Trafficking on human misery: encountering plight of undoc’d migrants fleeing Libya

AA commissions investigation into how Libyan smugglers transport undocumented migrants from the restive N.African state into Europe, via Italy.

Trafficking on human misery: encountering plight of undoc'd migrants fleeing Libya


Anadolu Agency recently commissioned an investigation into how Libyan smugglers transport undocumented migrants from the restive North African state into Europe, via Italy.  Our correspondent Assed Baig posed as a migrant trying to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa in order to gain an insight into the smuggling network.

There are several places where boats leave from: Tripoli, Zawara and Misrata are the most popular departure points.  We chose to concentrate on trying to get a boat from Tripoli.

“Don’t worry, you will definitely get to Lampedusa, there is a boat leaving soon. It’s a sure thing,” said the voice on the other end of the telephone.  He went on tell me that there was a cargo ship due to sail shortly, and that I could buy my passage onto it, but I had to be quick as places were filling-up rapidly.

As I would learn later, this offer and the conditions of passage would change several times.  The smugglers use these tactics to ascertain their potential customer’s level of interest and sheer desperation, before reeling them in to embark on the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to the Italian island.

Smuggling is big money.  Charging up to $2,000 per person, and filling up a boat to 200 people can mean that smugglers can get rich fast, with little or no concern for the people that they are sending out to sea, many of whom will meet their death before they ever see Europe.  The Libyan smugglers shrewdly employ people from other nationalities in order to entice potential customers from destitute immigrant communities.  These individuals can be Somali, Chadian or Pakistani. My smuggler’s name was Kashif.  He was from Pakistan and had been in Libya for a few years; operating his lucrative smuggling business from there. He had no need to resort to making a dangerous trip to Italy unlike the migrants.

You never get to meet the smugglers until the time of departure.  Once you are picked up by the smugglers and taken to a ‘safe house’ there is no turning back.  You have to stay in the safe house until the boat is ready to leave.

In Tripoli I met Atif, a Kashmiri who had attempted the journey to Lampedusa but failed. He was kept in a safe house for five days.  I spoke to others that had stayed longer, up to fifteen days in one case.

“The smugglers check the internet for weather reports before they set off,” Atif told me.

Whilst talking with Atif, I found out that his village in Kashmir is only an hour and a half’s drive from where my family comes from.  It was a sad discovery- and one that prompted hard reflection.  My grandfather had moved to the UK, where I was born, and Atif had been born in Kashmir, where the economic hardships had forced him to leave and try and gain passage to Europe.  What if I had been born in Kashmir- would I too be in Libya risking my life to get to Europe so I could support my family back home?

Those that captain the boats often have very little experience at sea.  Sometimes the migrants are given a discount on the price for passage for steering the boat themselves. Once on the ship the smugglers point the escapees in the direction of Lampedusa and they set sail, using substandard vessels, many with motors that run out of fuel mid-ocean.

The boats that take the Somalis to Lampedusa are cheaper to pay for, but much more dangerous.  The Syrian boats are more expensive but are bigger and ‘safer’ according to Atif.  The Syrians have more money, at least more than those from Somalia, Mali, and Niger.

 “They told me it would be a big boat, but once I saw the boat I was shocked. It was so small,” Atif told me whilst sitting in the hotel he now works in.  There are many migrants working in hotels across Tripoli. They sometimes work there to save up money to be able to afford the journey to Lampedusa.

“We got lost, and the boat began to take in water.  For three hours we wandered the sea, not knowing where we were headed,” recalls Atif.

“The Libyan coast guard then found us and we were all taken to prison,” he claims.

“They didn’t beat me but they beat the blacks badly.  It was horrible.  The women were asked for sex in return for their release,” he told me, with a troubled look on his face as he recalled what he had witnessed.

 A few days later Kashif, the smuggler, contacted me again.  I told him I still wanted to go but was uncertain about going into a safe house.  He reassured me, “You don’t have to go to the safe house if you don’t want, we’ll just let you know when the boat is leaving and you can get on it then,” he said.  It seemed too good to be true.  Kashif also repeated that it would be a cargo ship and that I would be sharing it with other people from different nationalities, mainly Syrians.

The details changed by the time we had our next conversation.

“It’s a big fishing boat, we’ve had to change some things because of the troubles in Tripoli,” he told me.  Over forty people had been killed the previous day as a militia opened fire on demonstrators.  Kashif had conveniently changed the mode of transport from a cargo ship to a fishing boat.  I was not very confident that it would be a large fishing boat.

Two days later Kashif called again.  He said “do you still want to go?” in a direct and firm manner.  I told him I did.

“Look, I don’t want to lie to you, you seem like a nice guy.  The boat is leaving in the next few days, we will pick you up, and will take you to the safe house.  You won’t be able to leave until the boat is ready to go,” he told me with an air of urgency.

“Once you are in the car there is no turning back.  Even if you don’t like the boat, you’re getting on it, these Libyans will beat you senseless and throw you on that boat, but you will not be able to turn back,” he said sternly.  He had changed all the conditions.  I told him I still wanted to go but needed a day to think about it.  He told me to think quickly as the boat was leaving soon.

Feeling anxious, I put down the phone.  I could not take anything with me on the ship- no bag, only our money; mobile phones would be taken off us and only handed back when we boarded.  There were now an over-abundance of risks to consider – first off, there was no telling how long I would be at the safe house; then there was the hazard of drowning out at sea; and most troubling of all, there was the danger of being discovered as a journalist.  The smugglers do not want to risk giving up their location of departure or safe house out of fear of getting caught.  Also, once someone has seen the smugglers faces, they do not want you turning back, they are very cautious not to get caught.

I had been interviewing people all week- perhaps someone had noticed me. If one of the smugglers or fellow migrants became suspicious of me and concluded that I was either a spy or journalist, I would probably end up dead.

What’s more, I thought, if I drowned or was murdered at sea, it would be very likely that no-one would ever find out how or where I died. Thoughts of my son without a father drifted through my mind.

 “The one sending them does not care about whether they make it or not.  He just wants his money.  He wants to see them off the shore and out of sight.  He knows the chances of the migrants making it to Lampedusa are minimal,” said 35-year-old Ashraf, who has been a fisherman for over 15 years.  He told me smuggling has increased since the fall of Gaddafi.  The country’s instability has benefited criminal gangs who are capitalising on people’s desperation.

Ashraf added that he has seen boats with migrants out at sea. “The boats are always over loaded, a boat that is meant to carry 50 people, the smugglers put on 200, maybe more.”

“It’s suicide to go on those boats, most of the people never make it,” he observed.

 The boat was due to leave the next day; I had to weigh up the risks, and decide whether to go or not.  It was impossible to resist the conclusion that the danger was simply too great.

Having edged toward a final decision, I was prompted to bitter reflection: if I was an undocumented migrant fleeing the war in Syria, or endemic poverty in Somalia or Eritrea than I would not have the option of stepping back from such risks- because anything would be better than what I had left behind.  Risking my life would have seemed a viable option, even if it meant surrendering my fate to the smugglers and the sea.

That day I went out and looked out at the shores of the Mediterranean.  The waves were smashing across the rocks relentlessly.  How could a boat even leave under these conditions?  Yet as bad as they were, I knew from my experiences so far that many poor and desperate people would attempt the crossing, perhaps in even worse weather, and that some unscrupulous trafficker would make money out of it.

In the end the decision was made for me.

Anadolu Agency thought the risk and danger were far too high for me to go with the smugglers. There would be no way of knowing where I was, where I was being kept, when I was leaving and if I would make it.  Taking all these factors into account, the agency pulled me out due to safety concerns.  We do not know what happened to the boat that was scheduled to leave Tripoli.  We are not sure if they made it.

 “I’ve seen them floating out in the water, I’ve brought up bodies in my fishing nets,” Cruz, a fisherman in Tripoli, told me as I stared out at the sea, knowing that I would remain on solid ground for the rest of my time in Libya.

“I have seen bodies out at sea, men, women, and children,” he added, before leaving me with my thoughts.

Read the original article published in Anadolu Agency on 7 December 2013

A look into the lives of undocumented migrants in Libya

Anadolu Agency investigates undocumented migrants in Libya

A look into the lives of undocumented migrants in Libya


Before the uprising that ousted Libya’s long-time strongman Muammar Qaddafi, there were about one million black Africans living and working in Libya. However, during the conflict the situation deteriorated and forced many to flee the country. At the time international media outlets and human rights organisations reported cases of human rights violations against black Africans.

Rebel groups battling to topple Qaddafi have accused black Africans of supporting the regime and fighting as mercenaries for the late Libyan leader. Black Africans were not always fighting for Qaddafi while some were forced to fight, and others were wrongfully accused and ended up being imprisoned or killed at the hands of some rebel groups.

Some sub-Saharan Africans managed to leave the country during the conflict, but since the fall of the regime and a perceived change in conditions, many black Africans are now returning to Libya.

Amongst Libyans there are mixed feelings. Many hold discriminatory opinions of Africans. One business owner told me that he thought black Africans were dirty and unclean by saying, “they don’t like clean places, when I gave them a clean place to stay they made it dirty.”

Even amongst the most liberal and open-minded Libyans, discriminatory opinions are prevalent. It is a common occurrence to talk about the subject of black Africans with reference to their “differences” or how some Libyans feel that they are now like a minority in their own country in the face of immigration.

The racism these migrant workers face is only one of the horrors they encounter along the journey they take to support their families back home.

Libya has seen an increase of undocumented migrants trying to find work and some trying to reach Europe by boat. Migrants are put into different categories: regular and irregular migrants.

Regular migrants have visas and pass through official border entry posts. Irregular migrants tend to be undocumented and have no valid visa to be inside the country.

Then there are refugees and asylum seekers who may or may not come into the country through official border entries. The numbers of irregular migrants, asylum seekers and refugees are unknown at the moment.

The issue came to international attention when more than 360 migrants drowned in October this year trying to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa. Italy has asked for help from other European countries as the island of Lampedusa already has thousands of migrants at its facilities and is running over capacity.

– Waiting under bridge for work

We are waiting with a group of black Africans under a bridge in the residential neighborhood in Gargaresh in Tripoli. Cars speed past throwing dust up into the air. Their wheels sometimes spin on the dirt as they stop and then move off as the occupants look for manual labourers.

The men standing and waiting here sheltering from the sun are from all over Africa looking for work. Many of them do not have entry stamps on their passports, and some have no documents at all. They are all here to work, earn money, send it home, or save enough to pay smugglers for a long and perilous journey on a rickety boat to Italy.

Everyday John from Nigeria stands under this bridge seeking a daily job. Migrants crowd around the cars that stop, peering through the windows, as some get in and are driven away. They find work on construction sites, in homes, shops, restaurants and anywhere else they can. There is no job security here, no guaranteed pay, no minimum wage and no rights for workers. There is also another fear: the men are always looking out for the police.

There are limited police around as Libya is still in transition and the police force is not very visible or discernible from the many militias littering the country. When the police show up, these men run.

The fear is always palatable. If they are detained, it could mean they are repatriated to their home countries, but not before going through a detention centre. The detention centres are dreaded amongst these migrant workers given rumours of widespread abuse. Regardless of the challenges, all these men stand here every day indefatigably.

These men have come from Nigeria, Chad, Gambia, Mali and elsewhere. They confide in me and tell me of the lack of security. Just last week some Libyans mugged a few Nigerians.

“At night it is not safe for us here, many people have been mugged. They (Libyans) take our phones and money,” said James from Nigeria. It’s a voice of desperation. They are not the only ones who tell me about crimes committed against them, this seems a common story amongst migrants. I was told not to go out from my hotel after dark.

People have become accustomed to daily gunfire in Tripoli. Everyone seems to have a gun as no one feel safe without one, but the migrants do not have guns and there is no protection for their rights or an no one to ensure their safety.

“We are always worried, the situation is very bad at the moment,” says 24-year-old John.

His friends crowd around him as he talks to me and nod their heads in agreement. John smiles as he talks. Even when describing the most difficult aspects of his hard life here, he is smiling, speaking in English whilst gesticulating while explaining some of their challenges.

Migrants usually rent rooms or small kiosks and often share and live in over-crowded accommodations. It costs about 200 dinars ($150) a month that can sometimes mean half their salary so they share one room.

In another location I am given access to a room migrants’ employer provided them stay in. It is small; they can only sleep at the sides where they have thin mattresses laid out upon a raised platform made of breezeblock and concrete. The room is only big enough for six people to sleep, head to toes. There is one light, a plastic rug on the floor, and clothes hanging off nails on the wall. The roof looks like tin and the door is wooden. It is all they have, and not paying extra for rent will help them save money to send home or carry on their journey.

“I share a room with 10 to 15 people, it varies. I have no choice, it is what we have to do,” says Abou Bakr from Gambia, who has a wife and a two-year-old daughter in Gambia who he wants to return to.

Umar, a 24-year-old from Mali, tells me that he wants to go to Italy. “I don’t care if it is dangerous, I need to feed my family.”

Umar doesn’t have money yet, but hopes to save enough to pay smugglers to buy his seat on a boat to Lampedusa. It costs at least $1,000 to get to Lampedusa aboard a smuggler’s boat and it could take him more than six months to earn that kind of money.

“I have brothers and sisters that I have to support, that is my responsibility,” he tells me.

Migrants already face a difficult journey to get to Libya as they have to pay smugglers to cross several countries to enter Libya. The journey across the desert is especially precarious. With little food and water, migrants put their lives in the hands of smugglers. Sometimes migrants have to sleep out in the desert and there are cases where migrants have been taken to the wrong locations and been told they are in Libya. Some die in the desert when they fall off trucks, but even then the drivers do not stop.

Judging by the numbers of migrants entering Libya, many are prepared to take the risks. Osman from Gambia tells me he travelled through Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso and then Niger to reach Libya.

“I paid about 2,000 dinars ($1,500) to get here from Gambia.

“It took me 10 days to get to Libya. It was a hard journey. We swapped vehicles several times and travelled a lot at night. I had to be careful, I did not want to fall off the vehicle and be left behind.

“I want to stay in Libya, work and then go back to my country. I miss my family. It’s not easy here,” says Osman.

The groups standing under the bridge in Tripoli are divided into their countries of origin. The Nigerians stand together, as do the Malians and Gambians and other nationalities.

The Nigerians complain to me that they sometimes do not get paid.

James says, “There is nothing we can do, they have guns, they are Libyan, and if they decide not to pay us, what are we supposed to do?”

Read the original article published in Anadolu Agency on 5 December 2013