Why So Many Refugees Are Fleeing To Europe From Libya
Libyan Red Crescent workers recover a body of a drowned migrant, off the shore of Gasr Garabulli, in the eastern city of Tripoli, Tuesday, March 29, 2016. Libyan Red Crescent workers collected 17 bodies since March 18 after a boat sank off the east coast of the city of Tripoli. (AP Photo/Mohamed Ben Khalifa) CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MOHAMED BEN KHALIFA
A spate of capsized boats and shipwrecks off the Libyan coast last week led to the deaths of more than 880 people trying to cross the Meditteranean Sea to Italy. It marked the worst week at sea for refugees since April of last year. Among those dead included an infant whose photo is being used by a German humanitarian aid group in an effort to force the European Union to pay attention to the human toll of the migration crisis.
Despite the heartbreaking nature of these recent drownings, however, refugees from African and Middle Eastern countries likely won’t stop using the near-failed state of Libya as a springboard into Europe on rickety boats.
Here’s why Libya has become the latest flashpoint in the European migration crisis:
Why Libya is so dangerous right now
Migration from Libya to Europe quadrupled starting in 2013. After rebel fighters killed Libya’s dictator, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, two rival groups have fought to seize control of the power vacuum in the country amid increasing lawlessness. Libya’s Islamic State militant group (ISIS) has also upped its presence in the area, as the 2011 armed conflict has continued to drive internal displacement within the country.
Why Libya is such a popular point of departure for refugees
Last year, 87 percent of the 900,000 migrants and refugees who crossed the waters into Europe arrived through Greece, according to The Guardian.
But after the European Union cut a deal with Turkey in March to resettle one refugee for every “irregular migrant” it turned away, entering Greece from Turkey was no longer a viable option.
Since the EU-Turkey deal, many migrants and refugees have instead turned to North Africa to cross through Libya. The relatively short distance between Libya’s shoreline and Italy’s island of Lampedusa has also made the trip appealing to people, BBC reported. This is likely why there weren’t any fatalities on the eastern Mediterranean route between Turkey and Greece in the first three weeks of May.
Who’s using this route through Libya
Migrants and refugees are leaving from more than 12 countries across the North African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian regions, including Tunisia, Syria, Algeria, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Somalia, Kenya, the Sudan region, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria.
The Forgotten Conflict in Libya, Explained
Some migrants leave their countries for economic reasons. But others, like those fleeing Somalia, leave continued unrest borne from two decades of civil war and an Islamist insurgency brought on by the militant group al-Shabaab.
As of last November, one in ten migrants to Europe are from Eritrea, with about 5,000 people leaving the country every month. A lifetime of forced military conscription under Eritrea’s dictatorship was the most commonly cited reason that people fled the country. People who have been forced into national service have reported arbitrary detention, torture, sexual torture, forced labor, absence of leave, and poor pay, the Council on Foreign Relations reported. People from other countries report similar reasons for leaving.
Why refugees can’t stay in Libya
Migrants passing through Libya face great personal risk in the country, which is why it isn’t a viable option for them to stay there instead of embarking on the dangerous journey across the sea.
Libya has an expansive 1,100-mile coastline — the longest in North Africa — that has been left without border control because the country has lacked a centralized government since 2014. When Libyan Coast Guard members intercept migrants and refugees hoping to flee by boat, many of these individuals are put in overcrowded, terrible detention centers to await deportation proceedings back to their countries of origin. Migrants and refugees in these detention centers are subjected to torture, severe whippings, beatings, and electric shocks, according to a 2014 report by the humanitarian group Human Rights Watch.
Smugglers and gangs often force refugees to pay more to fund their water-bound trip into Europe by confiscating their passports and extorting them. Some Sub-Saharan migrants and refugees, including unaccompanied children, have been abducted by smugglers who try to coerce them and their family members to pay a ransom. People who are unable to pay are then often held as slaves without pay, according to Amnesty International.
“It is effectively a business that they are running,” one man told Amnesty International. “They detain you so that you have to pay… If you don’t answer their questions, they beat you…with rubber pipes.”
Refugees are also at risk of religious persecution. According to Amnesty International, people from Nigeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Egypt have been “abducted, tortured, unlawfully killed and harassed because of their religion” in Libya, particularly by ISIS. Last year, at least 49 Christians, mostly from Egypt and Ethiopia, were beheaded and shot in three group killings by the terrorist group Islamic State (IS).
The harrowing, step-by-step story of a migrant’s journey to Europe
Nearly every part of the illegal journey a migrant makes from West Africa to Europe across the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean is filled with peril. But even a routine roll call, innocuous as it may seem, can turn into a recurring nightmare.
Andrew (real name withheld), a Nigerian migrant with hopes of reaching Italy, found that out the hard way at Sabratha, a coastal town in northern Libya in February 2016.
As desperate migrants are transported across borders through a vast illegal network, their smugglers carry out roll calls at regular intervals during the long convoluted itinerary to confirm every migrants’ journey has been fully paid up. While most migrants pay “agents”—the shady middlemen who make all the initial travel arrangements—at the start of their journey to arrange the trip all the way to Europe, these agents do not always pay the smugglers the full amount. When migrants duped by agents become stranded along the way, things turn ugly. In Andrew’s case, the agent had paid his way to Libya but not all the way to Europe, as previously agreed.
Having seen similar episodes at previous stops along his journey, Andrew would have known what was coming next. The first lashes of a thick rubber water hose landed on his sore feet and back after his limbs were chained. To frighten him even more—and offer a taste of what was to come—the smugglers began flogging other duped migrants who had been detained for much longer. The message was simple: pay up or this will be your fate.
Typically, the only way duped migrants regain their freedom from unforgiving smugglers is to have family or friends pay exorbitant ransoms. Ultimately, Andrew’s smugglers demanded a ransom totaling $2,500. It was made up of a $1,500 fee for onward transportation—double the $750 he had initially paid to be transported from Libya into Europe—as well as an additional $1,000 fee for the extra hassle. If the ransom wasn’t paid up, it left only one other way for smugglers to recoup their “losses”: sell Andrew and other duped migrants off in Libya’s infamous slave markets .
Andrew’s tortuous journey started three months earlier in Edo, a state in southern Nigeria. But in reality, it was many years in the making. His father left for Germany in 1990, just before he was born, to seek greener pastures. His mother followed just after Andrew became a teenager. With strong family ties on the other side of the Mediterranean, Andrew needed little prompting to dream of a life there.
After failing to gain admission into university (only one in four Nigerian students that apply to local universities get a spot ), Andrew started a diploma program in science laboratory technology at a polytechnic in Edo in 2011. But at the end of the program two years later, rather than enroll for the higher national diploma as most students would, Andrew dropped out of school altogether. Even though his parents sent monthly stipends, the promise of a better life in Europe was distracting and seemed more enticing than further studies.
It’s a choice many young people face. With odds stacked against them given ever-rising unemployment rates and an uncertain economy, life-risking illegal migration has become an increasingly normalized option for young Nigerians facing a difficult or uncertain future. Even Nigeria’s wealthier middle-class are leaving through economic migration programs and asylum claims, especially to Canada .
Edo, Andrew’s home state, has gained a longstanding reputation as a hub for people trafficking in Nigeria. Traffickers often prey on the potent mix of ignorance, desperation and poverty of young people to trick them into the trip by promising lucrative jobs in Europe. It’s an offer that’s too good to refuse for many. But the dreams of a better life in Europe usually fade away quickly.
Rather than provide lucrative jobs as promised, traffickers often exploit female migrants through sex trafficking rings for prostitution once in Europe. The business model for trafficking male migrants is different, even though they’re also sold similar tales of jobs in Europe. Traffickers’ profits are made by charging male migrants high fees to smuggle them into Europe but then leaving them stranded along the way in Libya or in Europe.
The culture of “traveling abroad to find work” is so ingrained in Edo, in some cases parents encourage their children to make the dangerous trip despite the known risks. Despite several campaigns to discourage them, for many struggling youths it’s often a binary choice: continued frustration in Nigeria or the prospect, however slim, of a better life in Europe.
For its part, the Nigerian government formally began attempting to stem the flow of trafficked migrants as far back as 2003 when it passed an anti-trafficking law and set up a national anti-trafficking agency. But with the national government unable to permanently end the decades-old trend, local hands are trying to tackle the problem too: universities and local religious bodies have carried out sustained awareness campaigns about the risks of human trafficking and illegal migration.
The Edo state government has also picked up the mantle. Last year, it set up the Edo Task Force Against Human Trafficking (ETAHT). Beyond the goal of curbing trafficking, the high-powered task force headed by the state attorney general also aims to prosecute and convict traffickers. The state has already passed a law with stiffer punishments (compared to the national trafficking agency) of lengthy jail terms without the option of fines. It has also pushed advocacy campaigns in rural areas traffickers often recruit from and in high schools to correct the prevailing mindset which has made illegal migration pervasive in the state.
But the state isn’t solely sticking to conventional methods to combat trafficking. In March, Oba Ewuare II, the powerful traditional ruler in Edo, placed a curse on traffickers. Given local reverence for the monarch rooted in the culture of the ancient Benin kingdom, his backing for the cause is seen to be as crucial as state laws. And it has had an effect as traffickers have renounced the practice out of fear of the repercussions of the king’s curse.
Just before sunset, at around 6 pm. on Nov. 26, 2015, Andrew, then 24, began his journey to Europe in Benin City, the Edo state capital. Wearing a polo shirt, a grey hoodie, blue jeans and black Timberland boots, he got into a Toyota Hiace bus. He was headed for Europe with nothing but a MTN mobile sim card which held all his phone contacts and a change of clothes, including a jacket he’d bought two weeks earlier at Katangowa, a popular market for second-hand clothes on the outskirts of Lagos. He’d also packed groundnuts, biscuits, cereal and beverages in his travel case.
Andrew didn’t tell his parents about the trip as he knew they would not approve. He was leaving behind a younger brother and a girlfriend he had been in a serious relationship with for three years. The first major step in Andrew’s grand design to get to Germany was to first reach Italy where he planned to meet up with a maternal uncle. From there, he hoped to obtain paperwork which would allow him get into Germany, reunite with his parents and start a new life.
Two weeks earlier, he’d paid around $1,750—comprising of $1,000 to get him from Edo to Libya and $750 to get him from Libya into Europe—for the journey. The money was paid to a local agent and was to cover transportation and accommodation along the way, but not his feeding. He did not receive a receipt or any other proof of payment and was told the journey would last “a maximum of three weeks.”
The journey began with 22 young people: 10 men and 12 women. Each person had their trip organized by a different agent—the first sign of the organized and collaborative effort which powers illicit human smuggling in sub Saharan Africa. They all crammed into a Toyota Hiace 16-seater bus and set off that Thursday evening.
The first stop on the journey to Europe was Abuja, Nigeria’s federal capital, 300 miles north of Benin City. The drive was punctuated by several stops at law enforcement checkpoints but each time, the driver discussed with soldiers in hushed tones after which they were granted passage. The consensus among the young migrants was that the soldiers were in on the racket too.
Just after midnight on Nov. 27, the party arrived in Abuja, where another Toyota Hiace bus was waiting at a gas station. The migrants moved their luggage into the waiting bus and, within ten minutes, were back on the road. This time, they were heading to Kano, even further north in Nigeria. Like before, stops at checkpoints came with minimal fuss: they were let through after a quick hushed exchange between the driver and law enforcement officials.
In Kano, just after daybreak on Nov. 27, the Hiace bus was switched for five Volkswagen Passat sedan cars which drove the migrants to the outskirts of neighboring Katsina—home state of Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari—where they would make their first illegal international border crossing into Niger. Close to the border, the Volkswagen cars parked after being signaled by the lights of waiting commuter motorcycles, locally known as okada. Skirting through the sparse border town, each okada carried two migrants and crossed one of Nigeria’s many porous northern borders into Maradi, a border town in southern Niger.
Once in Niger, patrol officers let the group successfully cross into the country but not before taking a $5 bribe from each migrant. The okadas dropped the migrants off at an abandoned house not far from the Niger border where they were told to wait for the next vehicle to pick them up.
They were not told when it would come.
The overall trans-Sahara migrant business, including Libya, is currently estimated to be worth up to $765 million (pdf, page 79), according to The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, an international civil society organization. As migrant traffic has boomed since the turn of the decade, so has business for illegal smugglers. Across vast networks that stretch beyond national borders, smuggling has become an incredibly lucrative business for the many players along what you might call a supply chain.
It’s made up of local agents who recruit the migrants from their homes across West Africa and arrange border crossing logistics into Niger; Niger-based smugglers who get them across the Sahara desert; complicit law enforcement officials who accept bribes for thoroughfare along the way; owners of safe houses or “ghettos” for migrants mid-transit; armed groups that collect illegal taxes and offer protection to smuggling networks; Libyan smugglers who provide logistics for crossing the Mediterranean and sex trafficking rings in Europe.
Since the turn of the decade, Niger, one of Africa’s poorest countries, has evolved into a key cog in the smuggling business. Agadez, the country’s largest central city, has grown to become a transit hub for hundreds of thousands of migrants annually. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime noted, in 2015, that up to 4,000 undocumented migrants pass through Agadez every week. That swelling of migrants has inadvertently proven decisive for the city’s economy. A 2017 report (pdf, page 22) by the Netherlands Institute of International Relations found that Niger transit hubs like Agadez “have witnessed economic growth due to all manner of migration-related activities.” “The amount of money to be made in human smuggling,” the report adds, “has created a parallel economy.”
The “availability of cheap migrant labor” from stranded migrants looking to make money to pay for the rest of their trip is also a boon for several local businesses. But things were not always this way. In the past, Agadez was known more for its city center, now a UNESCO world heritage site home to its 16th century central mosque’s 27 meter-high mud brick minaret— the highest in the world .
But the booming smuggling trade has since replaced trickling tourism revenues and has spawned local millionaires. In a 2016 report, HuffPost Highline estimated that a Niger “passeur,” agents that arrange travel for migrants from West Africa to Libya, can earn up to $17,000 in profit every month while transporters who move migrants across the Sahara desert from Niger to Libya can also make up to $3,500 in profit per trip. Those large margins have drawn many to the migrant smuggling business, making it difficult for local and international authorities to curb.
“It’s a quintessential free market because there is no regulator. Everybody can enter this market,” says Paolo Campana, an organized crime researcher at the University of Cambridge. “You don’t need high skills, you don’t need high capital either. There are very low barriers to entry.”
That cash-flow has started being restrained though. After years of enjoying a free rein and operating brazenly in the open, Niger’s government has started cracking down on smugglers and enforcing an anti-trafficking law it passed in 2015 to prevent undocumented migrants from passing through the country. As a result, migrant traffic through Agadez has dropped as much as 80% since the end of 2016, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. But illicit smuggling continues to linger as persistent operatives have either developed new routes through neighboring Niger towns or continue to work discreetly in Agadez.
Crossing the Sahara
The first roll call of Andrew’s journey was taken in Maradi, in southern Niger. After a three-day wait, a bus finally showed up and brought a sense of relief for some of the migrants who feared they had been duped and would be dumped in Niger. All 22 names were called by the smugglers before the next phase of the journey began. The next destination was Agadez—or as it is also known, “the gateway to the desert.”
In the first week of December 2015, Andrew’s group was dropped off at a “ghetto”—safe houses which hold dozens of migrants while they wait to be transported northward to Libya. There, the group swelled from 22 to more than 50 migrants, including nationals from Senegal, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea. Life in the Agadez ghetto was a precursor of what was to come for most of the journey: infrequent meals and deplorable living conditions. During the two weeks he spent in Agadez, Andrew slept on the floor in an open-air courtyard and lived on food supplies he’d brought from Nigeria.
And then it was time to cross the Sahara desert.
Spanning 3.6 million square miles, the desert’s vast expanse of sand and dirt is nearly the size of China. Put another way, the Sahara covers 31% of Africa. Migrants make the crossing riding in the back of fully loaded trucks driving at full speed. Each truck holds extra kegs of petrol to allow the smugglers refuel in the desert. Sometimes, acting as shields for female migrants who usually cramp into the center, male migrants sit on the edges of pick-up trucks with their legs sticking out while using a stick for support. That was the case for Andrew.
The drive across the Sahara served up more evidence of the corruption which fuels illicit human smuggling across the continent as desert patrol officials in Niger demanded bribes of around $7 per migrant before letting them through. At the first major checkpoint, Andrew counted 10 pick-up trucks, each conveying about 25 migrants. That night, border patrol officers stood to make up to $175 per Hilux truck. Migrants who could not pay the bribe were beaten and then let through.
Crossing the Sahara desert in the back of a speeding Hilux truck comes with a real risk of death. ”If you fell off, you were on your own,” Andrew says. Along the way, the migrants were constantly reminded of what their fate could have been. “We were seeing skeletons and dead bodies on the road in the desert.” Indeed, despite the high profile reports of deaths of migrants who drown trying to reach Europe, a 2016 report by Mixed Migration Monitoring Mechanism Initiative stated “more people might die while crossing the Sahara Desert than while crossing the Mediterranean.” In a rare case, last December, a CNN reporting team showed 30 stranded migrants including women, men and children being rescued by the Niger military from the Sahara.
Throughout the dangerous six-day drive across the Sahara, the group only stopped for shelter and food. But on one occasion when they stopped for sleep at a desert village, some of the drivers picked out female migrants among the group, took them away and only returned the next morning.
Female migrants are seen as precious cargo for smugglers as they are lucrative for sex trafficking rings that put them to work as prostitutes. In some cases, female migrants are oblivious to that impending reality. But many others are fully aware—like the 12 young women on the bus from Edo with Andrew who all knew they were being trafficked to France and Italy to work as prostitutes. Under the terms of their “agreement,” each one would repay around $34,000 to “madams”—female pimps based in Europe—for sponsoring their trip. Even though some women are aware they will have to work as prostitutes, experts say they do not always fully understand the scale. “They don’t know they may have to sleep with as much as 20 men per day,” says Abieyuwa Oyemwense, of the Edo State anti-trafficking task force.
In fact, up to 80% of female migrants—some as young as 17 —that arrive in Italy from Nigeria by sea are potential victims of sex trafficking, according to estimates by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). And between 2014 and 2016, there was almost a ten-fold increase in the number of Nigerian women registered at Italian sea landing points.
One way sex trafficking rings keep control of young women after putting them to work is to threaten their families back home. Others use ritualistic methods such as swearing voodoo oaths of allegiance. The consequences of breaking the oaths, the ladies are made to believe, range from inexplicable health problems to death.
For some, forced prostitution begins long before arriving in Europe as traffickers promise to fund their trip only to Libya after which the women would have to source for money to refund the traffickers and also pay for the remainder of the trip to Europe. Once in Libya, they are turned over to local madams in brothels and begin working as prostitutes to pay off often large “debts.” But paying the traffickers that got them to Libya is only half the task. The women may also have to pay off the local madam who provides room and board. To make matters worse, traffickers and local madams are known to separately charge double the $1,000 fee migrants typically pay to get from Nigeria to Libya.
As such, female migrants stranded in Libya may have to pay up to $4,000 before regaining their freedom. Charging between $7 and $14 for sex, to pay off the “debt” to both traffickers and local madams, some women are faced with the prospect of having to sleep with over 100 men.
While in Niger, not hearing your name on the roll call meant being left behind, in Libya it meant torture. After arriving in al-Qatron, a border town in Libya’s south following the six-day drive through the desert, the Cameroonian smuggler in charge of Andrew’s “ghetto” took another roll call. This time, duped migrants were told to call their families to demand ransom payments which are typically made via bank transfer or Western Union to smugglers. “If it takes too long for the money to come, they’ll keep beating you,” Andrew says. “If you die in the process, they’ll go and throw you in the desert.” Two people died from torture in Andrew’s first days at al-Qatron.
After a one-week wait in al-Qatron, another bus arrived and Andrew was on the move yet again. The next destination was Sabha, a town 400 miles south of Tripoli. Duped migrants who had not arranged for the ransom payments to be made quickly enough were left behind, enduring daily torture. After arriving in Sabha, Andrew survived another roll-call and then took his first proper shower in a month.
Having made his way from Nigeria to Libya so far in a variety of buses, pick-up trucks, saloon cars and okadas, the choice of vehicle for journey from Sabha to Tripoli three weeks later was unusual: an empty fuel tanker, with holes poked in it for light and air. But it was necessary to keep the migrants hidden away while being trafficked in Tripoli, Libya’s seat of power. Amid fear and with no sense of what was going on during the journey while stashed in the empty tanker with about 20 other migrants, Andrew stayed awake throughout the overnight journey to Tripoli.
Like in Abuja many weeks earlier, the wait in a nondescript Tripoli compound, their first stop, was very short. After another roll call, the migrants were searched and stripped of their cash and then loaded into new model Hyundai saloon cars with tinted windows. But the nice cars were not a sign of an upturn in their fortunes as they were taken to another ghetto on the outskirts of Tripoli. Compared to the others, the Tripoli ghetto was much larger with several smugglers and militant groups holding migrants they had been paid to get into Europe. “It’s like a shopping complex where everybody has his own store,” Andrew says. In this case, migrants were the goods.
A month later, Andrew and seven others were loaded into a bus headed to Sabratha, a coastal town in Libya’s north. As had become customary, a roll call was taken upon their arrival.
But this time, Andrew did not hear his name.
Even though he’d seen this happen to other duped migrants, Andrew held on to the faint hope that his agent had made the required payment and that the “mix-up” would be resolved. He was wrong.
What followed was a routine of threats and torture—daily beatings on his bare back and feet with a water hose while being chained in a tiny cell—and being fed salty water and a small piece of bread. “It’s just like being kidnapped,” he says. “They’ll beat you [till] you think of how to pay.” Without any extra savings back home and with his brother and girlfriend unable to raise the $2,500 ransom required to regain his freedom and continue his journey, Andrew made the difficult choice to finally inform his parents of the trip. It was the first time he would speak to them in three months. (Until then, Andrew’s parents had been in touch with his younger brother who cooked up stories about his absence.)
“At first, they thought I was joking,” Andrew says. But after speaking to the Ghanaian smuggler in charge of torture and ransom payments at the Sabratha ghetto, Andrew’s parents were convinced of the gravity of their son’s situation. Three days later, they made the payment via Western Union.
He had been tortured for ten days.
The beatings ended as soon as the payment was confirmed and Andrew was released from the cell and allowed to rejoin other migrants preparing for the rest of the journey. But not everyone is as fortunate in similar circumstances. Those unable to arrange for the ransom to be paid are auctioned off in Libya’s open slave markets in car parks and public squares for as little as $400.
The payment by Andrew’s parents proved timely: two days later a truck arrived to take some migrants, including Andrew, to the final location from which they would attempt to cross into Europe. It was a smaller camp which held around 500 migrants who slept under open tents. All that stood between them and their destination were the choppy waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
Much of a migrant’s journey on the way to the fabled promise of a better life in Europe is spent simply waiting. For the next pick-up vehicle, for the next meal, for hope, and sometimes, for death. Much of the waiting happens in ghettos where starving migrants while away time discussing conditions back home and dreams of a future they were trying to reach with new friends. For these migrants, making new friends to forestall boredom is a near necessity as they travel with strangers. Andrew was separated from most of the 21 other people he left Nigeria with merely weeks into the journey.
While in ghettos, showers are a luxury and good sleep is rare, as is usually the case when 45 people cramp in a room of around 30 square meters. For his part, Andrew shored up his lack of sleep at night with daytime naps.
Migrants also have to stay in smugglers’ good books. One way to do that is to obey the rules, which range from staying indoors to being quiet. Breaking the rules likely results in a beating as smugglers often have extra muscle to enforce the ghetto’s rules. In the al-Qatron ghetto run by a Cameroonian, migrants were kept in check by three Nigerians who were one-time Europe-bound migrants themselves. Having been long stranded at the camp and understood how it worked, they were put in charge of running it. Without enough money to fund the rest of their trip, servitude was their only play. The slim hope for them was that the Cameroonian would pay for the rest of their trip after years of service.
While waiting in ghettos for the next phase of their journey, migrants have to fend for themselves. Meager food supplies packed from home for what is expected to be a three-week long journey typically runs out quickly. Savvy smugglers and their local allies make a quick buck running ramshackle restaurants and selling meals for around $3 per plate. For broke migrants, who may have coughed up all their money just to pay for the trip, being unable to afford these meals meant staying hungry or living on plain bread.
When migrants run out of money, they can have family back home wire funds through the smugglers’ bank accounts, for which they charge a commission. When Andrew ran out of money three months into the journey, his girlfriend wired $150 to a smuggler’s bank account but he only received $100 after the smuggler took a hefty cut.
Those who do not have anyone back home to wire them money can earn some by working as handymen in homes of locals. But, in Libya, that comes with no guarantees. While they can earn as much as $40 on a good day, migrants can also end up with nothing. Sometimes, after duly working, powerless migrants have their earnings taken by threatening Libyan locals.
The best time of the year to cross the Mediterranean sea is in July and August when rain generally holds off. Andrew’s group had arrived at the camp in March. Any hopes he had of making a quick crossing of the sea quickly evaporated. Indeed, some of the fellow migrants at the ghetto had been waiting to make the crossing for months. Frank (real name withheld), a Nigerian Andrew met at the ghetto, had been in Libya for a year waiting to cross. “I met different people with different stories there,” Andrew says.
Despite the inopportune timing, some of the smugglers tried to brave the risky odds and tricky waters only one week later. That attempt was thwarted by Libyan coast guard officials who intercepted the ramp full of migrants before they got far. But rather than take them into custody, the coast guard officials took them back to the camp “because they said they know the Arab man that put the boat in water,” Andrew says.
The wait to attempt another crossing lasted six months.
In that time, Libyans seeking cheap labor picked up willing migrants from the camp. Andrew didn’t need to work though as since becoming aware of his situation, his parents regularly sent money for his upkeep. While waiting to cross, Andrew and Frank often stared at a stretch of the sea and discussed their chances of survival. They knew that, in the worst case scenario, the Mediterranean could go from being the passageway to their dreams to being a vast unmarked grave—and there was good reason to fear.
In 2015, the year Andrew began his journey, 3,770 migrants died crossing the Mediterranean from Africa and the Middle East into Europe. A majority of them had drowned after the overcrowded inflatable ramps they traveled in capsized. In addition, of the three main routes across the Mediterranean, the central route—crossing from Libya to Italy—is historically the most popular and also the most dangerous.
The final lap of Andrew’s journey to Europe started in mid-August of 2016. Over 100 migrants squeezed into each of the three inflatable rafts that moved that morning but his new friend Frank was not selected for the trip.
A successful crossing for Andrew largely depended on the Gambian migrant who had been taught to operate the motor of the raft he was in. The Gambian had been given a compass and a Thuraya satellite phone known for its superior signal strength beyond the range of local telecoms networks. Smugglers instructed him to dial an emergency number on the phone once the raft cleared Libyan waters. To avoid skirmishes with local coast guard officials, armed Libyan militants got into another boat and served as escorts for the migrants but turned back once the raft got out of Libyan waters. “Immediately they turned back, he [the Gambian] dialed a number and the Italian coast guard picked the call,” Andrew says.
195 migrants in a overcrowded raft on the Mediterranean in Jan. 2017. Image : Reuters/Giorgos Moutafis
Unknown to the migrants, an essential part of the smugglers’ plan to get them across the Mediterranean and into Europe was dependent on forcing a rescue mission by Italian officials. In several cases, the migrants drown before the rescue boats get to them. In a high profile incident in August 2015, around 160 bodies were found floating in the Mediterranean after two boats capsized off the coast of Libya. More recently, 26 young Nigerian women drowned in the Mediterranean last November.
Andrew’s raft spent five uneasy hours at sea in the midday heat, uncertain and waiting to be rescued. But they were fortunate. The Italian coast guard did show up and rescued all the migrants in the raft. They were moved into an Italian rescue ship which spent an extra day at sea searching for more migrants to rescue. In the evening of the next day, Andrew finally landed in Sicily, Italy—one of the 21,294 migrants who arrived by sea that month. Only then did he realize what the date was: August 18, 2016. A journey he had expected to last three weeks had ended up lasting nine difficult months..
When migrants land in Italy and request asylum, they are registered (through fingerprinting and photographs) and then moved to one of the over 2,000 “reception centers” in the country. The centers, founded by the Italian government in partnership with local regions and municipalities, include informal spaces like empty schools and can host anywhere from three to dozens of migrants.
While at a reception center, Italy’s commission for the recognition of refugee status will interview the migrants and decide whether to grant them international protection. That process can last up to a year, according to a IOM spokesperson. During this time, migrants can go out of the centers during the day but are expected to return at night. Andrew was placed in a center in Sicily but left after only two weeks. He decided to head up to Carpi to meet up with his uncle fully aware that he was putting his asylum status at risk.
For the past two years, Andrew has worked in his uncle’s store where he sells African foodstuff and hair weaves and lives on a monthly stipend. He also works the odd job painting houses. He talks to his girlfriend regularly on Skype and FaceTime. They remain in love and still hope to get married someday, he says. But he’s still lacking paperwork and is pretty much stranded in Italy. He has no intentions to return to Nigeria.
As he attempts to put pieces of his life back together in Carpi, Andrew says he’s one of the lucky few. For many other migrants, especially those without family or friends as a support system locally, dreams of a better life in Europe remain unfulfilled even after arriving. Without jobs and a steady income, African migrants in Italy easily fall into a life of crime working for illegal sex rings and peddling drugs.
Why migrants choose the Libyan route
Dr Ines Kohl is social anthropologist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Her research interests relate to the Tuareg in Libya, Niger, Algeria and Mali.
For the last two decades Libya has been the main starting point for African refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean. Between 65,000 and 120,000 Sub-Saharan Africans enter the Maghreb each year, of which 70–90% migrate through Libya and 20–30% through Algeria and Morocco. 1 The reason why Libya has become the most popular springboard for migrants and refugees entering Europe is manifold and has to do with the country’s unique circumstances.
The Sahara, and Libya in particular, is a space of passage, agency and connectivity: for merchants and explorers in the past and for refugees and migrants today. The routes through the Libyan Sahara are used for small-scale trade and smuggling. Although changing transport methods and colonial borders dealt the final blow to major trans-Saharan trade in the late 1800s, the connection to the Tripolitanian coast went on until the beginning of the 20th century, as it was simply the quickest route. 2
Al-Qadhafi’s pan-African policy, Libya’s oil wealth and the need for foreign workers to maintain Libya’s socioeconomic status resulted in an increase in Sub-Saharan immigration by the end of the 1990s. Networks of migrants provided their countrymen with shelter, information and support in the migration process. In cooperation with Libyans, immigrants started providing transport by boat to Europe. Zuwara, for example, a Berber village 110 km west of Tripoli and 60 km east of the Tunisian border, developed into a major hub for migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
Poorly implemented EU projects
Since 2004, the EU has introduced a number of cooperative projects in Libya to fight illegal migration (such as Across Sahara I, II, SaharaMed, TRIM, AVRR, TAIEX), financed border surveillance, the repatriation of migrants, technical assistance, and training on human trafficking, and supported the erection of detention camps. 3 According to the Global Detention Project, 15 detention camps were in use in 2014. Deportation campaigns, called hamla, have been common in Libya since 2004, but this has not stopped migrants. These campaigns are often well known in advance, so that potential illegal migrants can hide or Libyan employers can protect their African workers, on whom they are dependent for labour.
Despite Libya committing human rights violations in their brutal and inhumane treatment of refugees and migrants, for the EU, the cooperation with Libya worked well. The EU’s dependence on Libya’s oil and its crucial role as a barrier to stop unwanted migrants from entering Europe were the reasons for Europe’s double-standards in dealing with Libya. Al-Qadhafi instrumentalized this situation and profited from European subsidies, strengthening his position. The former ‘enfant terrible’ of a ‘rogue state’ became a fully-accepted member in international political arenas.
In Libya, everything is possible
But in fact Libya was not effective at preventing irregular migration to Europe. Based on the local motto ‘fi Libya kull shay mumkin’ (in Libya, everything is possible), inefficient controls, incapable and uncooperative officials, changing national policies within a chaotic Libyan administrative system, and al-Qadhafi’s changeable sensibilities all facilitated the development of strategies of circumvention and evasion. The connection for Sub-Saharan migrants and refugees from Ghat in the southwest to Sebha in the middle and further on to the north, for example, was locally referred to as ‘at-tubbu’ (the tube). On this route traffickers did not use roads, but Saharan tracks, bypassing or bribing their way through military checkpoints.
Missing state border controls through ethnic empowerment
The condition of Libya’s southern border with Niger and Chad have contributed to its ongoing popularity among migrants and refugees seeking passage to Europe. It comprises about 1,400 km of uninhabited desert and continuous surveillance is almost impossible. Since the fall of Al-Qadhafi, the borders have been wide open. In December 2012, governmental representatives officially announced the closure of the southern border. 4 But, in the meantime, Tebu and Tuareg groups have increased their control in Libya and taken over its southern region. 5 The Tebu control the whole south-eastern region from Sebha, to Murzuq, Al-Gatrun, and Kufra. Their influence has even spread to Niger, where they have installed a quick connection between Agadez and Sebha using Toyota Hilux along the already institutionalized migrants’ truck-route (called transa). Both ethnic groups are politically and economically neglected minorities; working in transportation through the Sahara offers an economic niche and generates an enormous income.
Even the civil war in Libya, which has been going on since 2011, has not significantly reduced Sub-Saharan migration to the Libyan coast. The brutal force of rival groups and the overall insecurity makes the trip through Libya dangerous, but it still is more attractive than traveling through neighbouring countries like Algeria where migrants and traffickers face heavy fines and prison sentences if apprehended.
The fragile political situation, internal conflict between rival groups and security vacuum in Libya, combined with the prevailing poor economic and social situation in migrants’ home countries, makes measures aimed at controlling migration useless at this point. The general strategy of the EU, which involves treating the symptoms and inventing hypocritical measures in order to prevent migration from Africa to Europe – be it in Libya or Niger with the EUCAP’s planned detention camp in Agadez – has no future.
The EU would be better off fighting the root causes of migration. Instead of powering its neo-colonial position, what is needed is true support for West African states by curtailing European and multinational companies (such as the nuclear energy giant Areva in Niger) and strengthening democratic structures (instead of flattering compliant dictators). The Valetta summit in November 2015 posed an opportunity, but after decades of misguided politics with an eye only on the bottom line of Europe’s economic advantage, future repressive measures will not change anything, even if Libya cooperates.