Outward Bound

The Smugglers Cashing In on Children’s Misery

More than 170,000 people crossed from Libya to Europe last year. It’s getting worse. And, from on the ground in Libya, here’s why.

06.12.15 9:15 AM ET

TRIPOLI, Libya — She holds up the 12-day-old baby, this young Somali migrant who looks like a child herself. As the other Somali women crowd around, all complaining at once, her friend Ummi talks about the brutal, frightening weeks-long journey from Mogadishu via Ethiopia and Sudan. In Libya’s southern desert five of their group were raped by smugglers, the women say.

Was the arduous trek worth it? The talkative 20-year-old Ummi says what migrants almost always say, as if the outcome somehow were assured: “We want a better life in Europe.” But the dangerous journey has ended here in a detention center in Tripoli—dashing the dreams of 65 Somali women cramped in an open-air holding pen with only a green tarpaulin to shade them from the hot Libyan sun. The women lounge on thin foam mattresses and stained blankets waiting their fate. Washing hangs drying. Babies wail. Ten women are pregnant.

Europeans complain of the humanitarian crisis they are facing with the hordes of boat people landing on their shores or having to be rescued from over-crowded leaky, unseaworthy craft amid the swells and troughs of the Mediterranean. In 2014 more than 170,000 people are estimated to have crossed the Mediterranean from Libya. European officials fear the number this year could be much higher without robust interdiction. More than 2,000 migrants have drowned at sea this year. But ground zero of the humanitarian crisis is here in Libya, the strife-torn North African country, immersed in a year-long civil war, that has struggled to transition to democracy after the ouster of Col. Muammar Gaddafi.

Under pressure from their own restive publics, European politicians are looking for quick fixes, but their idea of destroying smugglers’ boats while pulled up on Libya’s shores seems a laughable solution when you survey the immigration crisis from this side of the Med. A huge chunk of African humanity is on the march with the goal of making it to Europe. Officials here estimate from the rate Libya’s subsidized food is being consumed there are a million illegal immigrants here now—some working, many others hoping to cross the perilous sea. And this in a country that is all but bankrupt.

The flaky-skinned baby born 12 days ago in the detention center in Tripoli’s Ben Ashour sleeps through the commotion of the women narrating, and sometimes shouting their tales. The center is the base of a new investigative branch of the Tripoli government’s police force set up to try to piece together the people-smuggling networks that are moving hundreds of thousands of desperate sub-Saharan Africans and Arabs, including Syrians, to Libya—the last stop, the migrants hope, before what they think will be safety in Europe.

The women in this squalid pen feel far from safe. They are scared, mournful and imploring. They are also worried about how they will explain to their families their failure to get to Europe. Most say the journey will have cost them, including the fee for the Mediterranean crossing, about $6,000. They have raised the money from their extended families, who have invested in them hoping for repayment and more once they are working in Europe.

There were more than a thousand detained migrants in the center when I visited last Sunday. We had just reeled away from the stench of a long, narrow covered warehouse sheltering hundreds of recently detained African men. I peered into the murk and saw rows of migrants rank after rank fading in the dimly lit warehouse, to the point where all I could see were eyes displaying stark emotions—from fear to sadness, shame to embarrassment. And there was anger in some eyes and in others a question—can this man get me out of here?

“You might want a face mask,” says Lt. Abdul Naser Hazam. He was wearing a clean, well-pressed blue uniform. The men of this investigative unit—there are 350 in all—are more disciplined and neater than those I saw a few hours earlier at another detention facility off Tripoli’s Airport Road. They pride themselves on their professionalism—they are trained career policemen and emphasize they are not members of any militia. Many detention centers across the country are policed by militiamen, and rights groups have recorded the pervasive abuse and brutality.

Here at the Ben Ashour center the guards are frustrated, but not so much with the migrants as with the wily smugglers, the inadequate, insanitary facilities Libya has for the small portion of migrants who are detained, and the lack of international assistance.

This center has been open for a month. “No one from the U.N. or the Red Cross or any international NGO has visited—just you journalists,” says Naser Hazam. “We would like them to come and see what we are trying to cope with and to help us.”

We are standing now by another open-air pen adjacent to the one holding the women. This is where sick detainees are kept, some suffering from malaria, others with suspected infectious diseases such as hepatitis. A hand pushes through a gap between hinge and steel door and someone, hearing an English voice, calls out.

Migrants at the center are questioned about their journey—their stories part of the jigsaw puzzle investigators are assembling to get a more complete picture of the people-smuggling networks. Many of the interceptions on land conducted by this unit come from tips-offs by locals, and they have captured nearly a dozen smugglers, but those are lower-level operatives: the Libyan implementers on the ground who are earning up to $50,000 a week to secure boats and mount security at the launch points. The big kingpins remain behind the scenes and, so far, have evaded Libya’s cops. “The smuggling networks are made up of organized crime gangs that are highly experienced in people-smuggling and have been human traffickers for years,” says Naser Hazam.

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Investigators say there are many smuggling operations stretching from the coast of Libya back to the main source countries in Africa—Chad, Mali, Somalia, Niger, Nigeria, The Gambia, Ghana, Senegal, etc. Naser Hazam agrees it is a conveyor belt with big bosses and gang leaders being paid off at different stages of the journey, not dissimilar to some of the more complex Mexican and Colombian drug cartels.

“There are rival networks with semi-autonomous gangs and kingpins, but they will deal with each other if they need to move people urgently and have encountered an obstacle,” he says.

Some Libyan officials like to claim that none of the kingpins in this lucrative trade of smuggling humans are Libyan. Naser Hazam will have none of that. He says there are Libyan kingpins, too, hardened and well-known longterm criminal bosses of separate town-based gangs carving up the transportation turf within Libya and across the Mediterranean.

The networks are intertwined with border tribes—including the powerful Awlad Ali tribe straddling the Libyan-Egyptian border in the East and in the West the Nwayel.

Naser Hazam snorts at the European notion that bombing a few smuggler boats will solve or even diminish the crisis. “Are they going to bomb networks stretching thousands of miles?” he asks. Or bomb the tens of thousands making their way from sub-Sahara Africa for that matter?

Three hours drive away at the port of Misrata, to the east of Tripoli, those same questions are being asked by the head of the central division of the Libyan coastguard, Col. Rida Benissa. In a gravelly voice he talks about the lack of boats he has to effect interceptions or rescue migrants. The central division covers a 600 kilometer stretch between the towns of Brega and Al Khums, although his men spend most of their time helping the western division stretching all the way to the border with Tunisia but mainly focused on the sea off Tripoli and Zawia, the busiest launch points for the smugglers.

“What I have available is virtually non-existent,” Benissa tells me. Only one of his five Sillinger semi-rigid inflatable 7-meter by 12-meter high-speed patrol boats is working. “We have used fishing boats in the past, but they are not working now. A large coastguard patrol vessel is out of service. And we are using a couple of tugboats.” He gestures towards the pier at a tied-up tug, which recently was used to rescue 500 migrants. The tugboats can stay at sea for two or three days for search-and-rescue missions.

The greatest concentration of smugglers’ launch points is along a 50-kilometer stretch from Zawia through Garibulli to Tripoli. Some even push off from the Libyan capital’s port. But the smugglers can shift launch points easily depending on Libyan interception and rescue efforts, which range 72 miles out to the limit of Libya’s protected fishing waters.

“The last three days there has been no smuggling activity around Garibulli,” says Benissa. Most of the boats used by smugglers on the west of Libya are rubber boats or wooden fishing trawlers. They are crowded with anything from 100 to 300 migrants who would have paid anything from $750 to a $1000 each for the trip.

“The rubber boats aren’t designed to make it all the way to Italy,” he says. “They can get out far enough for the Italians to rescue them.” Larger wooden boats with up to 700 migrants set off from eastern Libya closer to Egypt, and especially from Tobruk. One of the biggest gathering points for migrants traveling up from Africa is the southern Libyan town of Ajdabiya. The smugglers then transport them up to Tripoli via a brutal desert road.

The smugglers after costs can make about $150,000 per boat in clear profit.

One of Benissa’s biggest sources of frustration is the refusal of the Europeans and especially the Italians to coordinate with Libyan officials. NATO destroyed about three-quarters of Libya’s naval fleet, including frigates and patrol boats, during the Western-backed uprising against Col. Gaddafi. Now it would be good if NATO did something more to help rebuild.

Benissa understands cooperation is being denied because of the ongoing civil conflict in Libya, which is divided between two rival governments, but he says without international assistance—including the handing back to Libya of four large search-and-rescue boats that survived NATO airstrikes in 2011 and have been repaired in Italy—his men are being stymied in their efforts to interdict and mount rescue missions.

“In fact the Italian navy twice—on 17 April and May 3—interfered with our efforts to investigate Italian fishing vessels fishing illegally in our waters 35 miles from Garibulli,” he says. Benissa has suspicions that the fishing vessels are spotting for the smugglers to alert them to Libyan patrols. On two occasions Italian frigates intervened and ordered the Libyan patrol vessels to back off. He also says he has evidence that Italian criminals are working with the smugglers—a cooperation built on an old-time trade of gasoline for whisky. He has heard the reports that 5,000 migrant children who made it to Italy are missing and wonders if the Mafia and the smugglers have a joint hand in children-trafficking.

Back in Tripoli at the detention center in Ben Ashour, Naser Hazam shakes his head at the scale of the problem he and his men face. He is now being inundated by complaints from the Somali women. One woman is wailing because her husband has been jailed. He steered the boat they were in when intercepted. The smugglers train migrants to drive the small boats and to be able to read a GPS they are given. Naser Hazam snaps at her: “If you are driving a stolen car, you are guilty of a crime—it is the same thing here.” But he relents with the tearful woman, takes her husband’s name and promises to find out what happened to her man.