In Libya’s anarchy, migrant smuggling a booming trade
CAIRO // 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 dares touch them.
It is 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.
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 said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from the powerful traffickers.
“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 is Libya’s turmoil since the 2011 civil war that ousted longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
During his rule, Qaddafi struck deals with Europe to police the traffic and keep the numbers down.
In 2010, some 4,500 migrants made the crossing from North Africa to Italy,according to the EU border agency Frontex.
In 2014, that number spiralled 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.
In the past year, Libya’s crumbling into anarchy has only accelerated. With two rival governments – neither with any real authority, local militias hold sway around the country.
In the chaos, smuggling has “become an organised crime, with cross border mafias in possession of weapons, information and technology”, said the head of an independent agency that studies human trafficking.
Extensive cross-border smuggling networks organise different legs of the journey.
Along the way, traffickers strike deals with local militias to turn a blind eye to their movements. Smugglers have also raised prices, said the agency director, who did not want to give his name. 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 (Dh11,850) 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.
The cost for the trip across the Mediterranean depends on the type of boat and which part of the vessel migrants are crammed into – the top deck or down below, according to several smugglers who were reached through the Facebook where they advertise.
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.
Another smuggler Mohammed said the danger is when smugglers overload their vessels, as they often do, sometimes to well over double capacity, he said.
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 boat trip.
Mr 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 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
Updated: April 23, 2015 04:00 AM