In Libya's anarchy, migrant smuggling a booming trade
By MAGGIE MICHAEL and LEE KEATH
CAIRO (AP) - Libya's chaos has turned it into a lucrative magnet
attracting migrants desperate to make the dangerous sea voyage to
Europe. With no central authority to stop it, business is booming,
with smugglers charging ever more as demand goes up, then using the
profits to buy larger boats and heavier weapons to ensure no one dare
It's a vicious cycle that only translates into more tragedies at sea.
With each rickety boat that sets off from Libya's coast, traffickers
rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars. So assured are they of their
impunity that they operate openly. Many even use Facebook to advertise
their services to migrants desperate to flee war, repression and
poverty in the Middle East and Africa.
And they are armed to the teeth, often working with powerful militias
in Libya that control territory and hold political power.
One coast guard officer in Sabratha, a Libyan coastal city that is a
main launch point for smugglers' boats headed to Europe, said his
small force can do little to stop them. Recently, he heard about a
vessel about to leave but refused to send his men to halt it.
"This would be suicidal," he told The Associated Press, speaking on
condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from the powerful
"When you see smugglers with anti-aircraft guns mounted on pickup
trucks on the beach, and you have an automatic rifle, what are you
going to do?"
If any one factor explains the dramatic jump in illegal crossings into
Europe, it's Libya's turmoil since the 2011 civil war that ousted
longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. As the boat traffic increases, so
do the horrific disasters. Over the weekend, a ship packed with
migrants capsized off Libya, leaving at least 800 dead, the deadliest
shipwreck ever in the Mediterranean. At least 1,300 people have died
in the past three weeks alone, putting 2015 on track to be the
deadliest year ever.
During his rule, Gadhafi struck deals with Europe to police the
traffic, helping to keep the numbers down. In 2010, some 4,500
migrants made the perilous crossing from North Africa to Italy, the
vast majority departing from Libya, according to the EU border agency
In 2014, that number spiraled to more than 170,000.
By comparison, just under 51,000 took the second-most-popular smuggler
route into Europe in 2014 - from Turkey into Greece and the Balkans.
That was about the same as in 2008.
European authorities have been scrambling to find ways to deal with
the crisis. One proposal is to fund camps in countries bordering Libya
to house migrants before they reach its coast. Italian Defense
Minister Roberta Pinotti said Wednesday there are contingency plans
for military intervention against smugglers in Libya and that Italy is
willing to lead an operation if it gets U.N. backing.
In the past year, Libya's crumbling into anarchy has only accelerated.
The country was plagued by multiple armed militias since Gadhafi's
ouster and death, but since 2014 what little political structure Libya
had has collapsed. There are two rival governments, neither with any
real authority, and each fighting the other on the ground. Local
militias hold sway around the country, some of them with hard-line
The Islamic State group has emerged as a strong and brutal force, with
control of at least two cities along the central and eastern parts of
the Mediterranean coast and a presence in many others. Over the
weekend, it issued a video showing the mass beheading of dozens of
African migrants, mostly Ethiopian and Eritrean Christians who were
abducted as they tried to make it to the coast.
In the chaos, smuggling has "become an organized crime, with cross
border mafias in possession of weapons, information and technology,"
said the head of an independent agency that studies human trafficking
and tries to help migrants in Sabratha.
Extensive cross-border smuggling networks organize different legs of
the journey: First from the migrants' home country to the Libyan
border, then from the border to a jumping-off point on the coast, then
onto boats for the Mediterranean crossing.
"We call the Mediterranean Sea 'the graveyard,'" said the agency
director, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation
Along the way, traffickers strike deals with local militias to turn a
blind eye to their movements. For example, smugglers bringing Africans
across Libya's southern border pay off the ethnic Tabu militia
nominally tasked by the Libyan government to patrol the border, he
Smugglers have also raised prices, he said. Some have bought larger
fishing trawlers that are ostensibly somewhat safer and can carry
hundreds more migrants - and they charge up to 3,000 euros ($3,200)
per person. They use the funds to buy weapons and technology -
including satellite phones, GPS systems and 4-wheel-drive vehicles to
move across the desert.
Migrants pay for each leg of the journey. It costs around $1,000 to
get to Libya from Senegal and around $2,500 from Ethiopia, according
to migration experts in those countries. But prices can vary. Italian
prosecutor Maurizio Scalia, who investigates human trafficking, said
the price from Ethiopia can reach as high as $5,000.
The cost for the trip across the Mediterranean depends on the type of
boat and, on better vessels, which part of it the migrant is crammed
into - the top deck or down below, according to several smugglers who
spoke to the AP. They were reached through the Facebook pages where
they advertise and gave only their first names for fear of prosecution
by authorities in Tripoli.
A place on an inflatable boat - a more treacherous journey - can run
$500, while relatively sturdier wooden or steel boats run from $1,000
to $2,000s, said one smuggler, Luqman, in the city of Zwara, another
main launching point.
Mohammed, another smuggler in Zwara, said he runs boats to Italy -
15-meter (45-foot) wooden boats with a capacity of 200 people, or
18-meter ones with a capacity of 280. He insisted none of his boats
have sunk, saying the danger was when smugglers overload their
vessels, as they often do, sometimes to well over double capacity.
Each leg of the trip must be paid in advance. Migrants often scrounge
together the money in their home country for the first leg, then stay
for weeks in Libya working informal jobs to earn the money for the
Scalia, the Italian prosecutor, said migrants' families in Europe
often help by sending funds through an underground money transfer
system known as "hawala" that avoids the traditional - and traceable -
banking sector. The system runs on networks of agents working on an
informal honor system to process the cash payments.
In March, the European police agency Europol formed a task force to
gather information from national law enforcement agencies in Europe to
map out the criminal groups organizing the migrant influx, Europol
spokesman Soeren Kragh Pedersen told the AP.
While sub-Saharan Africans are smuggled across the southern borders
into Libya, Syrians, who make up a significant proportion of the
traffic, usually come via Algeria, since they can fly there and enter
without a visa, the smugglers said.
Luqman outlined the path his network uses: A migrant arrives at the
airport in Algeria, then is taken by car to a border area called
Tebessa, where the smugglers arrange the crossing into Tunisia. Then
it's a 250-mile (400-kilometer) journey along desert roads to the port
of Zwara in Libya. Along the way, migrants may have to stay for days
in a safehouse waiting for enough other migrants to arrive to make the
journey, he said.
"The people who help the migrants cross from one country to the other
don't deal with small numbers but big numbers. So migrants can wait in
one country for a couple of days or a week until the number is
enough," Luqman said.
Associated Press correspondents Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Jan Olsen in
Copenhagen, Krista Larsen in Dakar, Senegal; and Elias Meseret in
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, contributed to this report.
Received on Wed Apr 22 2015 - 20:53:35 EDT