Libya's people smugglers: inside the trade that sells refugees hopes of a better life
Exclusive: Unfazed by EU threats of air strikes, smugglers tell Patrick Kingsley of their shady profits, refugees’ dangerous treks across the Sahara, how migrants often steer the boats – and even how Europe could put them out of business
Just as the evening light began to dim at the fishing port in Zuwara, a blue wooden boat with a slim white stripe began to slide silently from the quay. Seventeen or 18 metres long, there was little to distinguish it from the dozens of other boats moored nearby. It looked like a fishing boat, and it moved like one, too.
But watching from the quay, a passing diesel smuggler picked it out easily. It was an odd time of day to go fishing, he says. The day before, that boat might have carried hundreds of fish back to port. This night, it would bear hundreds of refugees towards Italy. A day after 800 people drowned in nearby waters, yet another trip was following in its wake.
“That’ll carry 200,” says the smuggler. “Minimum.”
It was a scene whose subtlety encapsulates the problem of dealing with the Mediterranean migration crisis by targeting individual smugglers and their boats. Shortly before this boat left its moorings on Monday, the EU said it would launch military operations against smugglers who are based in places like Zuwara, the starting point for smuggling in Libya. Late on Thursday night, the head of the European commission, Donald Tusk, confirmed that plan, promising to “capture and destroy vessels used by the smugglers before they can be used”.
But interviews with one former and two current smugglers show therein lies a problem. Smuggling boats start life as fishing trawlers. The moment of transition from the latter to the former is informal and almost imperceptible to outsiders.
As the boat in Zuwara shows, smugglers do not maintain a separate, independent harbour of clearly marked vessels, ready to be targeted by EU air strikes. They buy them off fishermen at a few days’ notice. To destroy their potential pool of boats, the EU would need to raze whole fishing ports.
“One of the reasons why [Libyan] fish is expensive is the lack of fishing boats going out to sea to fish,” a people smuggler who wanted to be known as Hajj explains later. “They’re all being used by smugglers.”
On Monday night, someone like Hajj should have been worried. If the EU were to launch military operations, chief among their targets might be Hajj, a man said to have a hand in more than half the migrant departures from Zuwara.
But on the night that Europe essentially declared war against him, Hajj could not have cared less. He simply lay down on his side, propped his bare feet up on a cushion and helped himself to two whole snappers. He washed them down with a non-alcoholic bottle of Beck’s, then ate a plate of chopped apples. Finally, his friends blasted Amazigh music from the speakers of a car parked outside.
Zuwara and Garabulli are two of Libya’s smuggling ports.
“I’m not threatened,” says Hajj, a 33-year-old law graduate. “It’s been happening for years, these promises and threats. They’ll move on. What are they going to do, put two frigates here? Two warships? In Libyan waters? That’s an invasion.”
Far from panicking, Hajj and his friends are amused. What on earth would military options look like against such a tangled, complex trade? A trade deeply rooted in not just the coastal economy, but in dozens of way stations across the northern half of Africa. And one that is now reliant not just on a few experienced individuals but – thanks to the ongoing unrest sparked by Libya’s 2011 revolution – on overlapping and informal networks that emerge, morph and fade by the week.
“Who? Where?” asks a friend of Hajj’s when contemplating the potential targets of EU anti-smuggling operations. “No one has the name ‘smuggler’ written on their chest. Anyone here who has no money can sell their apartment, buy a boat, and organise a smuggling trip. By the time of the next trip you’d already have regained half the cost of the apartment. It’s a very easy formula.”
For a decade, Hajj has been one of Zuwara’s best-known smugglers. But now newcomers are undercutting his prices and competing for the same boats. “Before it was very risky to do this business, but now it’s an open market,” Hajj concludes. “There are so many people offering it.”
The dangerous route to Libya through the Sahara
To get to the smugglers, migrants have no single set method. In fact, there are an infinite number of ways – each a modern-day odyssey that may zigzag across several countries and thousands of miles until it brings the refugee to the Libyan coast. “Think of Libya as having two seas,” says Samer Haddadin, the head of the UN’s refugee agency in Tripoli. “There is the Mediterranean. But in the south of Libya is the sea of the Sahara. There are people coming from the south, from Niger or Sudan – and that trip is also very risky.”
Syrians, who formed the largest group of migrants crossing the Mediterranean last year, might have fled south through Jordan, Egypt, and then Sudan – before looping back upwards. Eritreans, who formed the second largest group, also make the dangerous trip through Sudan, where they are often at risk of kidnap. West Africans – among them Nigerians, Ghanaians and Senegalese – might come through Niger and Mali, sometimes passing through the hands of several smugglers.
All must brave the desert – and not everyone makes it. At every stage, migrants are at the mercy of the smugglers in that particular area; kidnappings for ransom or for slave labour are common. There are stories of smugglers abandoning their clients in the dunes and of dozens dying of thirst. “We suffered many things in the desert,” says a 21-year-old Darfurian, Mohamed Abdallah, who made it to the Libyan coast only to be arrested as an illegal immigrant. “A lot of people died in the desert – my brothers and also my uncle’s boy. My friends died also. Just me and my nephew survived.”
Some people pay to reach the Libyan coast in one single transaction. Bayin Keflemekal, 30, a nurse from Eritrea, paid $7,000 (£4,600) earlier this month to get there through Sudan within a week, on the back of a series of pick-up trucks. Others move in stages: Fatima Bahgar, a Malian student who was rescued from the sea last week by Libyan coastguards, says she spent a year in Algeria before travelling on to Libya.
Those with money can leave Libyan shores within days. But many have to stay to pay off their debts to smugglers earlier in the route – or to save up for the onwards maritime voyage. Every weekday morning in many Libyan towns, you can see people like this gathering on certain street corners, waiting for offers of casual labour.
Some are essentially kidnapped by smugglers or even local businessmen. Hajj claims not to be involved, but whoever is doing it seems to be holding migrants in warehouses, or treating them as slave labour, until they pay what they owe. Jennifer Collins, a Nigerian decorator, was recently held hostage in Libya while her husband earned enough at a carwash to pay the people who had smuggled them there. “I didn’t leave the house for six months,” she says.
What you pay depends on who you are
What happens next is hard to distil into a single narrative. Every smuggler likes to say their methods are much more humane and professional than those of their rivals. But they will disagree about what those methods should be, and how much they cost. In separate interviews, Hajj and Ahmed, the second-in-command of another large operation based further east, explain different, contradictory ways of getting migrants to sea.
Hajj uses both wooden trawlers and inflatable Zodiac dinghies to shunt people towards Italy and claims the Zodiacs are the safest method. Once, he claims, a Syrian family paid him $100,000 to ensure they got to Italian waters, and he gave them a Zodiac all to themselves.
By contrast, Ahmed (a pseudonym) says he would not usually use Zodiacs, except to ferry people to the co-opted fishing sloops, anchored a few miles out to sea. “It’s impossible that they reach their destination [in a Zodiac],” he reckons.
But the means of getting people to the beachhead is broadly the same, whoever you talk to. Would-be travellers get in touch with Ahmed or Hajj, or one of their assistants. Sometimes they do it themselves, sometimes they come through middlemen from the migrant’s country of origin. Ahmed pays the middlemen a small fee of around £250 per trip; Hajj doesn’t. But the upshot is usually the same: a price is agreed, and half is paid up front.
What you pay depends on who you are. At the moment, says Hajj, a sub-Saharan African is expected to pay “no more than $800 or $1,000. A Syrian would pay no more than $2,500. A Moroccan no more than €1,500”. Because of the saturated market, prices are lower than usual – and as a result smugglers are trying to fill their ships with larger numbers to make up the shortfall.
That more disasters are happening this year is partly a result of the lower price for a seat on a boat. “It’s ridiculous,” says Hajj. “Three hundred passengers is the maximum for a 17-metre boat. But people are sending out boats loaded with 350, 700, 800. They are being overloaded because the price of an individual has gone down.”
Syrians, he says, tend to have more savings so they are paying more to go on boats with a safer number of passengers. “The Syrians ask: ‘What is a boat altogether?’ I’ll tell them. And they say: ‘We’ll give you this but don’t add more people, and for that we’ll pay 20% extra.’ [Sub-Saharan] Africans don’t ask for guarantees. They don’t have the money.”
When pressed on finance, neither Ahmed nor Hajj provide an account of their profits that really makes sense. It depends on constantly changing factors, they say – the size of the boats they use, how many people they cram on board and the nationality of their passengers.
But even then, the sums do not quite add up. Ahmed estimates his group’s profits come to around 50,000 dinar per trip (£24,300), and in a busy week of 20 trips they might make up to £500,000. Yet in theory this figure should be even higher: the amount he says they make in revenue per trip (around 600,000 dinar, or £292,000) vastly exceeds their only significant outgoing: the cost of a ship, which is around 150,000 dinar, or £74,000, this year.
Similarly, Hajj claims he makes a profit of 22,000 dinar (£10,700) per boat, but only £66,000 in an entire year. It’s an almost farcical understatement that does not begin to account for the number of trips he says he organises in the same period.
Both men are happier explaining how they get their passengers to sea. “Prior to embarking, the migrants all get a call,” says Ahmed, a former oil-rig technician. “They gather in a specific place. Transport takes them from that location in a safe house. All their phones get collected. They bring no luggage. They’re fed and watered and given access to toilets until the time to embark.”
Gruesome stories have emerged of how some migrants are treated by some smugglers at these nominally safe locations. There are reports of beatings to extract more money from people while they wait in the darkness.
Shady, a 34-year-old cloth trader from Syria, arrived in Libya from Algeria this January. He then spent a bewildering four months kept in a house in the next town along from Zuwara. He wasn’t tortured, but he shared a cramped house with people who were. He says: “The four months that we stayed there – do you know what death is like? Several times they said: we’re leaving. But we didn’t. Twice we reached the shore but were turned back. Once we reached the boat – but then they said there’s no more space.” Shady was only released last week, and finally made it to Italy a few days ago.
Hajj admits a Syrian woman was raped at one of his warehouses by the caretaker. But apart from that crime, he said his clients are treated with respect. Torture at his houses “has never happened”, Hajj claims. “In ethical terms, they’re people who have brought you a lot of money, so you can’t treat them like that.” But he would not allow an outsider to visit the places themselves, so the reality is impossible to confirm.
The process of procuring a boat is clearer. The Zodiacs were either looted from Gaddafi’s old storehouses, or imported. The wooden boats are bought from local fishermen.
And some of their prices are going up. The cost of a Zodiac is fairly steady – with about 11,000 dinar the going rate. But the fishing boats are becoming more expensive. A few years ago, when fishermen could get a special loan from the government to subsidise the cost of a boat, a small wooden vessel, perhaps 17 metres long, might have cost 80,000 dinar on the black market. But now the loan system has ended, and boats are slightly scarcer, Hajj is paying double what he used to.
Boats are not exactly running out, he says. But he’s having to buy from fishermen who usually prefer not to get involved, and so have to be offered rather more tempting amounts. “Say 160,000 dinar, rather than 80,000,” Hajj estimates. “If I want a boat, I will buy it at any price.”
Getting out to sea
Getting the boats out of port is a delicate matter, and Ahmed and Hajj approach it differently. Ahmed asks the original owner to report the boat missing, even though it is usually still sitting in plain sight inside the port. Then he scrubs off its name, so it cannot be traced, and pays the coastguards 2,000 dinar to look the other way when his team sail it out to sea. “The coastguard at present is very weak,” Ahmed says. “They don’t earn very much and they’ll say yes to anything.”
Hajj claims he pays 25,000 dinar for a similar privilege – perhaps because he works from a different port, or perhaps because his method is even more blatant. He does not bother to report the boat as missing. His teams simply procure permission from the coastguards to take it out to sea for a three-day fishing trip. And then they do not come back.
Instead, as night falls, they drop anchor at a safe distance. In the darkness, the migrants emerge from their safe houses and climb into the waiting Zodiacs.
In Zuwara, some of these houses are warehouses, some of them beach huts and others unfinished villas. But they are all on or close to the beach.
Shady, the Syrian trader, was kept in a tiny room filled with 45 men, nine women, and 12 children. At departure time, he says, “they told us to expect to wade into the water as far as our knees. But when we got on that plastic dinghy we were actually up to our mouths. It was 1am and we were covered in water.”
A short ride later, the hundreds of migrants are loaded on to the trawler. They are given a satellite phone, a GPS tracker, life jackets (at 15 dinar each, or roughly £4) and some food and water. Then they are given a place to sit and told to remain seated. Hajj may claim to keep numbers to acceptable levels on the boats. But because he still packs so many on board, he admits the way they sit is important.
“We give them direct instructions not to move too much,” he says. “If you have to move, we tell them to just stand up and sit down – don’t go from side to side. If two or three start to do that, others want to do the same. That creates chaos that causes it to capsize.”
But Shady says there are many other problems that could cause a disaster, all the fault of the smugglers. Fresh off the boat from Zuwara, he says he was lucky to arrive after the boat was crammed with 80 more people than promised; two of the pistons in his boat’s engine broke; and the hull began to leak. If the boat had sunk, he might have survived – as a Syrian, he was allowed on deck. But African migrants were crammed in the boat’s hold. “It was just racist,” he says.
The crew usually are not smugglers themselves. The arrest of the two crew members who sent 800 to their deaths on Sunday has been hailed in some quarters as a significant development. But in reality, the pair may have just been co-opted migrants.
On the Zodiacs, the skipper is often a refugee given rudimentary steering training in the runup to the journey. On the trawlers, they have to have some kind of nautical experience. Sometimes they find real fishermen, Egyptians or Tunisians who simply want a means to get to Europe. But in a mass of more than 300 passengers, smugglers say they can usually find someone who already knows roughly what to do at sea.
Because the captain gets to travel for free, there is an incentive to inflate their experience – which can have tragic consequences. “Sometimes they fib,” says Amdiaz Aminzo, the pseudonym of a retired smuggler who is considering returning to the trade. “They have general knowledge and they pass the test – but in reality they don’t know how to react in a dire situation.”
Both Hajj and Ahmed admit that the goal is for the boats to get rescued rather than go all the way to the Italian coast.
The ships are pointed roughly towards a certain oil rig not far from Lampedusa. The expectation is that if the boat is not spotted earlier, the employees of the oil rig will call the Italian or Maltese coastguards to pick it up.
But crucially, both men displayed only vague awareness of Mare Nostrum, the full-scale rescue missions run last year by the Italian navy.
Their ignorance undermines the widely held belief that Mare Nostrum’s cancellation last October might force smugglers to rein in their operations. But while Hajj knew roughly what Mare Nostrum was, he did not know it had ended. Ahmed did not recognise the name at all.
“I’ve not heard of that,” he says. “What is that – from 2009?” Once informed, he shrugs. “Many people would go on the boats, even if they didn’t have any rescue operations,” he says, echoing arguments often made by refugees themselves.
Hajj agrees. With the Libyan war having escalated since last summer, he claims demand is up four-fold since last year.
How to stop the refugee flow? Find a safer option
The use of migrants as crew members underscores a further challenge to planned attempts to target smugglers’ boats. Not only are smuggling vessels only identifiable as such for a few short hours, but the smugglers themselves barely have to board them. Migrants can often sail the ships for the smugglers, while the key smugglers largely keep to the shore.
But there is one small chink in their armour that Hajj himself says the EU should pursue if they are serious about curbing the smuggling trade. When smugglers’ ships are rescued by coastguards, their passengers are allowed to disembark, while the vessel itself is frequently left to drift in the sea. If it is damaged, that is often not enough to sink it. This allows the smugglers to return to the empty vessel, tow it back to the Libyan shore, and fix it up once again. A line of trawlers currently waiting for maintenance on the quay at Zuwara is testimony to this strategy.
“Why do they leave the boats intact?” asked Hajj. “That helps us, because all we have to do is go out to sea and tow them back to shore.” There are instances where the same boat has been used in four separate migrant missions.
But beyond the destruction of specific boats, conversations with smugglers, refugees and coastguards along the shores of west Libya suggest there are other, more long-term strategies for curbing the flow of people across the Mediterranean. The message from refugees is clear: find us a safer option. Often fleeing dictatorship, war or hunger at home and faced with further conflict and exploitation in supposedly safer havens like Libya, to many refugees the Mediterranean seems the least bad option.
“It is not our choice to penetrate the sea,” said Keflemekal from Eritrea, one of the world’s harshest dictatorships. “If we got some help from the Libyan government, from UNHCR, we would try something else. But if the government won’t help us, if UNHCR won’t help us, if no one can help us, then the only option is to go to the smugglers.”
A return to stability in Libya is also crucial. The Libyan civil war, which has divided the country between two rival governments and dozens of militias, has left local law enforcement either unconcerned about, unable to deal with, or part of the problem in the first place. In the expanse of western Libya, where most migrant missions begin, the Libyan coastguard has just three functioning boats. In Zuwara, there is just one – a Zodiac no bigger than some of the smugglers’ smallest ships. The coastguards have not been paid in months, while an extra ship that could help them increase their operations remains in Tunisia because the local government could not afford to pay for its maintenance.
In an area where there are dozens of smuggling missions a week, trying to resist seems pointless, said a Zuwaran coastguard who gave his name as Mostafa.
“The EU, if it really wants to stop smuggling from Zuwara, they need to bring us the tools to this office,” Mostafa said, claiming that millions of dollars meant for ports like Zuwara had never reached their target after they were sent straight to the central government in Tripoli. “We need serious tools, boats, proper patrols, a committee to train us. Don’t give the aid to Tripoli. Give it to us in Zuwara.”
Zuwarans also ask for proper economic alternatives. Work has always been scarce in the home of a long-marginalised ethnic minority: the Amazigh, or Berbers. Hajj says he only turned to smuggling because he could not find work as a lawyer.
Some here have protested against the people-smuggling trade after a series of dead migrants washed up on the beach last year. But even if they do not like what their town has become infamous for, many others turn a blind eye because of the cashflow it indirectly brings them.
“We know it is cruel. The seas are treacherous. Capsizing boats are a possibility,” says one local, who has turned to fuel smuggling. “But we have to turn a blind eye as people are benefiting financially and there is no other work.”
There are some who argue that greater recognition for the Amazigh would turn the tide against smuggling, at least in Zuwara. After Gaddafi fell in 2011, in part thanks to western air strikes, there were hopes among the Amazigh that the new Libya, supported by the EU, would afford Berbers more rights. But little progress has followed, and in several interviews locals claim the surge in smuggling is a response to being ignored. Others say the Amazigh’s plight should not be used to excuse organised crime.
But Hajj himself says the two are linked. “There are smugglers who work for the pleasure of making money, even in Zuwara,” he says. “But there are others like me who work for the pleasure of putting pressure on you [Europeans].”
True or not, recognising the Amazigh won’t curb smuggling in Arab parts of Libya. That’s the message from Ahmed, who smuggles from Garibulli, a town a few hundred kilometres to the east. While the world fails to address the root causes of the biggest wave of mass migration since the second world war, the business will continue.
“It’s not going to stop,” he says. “It’s simply not going to stop. The borders in the south [of Libya] are open, and there is always going to be an appetite for it.”