AA correspondent sheds light on the difficult journey of undocumented migrants from Libya to Europe via Italy.
By Assed Baig
TRIPOLI (AA) – Anadolu Agency (AA) correspondent investigates into migration and smuggling in Libya by traveling 640 km south of the capital Tripoli to Sabha, the largest city in the south.
Migrants from across Africa make their way from country to country, finally entering Libya. Here they try to reach Sabha, where they can either find work or locate smugglers that can take them to Tripoli.
Mukhtar, a 30-year-old local of Sabha who did not want to give his last name, smuggled migrants to Tripoli for eight years. He knows the routes and the process well, but now says that he has stopped.
He is a big man with a dark complexion, sports a short beard and has a very firm handshake. He stops occasionally to scribble in his notebook.
“Human smuggling is unethical and immoral, I don’t want to do it anymore,” he says.
Southern Libya is marred by lack of security and I was advised upon my arrival not to go out after dark.
Traveling outside of Sabha is even more difficult and we have to be especially careful when trying to visit the stations where migrants are dropped off in order to find local smugglers to take them to Tripoli.
Mukhtar tells me about the poor security situation. He has an AK-47 automatic rifle in the corner of the room. He sees that my eyes have fallen upon it, and suddenly stops mid conversation, walks over picks it up and heads straight for the door. He fires a round into the air whilst standing in the doorway. With a big smile on his face he looks at me and says, “Mia bi mia,” a common phrase used in Libya roughly translated as ‘100 out of 100.’
He tells me that he has to be armed. “It’s my security,” he says.
“I sometimes used to pick the migrants up from Qatrun, a village 300km south of Sabha on the main road to Chad and Niger.
“But the majority of the time I took them from Sabha,” he tells me as he lights up a cigarette.
He says he used to charge migrants 350 dinars (roughly $300) to take them to Tripoli. He took ten people at a time and did about ten journeys a month, making $3,000 a month.
He says he sometimes smuggled cigarettes and on rare occasions weapons.
“I was caught once with migrants in my car and they kept me for three months, they beat me badly, but I didn’t speak. After that they let me go, and I carried on smuggling,” he says. Another time he was caught with tobacco and was let out after a week.
Mukhtar tells me that they used expensive houses in affluent areas to hide migrants in between smuggling runs. This way, they were less likely to get caught, rather than keeping migrants in run-down derelict buildings.
Mukhtar was a smuggler during Gaddafi’s rule and he says that they drove throughout the night to get to Tripoli avoiding checkpoints.
“We drove with our headlights off,” he recalls.
“I was good at what I did, I knew the route,” almost boasting as he explained the details to me.
Mukhtar dubs the people-smuggling gangs as ‘mafia’ indicating their wealth and organizational capabilities. When I ask him about smuggling to Italy he simply says, “That’s a different mafia that deals with that, it is not us.”
Mukhtar was known as a seasoned smuggler and has a reputation as a strong man. He left his previous life and now runs a successful business making bricks.
After speaking to Mukhtar I head to a location where I am to meet a smuggler who still operates. I am told to wait in a room before he comes in.
A well built young man shakes my hand and then pulls out a handgun that is tucked into his jeans. He hands it to his friend before sitting down. Everyone carries guns here, especially smugglers. They can sometimes be the targets of other criminals because of the handsome money they make.
“There was no work for me so I started smuggling. It was difficult at first but it then became easy for me,” says the 22-year-old man who goes by the name “Akbar”.
He joined a group, or a ‘mafia’, when he first started smuggling. The first time he smuggled migrants to Tripoli he went with a friend, but after that he transported them on his own. He started smuggling people when he was 19.
“The first time I smuggled I was slightly fearful and afraid. ‘What happens if I have an accident or am caught by police?’ he voices. But after the first time my confidence grew and now I take it easy,” he says sitting crossed-leg on the floor.
Akbar used to study economics at university but dropped out because of poor family finances. He sometimes just acts as a broker passing people on to other smugglers and making a commission of 20 to 30 dinars ($20) on top. He only does this when he does not want to drive the migrants to Tripoli himself. As a ‘people dealer’ he can make $800 a month, much less than he earns when he does the job on his own.
“I switch the lights off and just drive through the desert. I don’t stop, it’s a 9-10 hour journey,” he says.
I ask what happens if a migrant falls off the back of the pickup truck. He laughs and says, “You just keep going.”
This is a common story. Migrants are often left in the desert to die if they fall off the trucks. The most hazardous journey is from Niger to Libya. Migrants often tie themselves with rope to the top of big trucks carrying other cargo. I am told that the Toubou militia are the ones that transport migrants into Libya on big cargo trucks.
The Toubou are an indigenous black people native to Libya. They were persecuted under Gaddafi and denied citizenship.
Migrants are picked up from the Al Manshia district of Sabha city by smugglers taking them to Tripoli.
“I smuggle men, women and children,” Akbar tells me whilst lighting up another cigarette.
I ask him if he feels sorry for the migrants.
He smiles, “I don’t feel sorry, this is my work.”
It is easier to smuggle now then it was under Gaddafi. However, the road is unsafe for everyone; there are militias and gangs of criminals that rob people along the route. Akbar, too, carries an AK-47 rifle with him when he is smuggling.
I ask him if he will ever leave this work, whether he will settle down and get married. He tells me that he is not even thinking about marriage at the moment as he is too busy working. Smuggling is not exactly a career you can boast about to your prospective wife or parents-in-law.
Akbar won’t let me take a picture of his face; he lets me take a picture of the back of his head. There is still a fear that the government may begin to clamp down on smugglers should law and order be implemented in the country.
Akbar needs another job before he will give up on people smuggling but there are no such prospects in the foreseeable future.