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A mecca for human smugglers

The smugglers bunk up migrants as if they were goods, before sending them out to sea – many of them dead. Human trafficking has become an important source of funding for Libyan militias.


“Until last year, we had a boat to go out with to stop the small boats. Today, this wreck is all that's left. The boat collapsed, and the coast guard in Tripoli did not send any compensation. Now we can no longer control the coast. The consequence is that anything can happen here. ”

This is what Isaa, commander of the Coast Guard in Garabulli, says, a town 60 kilometers east of Tripoli. He is about 40 years. He is wearing military pants and a worn shirt. When I meet him, he sits alone on a wooden bench, with a radio transmitter beside him, and looks out to sea. The Coast Guard headquarters, whose responsibility is to follow this part of the deserted coastlines, is just a cement house overlooking the small harbor. It's empty, with no equipment. Two small bays extend on each side of the house.
"Look over there," he says, pointing to the trees around the bend. "It's the easiest side to put the inflatables off; The coast is surrounded by forest where smugglers gather the migrants in the evening before sending them out. As a coastguard I can't do anything, I only have my own family's boat, the same one we use to fish. When I see a rubber boat on the way out, I leave alone and try to save them. But most of the time it's like I gather. "

Threatened by human traffickers. We walk along the harbor and Isaa looks around – he is afraid that someone will see us. He shows me some videos on his cell phone. It's fluid like he filmed the last time he tried to rescue migrants from the ocean with his family's boat.
In a video, Isaa is seen with a rope, which he ties around a dead woman's body to drag the body closer to the boat and into shore. When he gets alive, you hear only the desperate screams of those holding his rope as the last chance to survive.

"It's no longer like it was under Gaddafi," Isaa continues. "At that time, too, all cities like this were involved in human trafficking, but there was a big difference: Gaddafi wanted the boats to arrive safely in Europe, because they were a means of pressure against Europeans. Today, the smugglers just want the migrants to move on, they want them to pay the 'ticket' and leave. If they die after 20 miles at sea, it doesn't matter to them. "

"If they die after twenty miles at sea, it doesn't matter to them."

In all the coastal towns people say the same thing: Everyone is involved in human trafficking, at all levels. Isaa was threatened by smugglers in the area. They offered him money to pretend he didn't see the boats leaving. He refused, and was killed one night by two armed men.
"The situation is out of control," Isaa concludes. "Everything is just confusion, and this civil war is going to make the people poor, the money will end. So the situation will be even worse. For this, not only are smugglers making money on migrants, they are also militias that fund the ongoing war. ”

Overlapping battles. In the five years following the revolution in which General Gaddafi was overthrown, Libya has undergone a long civil war that has divided the country in two. After the Muslim Brotherhood suffered defeat during the 2014 parliamentary elections, fighting between the Islamist militias in Tripoli and the Zintan nationalists has dragged the country into a locked-in situation that has led to the formation of two separate governments. On the one hand, the elected Abdullah al-Thinni government set up its base in Tobruk, with the support of former Gaddafi general Khalifa Haftar. On the other side is Khalifa al-Ghweil's Islamist government, which effectively controls the Tripolitiana region. In the middle of them are about 140 tribes, 230 armed militias and the threat of radical groups. First and foremost Ansar-al-Sharia, then ISIS – first in Derna, then in Benghazi and finally in Sirte, where a slow and devastating battle is still ongoing. Despite the national unity government, led by Sarraj and supported by European governments, the situation does not appear to have reached any lasting balance.

In this mosaic of overlapping and contending forces, human trafficking can provide funding for entire cities, and has become a source of funding for the militia. Libya's oil production has stalled, and the head of the central bank is concerned about whether salaries can be paid. Whole areas of the country are running out of medicines, food and electricity.

"We are controlled by Libyan soldiers who strike us with iron pipes. They come in and beat us, often and for no reason. "

"It's like the mafia." Triplitania is one of the privileged areas through which the inflatables route goes through. The starting points on the coast west of Tripoli are Zuara, Sabratha, Sourman and Zanzur. Closer to Tripoli are Tagiuara and Garabulli.
In Garabulli I meet Ibrahim. He is 30 years old, the father of three – and one of the members of the city's smuggling ring. A ring where everyone plays a role, and where all these roles put together constitute a crime.

"And here's where we store the goods," says Ibrahim, showing me some small houses.

Storing the goods?

"Yes, here we gather the migrants. In such houses. When the weather is nice, we ask them to come here and wait for the sun to go down as we prepare the inflatables. We give one of them a compass and send them straight to Lampedusa. "
You're talking about the scafista?
Ibrahim laughs and looks at me sarcastically when I use the Italian word for the smugglers' boat driver.

"There is no one smuggler. Europeans like you have a distorted idea of ​​what is going on here. The boat driver, the scafista, is not one of us – none of us would travel in a boat of the type we use now. The smuggler is one of the illegal migrants, who is trained in advance, and who may not have to pay the $ 1500 that the others do. "
How is the work organized? Who runs it?
“This is a multi-level business. And everyone is responsible for their job: Some have to find a warehouse where they can stay while they wait, some have to get some food for them, some have to keep an eye on them, someone else has to get the motor for the boats. Some try to buy boats from the fishermen. And then it is them who will collect the money. But believe me, there will be very little money left for us. The big smugglers are not here. It's like the mafia. Everyone is involved, but you do not see the leader of the organization. Clans that organize human trafficking pay the local militia about ten percent. And this money is used by the militia to pay for their own weapons, and for their own war. "

"The smugglers come here at night, they are armed, and they ask for it goods their, that is, the illegal migrants. ”

Inhuman conditions. Ibrahim describes the inside of a power system where certain military brigades are closely involved in human trafficking. He describes a country where the only sustainable economy is the one based on the dream of men and women who want to cross the Mediterranean. The brigades controlling the territory are closely linked to the smuggling business.

All migrants rescued at sea are taken to detention centers. There are 15 of these in Libya. And the conditions the migrants live in are inhumane.

With a shortage of soldiers, I was able to visit two detention centers: one in Gasr Garabulli where about 400 people sit, and another in Zawahuia, about 40 kilometers from Tripoli, where there are 821 people. The head of the center, Zawhia, smokes nervously while waiting for me. First he shows me a sheet with a list of the migrants, broken down by ethnic group. 300 Nigerians, 197 Eritreans, 106 Somalis. He reads and sighs, powerless. He has several big keys in his hand. He opens two doors with heavy padlocks. In front of us is a long corridor. On the left side are five doors, which are also closed with padlocks. When the first door opens, I see 200 men sitting on the floor in front of me. There is no room to put your feet down and walk around the room, it is completely filled with a number of dirty mattresses. A little light seeps in through a small window at the top of the wall. There is not enough water for everyone. There is very little food.
Amir is a 22-year-old from Eritrea who has been at the Zawhia Center for four months. At home he studied to become an engineer. He speaks fluent English and explains to me that many people are sick with scabies, malaria and leishmaniasis. But the doctor never came, and neither did the drugs. Since there is always war in Libya, no one wants to risk traveling along the roads leading into this secluded and isolated city.
"I haven't done anything criminal," says Amir. “I have the right to a better life, just like others. I traveled thousands of miles, I've seen friends of mine die in the desert. All I really want is to build a future in a homeland I will never get. I came to Libya by paying two smugglers, and one of them kept me and dozens of my fellow travelers in a cave for three months, hidden away while we waited for the right time to leave. Then one night we finally boarded the boat, but it collapsed a few miles from the shore. And since then, the soldiers have kept us here. We are controlled by Libyan soldiers who strike us with iron pipes. They come in and beat us, often and for no reason, ”says Amir.
Have you ever asked to go out?
“None of us ask questions. The soldiers want money to get rid of us. $ 2000. Just to get out. They force us to live like animals and continue to make money from us. ”
The journey across the Mediterranean is also very risky?
"If I'm going to die, at least I'll decide for myself. It is better to drown than to die from malaria here. ”

Slaves and hostages. The head of the detention center in Zawhia follows us out and says goodbye, he shows that he has given up. He is a man who knows there is little he can do.
"The authorities are sending us nothing, not even money to buy food for these people. We have no other way to keep these migrants, and we are scared. "
What are you afraid of?
"We are scared because the smugglers come here at night, they are armed, and they ask for it goods their illegal migrants. And I know some of the soldiers are in charge of them. They come here, take the migrants with them to work as slaves in the fields and in brick factories. Or they hold them hostage to squeeze money from their family in their home country, or make them pay for another trip. So they make money – with the silent consent of some of the Islamic brigades who need money. ”
This is what Libya looks to Europe. A failed state – a state that no longer exists.

Mannochi is a freelance reporter.

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