ZAWIYAH, Libya — The two 8-year-old Eritrean boys had ridden for days across the deserts of Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya packed in the back of a truck with two other children and a dozen adults. Then they spent another month trapped in a crowded farmhouse that the smugglers used as a pen to store their human cargo.
Finally, in the dark of night, a rubber dinghy ferried the two boys, Hermon Angosom and Efrem Fitwi, out to a creaking fishing boat jammed with more than 200 others, including 39 children — the youngest a 2-year-old in the arms of his mother.
Both cried. “We were afraid of the boat,” Hermon recounted impassively.
The boys had joined the unceasing flow of Arab and African migrants who are churned through the lawlessness of post-Qaddafi Libya and spewed out into the Mediterranean — more than 170,000 last year and at least as many expected this year.
It is a journey through a failed state in which border security is all but nonexistent, corruption is rampant, the coast guard rarely leaves port and the proliferating human smuggling operations are growing ever more callous and brazen. Human trafficking from Libya across the Mediterranean was a $170 million business last year, according to conservative estimates in a recent United Nations report.
Since the overthrow of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, warring militias have become the only law in much of Libya. Smugglers have “nothing to be afraid of,” as one put it, because security along the coast has disappeared. And the multiplying tales of death at sea have done nothing to diminish the demand for crossings.
Others from across Africa pay desert smugglers to carry them to the Libyan coast just for a chance to get to Europe and the better lives they imagine there.
Most are ferried blindly through Libya by armed gangs under the protection of powerful militias. Some fail to make it out of Libyan waters and end up stuck in a hellish limbo, unable to return home and trapped in the country’s chaos. Many are not that lucky.
Roughly 1,750 of about 25,000 migrants trying to cross to Italy from Libya drowned in the first weeks of the spring sailing season, according to the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental agency based in Geneva. That includes more than 700 in a boat that capsized about a week ago. The death rate is more than three times as high as it was last year, when about 3,200 drowned out of approximately 170,000 who tried the same passage.
But many still pay for the chance, two smugglers said in separate interviews.
“The Africans are seeing death in front of their eyes” because of the abuse and violence of the Libyan militias, one smuggler said, sipping a cappuccino at a harborside cafe in Tripoli, the capital, and speaking on the condition of anonymity because his trade is a crime.
“Even if there is a 99 percent chance that they are going to die at sea, they are still going to do it,” he said, “because they are just fed up.”
The smugglers have become increasingly cynical about their human freight.
“Most smugglers do not care about God,” the smuggler said, “so they just throw a lot of migrants inside the boat — the more, the better for them.”
He insisted that he had never lost a passenger, but his assessment of the dangers seemed at odds with the death toll. “It is well known that the Italian boats save everybody,” he said.
Smugglers and migrants said that a rescue by a European vessel in international waters — not reaching the Italian coast — was the goal of every departure. They said that increasing the number of patrols, as the European Union has pledged to do, stood little chance of stemming the flow.
“A force on the sea will only save the migrants,” one smuggler said. “The problem is in the harbors of Libya.”
But the Libyan Coast Guard is practically useless. Coast guard officials responsible for most of the coastline where the smuggling occurs say equipment failures have prevented them from carrying out an operation for more than three months, and at least one captain said he was afraid of retribution by the smugglers.
Some depart from the rocky coastline of Tripoli itself, not far from the coast guard station, using inflatable boats to ferry migrants to waiting ships.
The engine of the boat carrying Hermon and Efrem, the Eritrean 8-year-olds, faltered almost immediately, adults who traveled with them said. They floated at sea for seven hours, until a Libyan fishing boat spotted them.
Since then, the boys have been living for a week among three dozen parentless Eritrean boys ages 8 to 16 in a makeshift detention center in a former school, all sleeping on thin mattresses that cover the concrete floor in a bare, dimly lit room with a primitive toilet in the corner.
They are allowed outside for about two hours a day, according to other imprisoned migrants and detention officials, in short periods after each of three basic meals — rice or macaroni, with a rare piece of potato or meat, but never a fruit or vegetable.
“If we stay here, we have to be able to play soccer or something,” Efrem pleaded.
At the shortest distance, the western end of the Libyan coast is just 290 miles from the Italian island of Lampedusa, and emigration by sea has been a dream for years. But under Colonel Qaddafi’s rule, the two smugglers said, the price of passage for one migrant ran as high as $5,000 because of the cost of evading — or more likely bribing — the security forces.
That price has fallen as low as $1,600 in recent weeks, according to smugglers and migrants around Tripoli. Dark-skinned Africans sail for less than lighter-skinned Moroccans, Syrians and Tunisians, smugglers said, because the latter are assumed to have more money.
Cramming 200 or more migrants into a boat at $1,600 a head means more than $320,000, but the smugglers insisted that there is a heavy overhead, mainly for bribing militias.
“Everything is expensive,” one smuggler said.
Transporting migrants by road requires a bribe of more than $100 at each local militia checkpoint for each truck carrying 15 to 20 migrants. (Some migrants from other countries said they had paid as much as $1,600 just for the ride from Sudan to the Libyan coast at Ajdabiya and then west to the smuggling ports.)
A smuggler might pay as much as $5,000 a month to rent a crowded collection house where he can keep migrants while they wait to depart, paying a premium to the landlord because of the risk of retribution if the use is exposed. Smugglers must also pay guards.
And it often costs as much as $20,000 a month to pay a local militia chief for the permission to use a secure departure point — “if he is powerful,” the smuggler said.
A rubber boat to ferry groups of 20 migrants to a waiting vessel can cost $4,000, and a boat that holds 250 migrants for a one-way voyage can run up to $80,000. (Boat makers charge smugglers a premium, they complain.)
An Egyptian or Tunisian captain for the boat might get $5,000 to $7,000, and blend in with the migrants to avoid responsibility if the boat is stopped, according to the smugglers. About $800 buys a satellite telephone that the captain can use to call the Red Cross when the boat reaches international waters, to expedite pickup by the Italian Coast Guard.
Some traffickers sell life jackets to the migrants for about $40 each, one smuggler said, but about 80 percent do not bother. Others “say they will give life jackets, but don’t,” the smuggler said, shrugging.
Both smugglers all but laughed at the notion that any Libyan authority might deter them. “Everything is open — the deserts and the seas,” said another smuggler based in Tripoli.
At the Tripoli coast guard unit, in charge of most of the coastline where the smuggling occurs, equipment breakdowns this year have prevented any patrols from going to sea since January, said the operations director, Sobhi Bishr. “We have only one rubber dinghy.”
Migrants picked up in Libyan waters are sent to a network of primitive detention centers. Most of the others held in the centers are dark-skinned Africans who have been turned in by Libyan militiamen acting as police officers. The Libyans accuse them of entering the country illegally or committing a crime.
But the migrants say that armed Libyans stop them at checkpoints or invade the crowded apartments they share to rob them of their savings and then turn them in. Many accuse the Libyans of raping migrant women, but there are no courts to adjudicate such claims.
At a detention site in the Abu Salim area of Tripoli, dozens of migrants captured at sea were among about 300 men housed in two dimly lit, 50-by-10-yard concrete bunkers stinking of urine and sweat. The pads they slept on covered every inch of the floors, and bedbugs swarmed around them. Each room had two toilets in the corner, and a trash-strewn cement trough with four spigots was the only means of washing their clothes or themselves.
Some said they had spent two months or more here or in similar centers, although they are sometimes hired as day laborers and returned at night.
“We are like slaves,” said Abu Bakr Dixon, 34, a Gambian held at the Zawiyah detention center. He had survived the capsizing of his migrant boat by clinging to an empty barrel with a friend until they were rescued; at least 61 others with him drowned.
Col. Milud Jummah, the official in charge of the Abu Salim center, directed men from one of the rooms to kneel in tight rows in the courtyard — a chance to get some sunlight, he said. Rows of barbed wire blocked off most of the outdoor space, and armed guards prohibited the migrants from moving around.
“Do not expect them to be normal humans,” Colonel Jummah said, explaining the heavy restrictions.
The migrants are ostensibly awaiting repatriation to their home countries, and the International Organization for Migration recently helped Senegal bring back about 400. But detention officials said Senegal was an exception. Many African countries have shut down their embassies in Libya or simply neglect their migrants. Eritrea considers them defectors and thus criminals.
A more common exit involves the payment of a $500 or $1,000 bribe to the jailers by a migrant or his family and friends, according to migrants and several Libyan officials. Often, smugglers help transmit bribes from a migrant’s distant family members and then sell a second seat to the same passenger. One consequence is that the detention system only increases the determination of many migrants to escape Libya as soon as possible. One smuggler said he often saw repeat customers.
At the Zawiyah detention center, Hermon and Efrem appeared to feel the same way. Both boys said they had sneaked away without telling their parents. They said siblings who had already made the trip by boat to Italy from Libya had managed to send money for smugglers to bring their younger brothers to join them.
None of the roughly three dozen Eritrean boys had any idea how they might get out of the detention center or what their future might hold. But when asked if they wanted to return home to their parents, the answer was unanimous.
“We want to go to Italy,” they said.
Yaseen Kanuni contributed reporting from Zawiyah, and Omar Khaled from Tripoli, Libya.
How do we create a free economy where these people are coming from so that they aren't going to risk everything to escape that place?
We (and our debtors) invested billions in Iraq trying to make that desolate area into a more decent place to live, but the people of the Middle East have given their opinion of our effort at ''nation building.''
So what, then? We know that there is NO room for more unskilled-but-determined refugees here, and Europe has recently realized just how gravely their nations are endangered by their having welcomed refugees utterly unwilling to join the cultures in their new homes.
Of course, a vigorous military intervention aimed at totally disabling Muslim fanatics would solve nearly all these problems. But that is seen as Uncool by our celebrity & entertainment-oriented culture here.
These are illegal immigrants. While a few may qualify for asylum most are economic migrants eligible for deportation.
There is no longer a Ghaddfi to hold the migrants back on the Libyan coast. The days when you could go and settle in a country without permission of any kind are long gone and belong to the 19th and early 20th century.
The developed world must not let a flood of illegal migrants destroy Europe. Any migration to Europe must be controlled and in the best interest of Europe.
The only way to stop this migration is to enforce the law. Asylum seekers are expected to seek asylum in the first safe country - not go shopping for a prosperous country that will provide generous benefits indefinitely.
Europe should not be afraid to deport these migrants and phony asylum seekers. They should ignore the ECHR whose rulings sometimes so ridiculous as to defy rational intelligence and ignore nation-states rights.
One thing they could do would be to set up detention/processing centers along the N. African coast where the applications for admission could be adjudicated. Anyone arriving in Europe illegally should be deported - no need for any kind of hearing.
If Europe does not get its act together and deport these illegal aliens - there is a very good chance that jihadists will enter Europe and turn it into Syria or Lebanon.
It's so important to remember that innocent hard-working families are victims of the chaos of the Middle East and Africa. Anyone who would brave such a dangerous trip is doing it out of complete desperation. When I looked at my one family's background, and thought of the sea journeys they undertook to come to America in the 1700s and 1800s (generally also to escape poverty and social disorder), I came to the conclusion that I am only here because my ancestors were brave, lucky, and/or strong people. These modern desperate emigrants are fundamentally no different....
Agreed, I have often thought of my own immigrant roots and am thankful that my relatives were able to escape poverty and hopeless circumstances to be able to come to the U.S.
However, as to your assertionthat "These modern desperate emigrants are fundamentally no different.... " I disagree with this and I think what people are increasingly noticing is that first world welfare appears to be incentivizing modern immigration.
I can agree with that.... well, I'll say that the emigrant's motivations to leave are not very different, when you consider that they are leaving their homes and probably other family forever,, much like our ancestors. But the motivations behind where they may chose to go is certainly different....
With the expulsion of eastern European Germans from countries that were taken over by the Russians after WWII this is exactly what took place. German citizens were "forced" to give a room in their home to these refugees. Only difference these people were given food stamps. I know because I was one of them!
Population pressures has much to do with pushing people beyond their borders, battling for resources and seeking safety or work . The world's people and leaders have to admit and address the burgeoning problem.
Decades after gaining independence, the vast majority of African states remain corrupt, stagnant kleptocracies. There is little hope for the future for African citizens, so the bravest and most desperate seek their fortune in the developed world.
Europe doesn't want the refugees (in the numbers that are arriving) but is too shy to come out and say it. European funded sea rescue operations were ended because of the fear that they would encourage more migrants attempting the crossing of the Mediterranean.
I'd have thought that the best way to deter people from leaving their countries would be to pay local African state broadcasters to broadcast documentaries that detail the misery, abuse, discrimination and death that befalls so many African migrants.
But the lure of living and working in a society that is accountable to its citizens may remain because there's so little hope for change in Africa.
you are delusional if you think that Nigeria and South Africa are close to being "democracies". Pielouka is spot on with her statement that "the vast majority of African states remain corrupt, stagnant kleptocracies". Illegal migrants in those countries are usually persecuted; the South African army had to be deployed to stop the killings of illegal migrants there. the EU has to immediately weed out economic migrants and return them - it sounds harsh but that is the only way to discourage further illegal immigration.
The United States was completely wrong in attacking Libya and destroying the government of Libya. Libya was no possible danger to the US, still we launched a bombing campaign that destroyed the Libyan government and resulted in the destruction of Libyan cohesion and left a country in continual violent turmoil ever since the US bombings so protecting no Libyans.
President Obama launched bombing attacks on Libya with no consent of Congress, changing the intent of a United Nations resolution to provide a no-fly zone. Then, when the Libyan government was deposed the US turned away from the violent turmoil that has persisted.
Seems to me the cause of this desperation is clear as day. The countries producing the refugees are all turning into war-torn, lawless, often fundamentalist lands, where no one is safe and no prosperity exists. As long as these countries are like this, they will produce refugees, and no amount of saving these people from the sea is going to stop them from trying to cross it.
As I see it there are two options to deal with the refugee problem effectively. The first is to assemble U.N. coalitions to conquer the lawless lands like Libya, Syria, Somalia, and so forth. Take over as non-destructively as possible, set up caretaker governments that will govern for a few decades until things are really stabilized, and people won't want to flee anymore.
The second method is the one that has been used for Somalia, which is to put blindfolds on and earplugs in and just pretend it's not there. This will work quite effectively as well, as all of these desert lands are becoming progressively more uninhabitable, and by the end of the century Libya, Syria, Somalia, and so on, will be unable to sustain humans at all. When that happens there will be a flood of refugees but the casualty rate should be well over 50% due to lack of resources and constant fighting.
So I believe those are the only options, and that most likely the world will choose option #2 overwhelmingly. If anyone's got other potential fixes I'd be thrilled to hear them.
The current situation in the Arab Middle East and most of Africa is an irrefutable argument for the return of colonialism. An enlightened administration by the Western democracies, paid for by local natural resources, is the last, best hope for these people. This should be accompanied by an eradication of Islamic ideology.
There's an article in this morning's NY Times headlined, "Think of Migrants as Parents, not Immigrants." The same should be for black men, gunned down in the streets by white police officers, and the thousands of migrants fleeing countries embroiled in war. These people just want to live ...raise their familes,...enjoy their relationships, etc. Those of us who awaken every morning with nothing on our minds but that first cup of coffee and fighting morning traffic to our jobs, etc., need a reality moment. They are no less human beings as we and all human beings want the same thing. You may not have had to fight alligators and cross desserts to get to a ship that all too often will capsize, drowning you and your loved ones on your quest for a better life...but thousands do and they are no less feeling than you. You need to stop being so selfish, so afraid someone will take one of your cars out of your driveway...cancel one of your cable television shows, etc., and start thinking as a human being with concern for your fellow human beings...because when our earthquake or comet hits...human compassion is the only thing that will save you, them and us.
Lovely sentiments, but frankly, What is your point? And btw, How do you know that this people will not duplicate the cultural values hugely responsible for the their predicament? This is only a small preview of much worse to come.
_at_Dan "...people will have even more children..."
We the people elect our representatives and make our laws. Our laws prevent any organization that receives government support from even mentioning 'birth control' to sick and/or starving women who already have more hungry children than they can begin to care for. So we, you and I, are part of the problem.
The planet currently has well over 5 bn living in third world nations. For just about all of them, a move to a developed nation would lead to an improvment in life quality. Does that mean that we should permit many, if only a small portion, to make the move?