People smugglers: the latter day slave merchants


It has been a truly disastrous year for irregular migrants attempting the perilous sea-crossing from North Africa to Europe. A troubling spike in serious armed conflicts around the world, from Mali in West Africa through to Gaza, Syria, Iraq and beyond, has proved a bonanza for the people smugglers – with strife-torn Libya now by far the most favoured point of departure.

The figures are staggering. Over 160,000 irregular migrants have made it to Europe so far this year: more than double the number for the previous record in 2011, the year of the Arab Spring. And 80 per cent of these are arriving at the same point on the EU’s external frontier: southern Italy, via the central Mediterranean.

It is the Italian navy that has born the brunt of the surge. Their ‘Mare Nostrum’ operation, launched last October following a shipwreck off the island of Lampedusa that claimed over 300 lives, has so far rescued an estimated 130,000 people at sea. But at least 3,000 others have died in the crossing attempt: five times as many as in 2013, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. The central Mediterranean route, say analysts, has become more dangerous for migrants than ever before.

The main reason is the people-smugglers who, driven on by the vast profits to be made from this sorry industry, are becoming ever more brutal in their modus operandi. In early September off the coast of Malta, it is alleged that a boat was deliberately rammed when its passengers – a mix of Syrians, Palestinians, Egyptians and Sudanese – refused to transfer on to smaller vessels. Some 500 people drowned.

The tragedy illustrates a change of tactic by the smugglers over the past year. Since the launch of Mare Nostrum, they know there is a good chance that the migrants will be rescued soon after embarkation – in some cases, as little as 40 miles from the Libyan coast. As a consequence they are increasingly using boats that they know are too small or unseaworthy to reach Europe. But the Mediterranean is a big sea. The Italians are patrolling an area 580 miles wide by 50 deep, in which it is all too easy to miss a tiny dinghy weighed down with migrants, above all at night. The consequences are as inevitable as they are disastrous.

Frontex analysts say that the level of professionalism they are witnessing is something new, and a direct result of the vast profits to be made. “Smugglers are ruthless criminals who play with human lives,” says Antonio Saccone, Head of Operational Analysis.

Some migrants, notably middle-class refugees from the war in Syria, are willing to pay up 2,000 Euros for a place aboard. The value to the smugglers of one recently intercepted boat, which contained 450 people, was calculated at 1m Euros. In order to increase profits, the migrants are generally packed in as tightly as possible, which naturally leads to overloading and a greatly increased risk of capsize.

Testimony gathered by Frontex debriefers, who interview arriving migrants in order to gain intelligence about the smugglers, points to great suffering aboard the boats. To maintain order on unstable vessels, passengers moving about without permission are typically beaten or, in one case in July, stabbed to death. Others have simply been thrown overboard. There are seldom any lifejackets as these are bulky, and take up space that would otherwise be occupied by paying customers.

Migrants from the sub-Sahara are treated worst of all. In a disturbing echo of practices on 19th century slaving ships, black Africans are routinely locked down on the very bottom deck, with few exceptions made for women, children or the elderly. Cases of asphyxiation by exhaust fumes have been recorded.

The absence of the rule of law in Libya since the fall of Gaddafi appears to have created near-perfect operating conditions for the criminal gangs. By accident of geography, the country was a popular jumping off point for Europe-bound migrants long before 2011. As a comparatively rich Muslim nation, Libya was a destination country in its own right for workers from around the world. Many of these, still resident in Libya, have found new work as ‘recruiters,’ liaising between the Libyan-controlled criminal gangs and would-be migrants pouring in to the city.

Tripoli has become such a magnet for irregular migrants that those with money now regularly fly there to try their luck, even from as far away as Istanbul. The journeys of the poorer incomers, by contrast, can be epic. Some take as long as two years to reach the Libyan coast, working their passage for a pittance, often walking for large parts of way. Groups of corpses have been discovered far out in the Sahara, in mute and grisly illustration of their desperation and determination to reach Europe.

The tentacles of the gangs stretch deep into the Libyan interior. Frontex analysts have identified two principle overland routes to Tripoli. The eastern one, leading from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan towards Al Kufrah in the eastern Libyan Desert, is the most highly organized. The western route, from Mali, Nigeria and Niger up to Tripoli via Qatrun and Sabha, is more informal. In both cases, however, the Libyan leg of the journey is jealously controlled by local militiamen, whose ranks have been swollen by former soldiers in the Gaddafi regime.

With a minimum of 4,000 people attempting the voyage from Libya every week, the logistical challenges onshore are considerable. The migrants must be fed and sheltered while awaiting their departure from beach-heads 50km to the east and west of the capital or, increasingly, from Benghazi. The smugglers corral them in ruined buildings, private accommodation, hotels. The mobile phone footage of one successful migrant revealed that he had stayed in a hangar-like building, probably on an ex-military base, that was the temporary home of hundreds of people.

At 9 million Euro a month, the Italian Search and Rescue operation does not come cheap. UNHCR and others have backed Rome’s calls for the burden to be shared more widely among Italy’s EU partners. Frontex’s Antonio Saccone thinks what is really needed is a partner organization in Libya that might tackle the smuggler gangs onshore, as happens in countries like Morocco and Senegal. But there is little prospect of such an arrangement with Tripoli, given the ongoing civil chaos there; and with the military crises in the Middle East continuing to deepen, the migrant tide in the central Mediterranean looks certain to go on rising.



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