us and shine a spotlight on the terrible things which are happening when it comes to irregular migration,” said Viriri.
“Now that the attention is on this fully we expect something will happen. We need more support from these very influential young men who have a huge amount of followers.
“The majority of them, especially those of them born in Africa, are migrants in one way or form. So really, they are very ideal people to work with us and make a better world for migrants.”
Pogba is known to be a favourite athlete of the Guinean president and AU chair Alpha Conde, who praised the Manchester United man earlier this year as an example for all young Guineans to follow.
“It's also quite interesting that he had that level of awareness,” said Viriri of the 24-year-old midfielder. “These young multimillionaires live in a bubble of some sort but through social media there was a huge outpouring of anger and people were concerned that this was happening in 2017.”
President Conde described the ongoing slavery issue as “despicable” and “from another era” when it came to light in mid-November.
And thanks in part to Pogba and his cohorts – and the prominence now given to the slavery question – the AU-EU have pledged to work in unison to end the practice and help lift some of those migrants and refugees trapped in Libya and see them returned to their countries of origin.
“The IOM is currently the only international organisation that is getting sub-Saharan migrants out of Libya back to their countries of origin through the humanitarian voluntary return programme that we are running,” said Viriri.
“So far we have taken out 13,000. We hope to take out another 15,000 before the end of the year which is quite an undertaking.”
French president Emmanuel Macron, on a four-day trip to Francophone African countries last week, confirmed that the Libyan government would assist in identifying the camps where migrants are being detained and will initiate a “transit and departure” facility.
France last week also requested a special UN Security Council session on the topic.
That it has taken a young French footballer of African background to give the issue the attention it deserved is an indictment on the political systems on two continents.
The public perception of African migrants reaching Europe is generally disdainful and that could well be behind the largely apathetic response to their plight up to now.
“We have been working on this for years but the difficulty we have when we try to publicise things is we are not like Unicef, who have Messi and Barcelona,” said Viriri.
“The issue of children in need is quite an emotive one.
“Whereas it’s more difficult to get that kind of support for migrants because many misconceptions about irregular migration exist.
“Are they deserving or not to come to our country? You get that kind of dynamic.
“As a result, we find less and less ambassadors that we can work with.
“We would certainly welcome them being more involved.
“They don’t have to; they are living wonderful lives earning lots of money from their skills but as we have seen before some of them when they do set their mind to doing charity work they do it very well and it’s quite effective.
“We hope we get more of them stepping in and helping.”
The 2011 NATO intervention in Libya - which led to the murder of Muammar Gaddafi - has left large swathes of territory ungoverned and permitted people traffickers, smugglers, militias and terror groups to flourish.
EU involvement in the current migrant crisis has been criticised due to a new collaboration with the Libyan coastguards.
As a result, fewer migrants have been reaching Europe in the past few months compared with recent years but those caught attempting to reach European shores are returned to a chaotic Libya.
The IOM also revealed that more than 3,000 died in trying to reach Europe in 2017; the fourth consecutive year that this grim milestone has been reached.
A consequence of fewer boats on the water is having a “backlog” of migrants who have paid passage to Europe but who have been stuck behind.
African leaders, too, have come under fire for their failure to make progress on the issue until prominence was given to it by CNN and Pogba alike.
For many of the victims the journey begins in west African nations such as Nigeria or Ghana. They pay all the money they have to smugglers in order to get towards a better life in Europe.
Through the Sahara they travel overland by truck and the IOM has heard evidence of migrants spotting the remains of those who have gone before them in the desert and of trucks stranded, having had their fuel siphoned away by bandits.
Migrants at this point could then informed by drivers that their fees have not been paid by their traffickers. One survivor describes being taken in this context to a parking area where, he claimed to the IOM, slave markets were being held.
“Sub-Saharan migrants were being sold and bought by Libyans, with the support of Ghanaians and Nigerians who work for them,” IOM Niger staff reported in April.
Kidnappers would then demand a ransom far beyond what the captives could manage to pay. There are reports of some migrants being killed or else starving to death in deplorable conditions and with only one meal per day.
Detainees caught up in this modern-day slavery also described to the IOM and CNN inhumane conditions, forced labour and physical and sexual abuse. Female captives are also being bought and sold as sex slaves.
With the world at large ignorant to their plight, Pogba used all the power and influence he could muster in order to draw attention to the injustice they faced. Because of his involvement, some progress might now actually be made.
“All we ask for is for migration be safe, humane and legal,” said Viriri.
“It would certainly be very useful to get more of these young superstars – especially those from Africa because lots of very good players come from West and North Africa.
“These are kind the locations where a lot of people who are migrating regularly and facing the kind of challenges we are talking about now come from.”