The deaths of more than 1,000 Italy bound migrants in the Mediterranean Sea in the last week of April is the product of a multi-million-dollar people-smuggling enterprise run by Libyan militias, tribesmen and bandits; law enforcement and migrant aid groups say. Authorities in the European Union have pledged to step up efforts to crackdown on a well oiled and increasingly brazen business of putting desperate people on rickety boats and setting them afloat on the deadliest migrant route in the world. Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni called for international support “to fight against these traffickers of human beings, this new slavery of the 21st century.” But the economic collapse of Libya and the race by militias and tribes to find sources of money to fuel conflict there greatly complicates any effort from European authorities to make a meaningful headway in stanching the trade, say officials in both Libya and Europe, even as Italian authorities announced the detention of the captain and a crew member of the ship that sank late in April, causing as many as 700 deaths.
Various armed groups in Libya are aggressively advertising their services to would-be migrants from sub-Saharan Africa and Syrian fleeing conflict in their country, presenting the collapse of order in Libya as a once in a lifetime opportunity to secure safe passage to Europe, says Arezo Malakooti, the director of migration research for Paris based Altai Consulting, a consultancy that works with the International Organisation for Migration and other migration-related groups. “The profits from human trafficking have consolidated a new balance of power in the Sahel and Libya,” says Tuesday Reitano, head of the Geneva based Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime. The Saharan Tebu tribe, for instance, is now making “a killing” according to Ms Reitano, who estimates the tribe pockets some $60,000 a week by charging West African migrants for a seat on four wheel drive cars that take them to Agadez, a major city in Niger. From there, they ferry migrants to the central Libyan city of Sabha and then proceed to northern Libya, ahead of their journey to Italy and Malta. The profits are such that tribes normally at war cooperate at times in getting migrants from one place to the next. In Sabha, some members of the Tebu tribe, who are aligned with the internationally recognised government in Libya, are bringing their human cargo to the Ould Slimane, a local Arab tribe aligned with a rebel Islamist government in Tripoli, according to a local activist and a Western security official. Some members of the Ould Slimane tribe and other groups then bring them to the Mediterranean ports of Zuwarah and Zawuja- also controlled by Islamist militias. At other times, the tribes battle each other for control over lucrative routes. For instance, the Tuaregs, another Saharan tribe, are battling the Tebus over the trade, Ms Reitano says. Tuareg men have been associated in the past with crime; they have kidnapped Europeans, then sold them to the jihadists militia al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, then worked as intermediaries to help ransom them, US officials say.
The smugglers facilitate the travel of migrants from Tuareg-controlled Ghat to the cities of Awbari and Sabha- a perilous journey northeast where Tebu, an historically oppressed ethnic minority, are increasingly battling with Tuareg over control of the smuggling trade, said Mustapha Orghan, an activist who has worked with aid groups to track their operations. “Tebu and Tuaregs used to smuggle goods,” he said. “The new alternative is human trafficking and now both Tuaregs and Tebu are trying to get their share of the cake.” Mr Orghan said. Ghat, a southern Libyan town near the Algerian border where he lives, is the first point of entry from Algeria for Africans. There, he said, “African migrants get sold from one smuggler to another.” He said the trafficking business has become increasingly lucrative since chaos in Libya sharply reduced traditional sources of income in the region: heavily subsidised oil, food and other goods from Algeria. In Sabha, African men typically spend months working as labourers, and women as housemaids, to earn the roughly $1,000 to pay for the crossing from Libya’s northern coast. If there is no demand for their services in Sabha, smugglers farm them out to cities further north and west for approximately 700 Libyan dinar, or about $500. Ismail, an African migrant who declined to give his full name and nationality, tried to cross three times in recent weeks but was thwarted by overcrowding and breakdown of the cheap plastic boat of the sort usually provided for Africans. Syrians, who can often pay more and aren’t discriminated against by the overwhelmingly Arab smugglers, typically make the crossing in sturdier wooden boats.
Col. Mohamed Dindi of the Libyan coastguard said his agency lacks “the resources to stop the smuggling,” citing the political chaos engulfing the nation and called on a concerted international effort to stem the flow of migrants on both coasts of the Mediterranean. “The state of Libya has lots of problems to deal with in addition to this problem,” he said. “But I consider Libya as being just one part of the issue. Libya is a transit country, just like Sudan, Chad and even Italy and Greece.” Europeans have had little success either in cracking down on these networks. While authorities in the EU arrested some 10,000 smuggling facilitators last year, according to Frontex, the EU border agency, the people were mostly minor actors- the drivers of trucks carrying migrants or those navigating the boats bringing them across the Mediterranean, often themselves migrants. “They are just bottom of the pyramid people,” says Ewa Moncure, a spokesman for Frontex. The Italians, who have arrested, 1,000 smugglers since the start of 2014, say they lack resources to make real headway, while the deterioration of the situation in Libya makes it extremely difficult to catch any but the smallest fish, Italian prosecutor Giovanni Salvi said. Last year, around 100 accused smugglers were brought to trial in Catania, but no final judgement in the case has been reached, said Mr Salvi. The apparent futility in stopping the smugglers means Europe should establish “safe and legal channels” for would be refugees to request asylum from their home countries, to deter them from putting their lives in the hands of criminals, say migrant aid groups. “Europe is turning it’s back on some of the most vulnerable migrants in the world, and risk turning the Mediterranean into a vast cemetery,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zed Ra’ad Al Hussein. “Migrant smugglers are the symptoms, not the cause of this wretched situation.”