Illegal migration has turned into a lucrative business a long time ago as hundreds of thousand Africans and Asians stream into Europe. For criminal networks, law enforcement agencies and even international terrorist groups it has become a bonanza to capitalize on.
Shortly before his tragic death, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was warning the EU that Libya was one of the main bulwarks against mass migration from Africa to Europe. And indeed, for many years hundreds of thousands of people from the countries of Western, Central and North-Eastern Africa had been settling in Libya, as the latter welcomed guest workers influx. Libya offered to immigrants from less developed African countries both jobs and shelter. A lot of such migrants, Mali Tuaregs in particular, were taken into military, including extremist regional groups.
Of course, illegal migrant trafficking was orchestrated not only with the help of various criminal groups, but in conjunction with Libyan officials. This is business, after all, and quite a profitable one. According to some Western sources, on average one boat seat costs an African migrant at least €1,500. Considering how massive the migrant inflow is, one can imagine the size of income earned by such a criminal network.
Meanwhile, Turkish, Libyan and Tunisian authorities saw the migration and refugee problem as a perfect leverage on the EU countries, so Europe has to allocate serious funds allegedly to prevent illegal migration.
While Gaddafi was in power, Libyan law enforcement managed to curtail illegal mass migration. Throughout the last decade since the regime’s collapse in 2011, however, Libya was plagued by insecurity and chaos thus turning into a refugee hub for those who seek to cross the Mediterranean sea to the EU.
In recent months there has been a sharp increase in the number of border crossings and attempts to get across from Libya to Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Since the beginning of this year more than 22 thousand people including women and children have been rescued while hundreds have died or gone missing off the coast of Tripoli on the central Mediterranean route. More than 7,000 people have been intercepted at sea and forcibly returned to detention camps in Tripoli in the first six months of this year.
Libya’s Coast Guard has been repeatedly accused of brutal treatment of migrants. One of the most prominent examples is Libya’s Coast Guard attempt to stop a boat filled with fleeing refugees in the Mediterranean Sea with gun fire in early July. A footage of the incident was captured by the members of a German NGO Sea-Watch who were patrolling in the Maltese search and rescue area. A similar case occurred in April, when the Sea-Watch crew witnessed a forced repatriation. The human rights activists filmed Libya’s Coast Guard ramming an inflatable boat with people and then towing it back to Tripoli. Meanwhile, EU officials condemned the actions of Libyan law enforcement forces threatening to cut funding violent attacks against refugees continue. The UN Security Council specialists report numerous human rights violations while members of Libya’s Coast Guard are accused of torture, murder, violence and human trafficking.
The EU is nonetheless eager to regain control over the Coast Guard supervised by Libyan Ministry of Interior. Brussels has been funding, training and equipping the Coast Guard since 2017 through the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF). As part of this program, a rescue coordination center was established designed to help migrants in distress off the Libyan coast. However, in April, EU Commissioner Oliver Varheli failed to provide any details about actual delivery of center’s goals.
Director-General of National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons Basheer Garba Mohammed recently said that a farm had been identified in Tripoli where African migrants were kept in cages like animals. According to the International Center for Investigative Reporting in Abuja (ICIR), “their vital organs such as eyes, kidneys and lungs would thereafter be harvested and sold in the black market to service the medical needs of Europe.”
On September 13 while fighting such violations Libyan security forces arrested a notorious Somali human trafficker, Hassan Qidi, who is accused of leading an organized gang working on illegal immigration. According to the Libyan Public Prosecution, the detainee is accused of kidnapping and subjecting Egyptian workers to cruel treatment in Libyan town of Al Ajaylat (100 km west of Tripoli). Hassan Qidi is also accused of deliberately killing migrants, trafficking their organs in the black market, and sexually assaulting a number of women as well as extortion, abuse and torture. Libyan Attorney General, Al-Siddiq Al-Sour, said that new Libyan authorities would provide help to the kidnapped and enslaved women. The victims would also give testimonies against Hassan Qidi.
In early September Libya also claimed to have arrested a senior ISIS (banned in Russia) figure Embark al-Khazmi suspected by Libyan authorities to be involved in murder and kidnapping people, especially illegal migrants.
On September 5, three Libyan citizens were sentenced to death in Egypt on charges of collaborating with ISIS, three more Egyptians connected to this case were sentenced to 25 years in prison while another four got 15 years in prison. All of them were involved in the kidnapping and torture of Egyptians working in Libya with intent of extortion, in human trafficking of illegal migrants, as well as in providing ISIS with money and information. The condemned are brothers and members of a notorious Libyan al-Werfalli criminal clan.
According to regional media, illegal migrants arrested at sea are as of late often placed in various secret prisons, where they are not only humiliated, fall prey to criminal groups and become hostages, but are also kept in inhuman conditions and used as slaves. They are often used in illegal organ harvesting and trafficking. This spring Libyan law enforcement agencies rescued almost 50 illegal African migrants from a secret prison, Afrigatenews reports citing Al-Jufra regional security department. According to the security agencies, the prisoners were freed during a raid in the municipality of Kufra in the southeast of the country not far from the Egyptian border. The prison was located due to one migrant escaping and informing law enforcement agencies.
For these reasons Safa Msehli, the spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), recently expressed concerns about the disappearance of several thousand refugees heading for Europe on Libyan soil. “We fear that many are ending up in the hands of criminal groups and traffickers,” Safa Msehli said. According to organization, there are about 18 thousand such migrants in Libya. They are officially listed as missing. IOM does not rule out that armed groups are keeping illegal immigrants in their secret prisons while families of the victims are blackmailed so that they would pay ransom. The body’s spokesperson also said that illegal immigrants are intercepted at sea by the Libyan Coast guard. Then they are taken back to the western part of the country. In mid-September alone, about 800 migrants were returned.
These facts raise the urgent need for the European agencies to conduct a thorough investigation into the status of illegal migrants in Libya, so that EU funding “to combat illegal migration” does not become an exonerative smokescreen for Europe’s alleged participation in the fate of such migrants, with its true purpose actually being to prevent human rights violations in such environment.
Vladimir Odintsov, political contributor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.