No price too high
Families in the West are willing to dig deep into their pockets to secure freedom for their loved ones back home.
ON E night in June 2015, Tesfom Mehari Mengustu, an Eritrean delivery man in Albany, N ew York, got a call from Girmay, his 16- year- old brother.
Girmay was calling from Libya. He had just spent four days crossing the Sahara. God willing, he said, the men who had smuggled him through the desert would get him to the capital city of Tripoli within days. After that, he would cross the Mediterranean for Italy.
“Europe is within reach,” Girmay told his brother. But he needed money to pay for the next leg of his journey.
Tesfom, 33, was less enthusiastic. Four years earlier, he had paid US$ 17,000 in ransom to free another brother who had been kidnapped crossing Egypt’s Sinai desert. On another occasion, he had sent US$ 6,000 to a smuggler holding his sister hostage in Sudan. War- torn Libya, Tesfom knew, was particularly dangerous.
That April, Islamic State militants there had executed 30 Ethiopians and Eritreans and posted the videos online.
Of those lucky enough to survive the desert trek, many never make it to Europe.
“You will either drown in the sea or die in the desert,” Tesfom had already warned his little brother. “Or worse still, someone will slaughter you like a lamb on your way there. I can’t let you do this to our mother.” But Tesfom also knew his hands were tied. Girmay might be tortured by smugglers if he didn't pay. He agreed to send the money and told his brother to call back with instructions. For weeks, none came. The phone Girmay had used went dead. By mid- July, Tesfom doubted he would ever see his brother again.
Tesfom’s months- long effort to shepherd his brother into Europe – via payments that spanned at least four countries, three different bank accounts, and the use of three different kinds of money transfers – reveals the inner workings of the multi- billion- euro smuggling networks that are fuelling Europe’s migrant crisis.
Europol, Europe's police agency, says people- smuggling may have generated between US$ 3bil and US$ 6bil last year. Most of the money for passage is raised and transferred by migrants’ and refugees’ relatives around the world.
The smuggling rings exploit captive consumers thousands of miles apart – migrants on a quest for freedom or opportunity, and their families back home and in the West, who are willing to pay to ensure their loved ones make it.
Interviews with nearly 50 refugees, two smugglers and European prosecutors – as well as a review of documents released by Italian and European Union authorities – detail a sophisticated system built on an elaborate chain of dealers in Africa and Europe. During the summer’s high season, prices soar. A single boat crossing on the Mediterranean cost US$ 2,200 per passenger last August, up from an average US$ 1,500 a year earlier, according to refugees’ accounts.
Governments and law enforcement officials across Europe are trying to stop the smugglers. Europol says it and its partners have identified nearly 3,000 people since March 2015 who are involved in the smuggling trade. Sicilian prosecutor Calogero Ferrara has named two men – Ermias Ghermay, an Ethiopian, and Medhanie Yehdego Mered, an Eritrean – as kingpins in an organised- crime network responsible for bringing thousands of refugees to Italy. Both suspects are still at large.
Smugglers cut costs to maximise profit. They use cheap, disposable boats, dilapidat- ed and rarely with enough fuel. They bank on Europe's search and rescue missions. Some 150,000 people were saved in one year by an Italian naval operation that was launched in late 2013, according to United N ations Secretary- General Ban Ki- moon. It was suspended in late 2014 to save money and has been replaced by a more restricted European operation.
Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have fled in the past decade, making them the fourth- biggest group of refugees to enter Europe last year after Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, according to the UN refugee agency UN HCR. A United N ations report in June 2015 described Eritrea as a “country where individuals are routinely arbitrarily arrested and detained, tortured, disappeared or extrajudicially executed.” For most Eritreans aiming for Europe, Sudan is the first major stop. One way to get there is via refugee camps in northern Ethiopia. Thousands of Eritreans pass through these camps every month, according to the UN HCR. From there, travellers pay up to US$ 1,600 to get to Khartoum, the Sudanese capital.
The International Organisation for Migration ( IOM) says the Sahara crossing is at least as deadly as the Mediterranean, although most incidents go unreported. Some refugees fall off their trucks and are left behind as their column races through the desert. Accidents are common. But the biggest problem is dehydration.
“For two days and one night we had no food and no water,” said Gebreselassie Weush, an Eritrean refugee interviewed in Catania, Italy, after he crossed the Sahara in August. “We had to drink our own urine.” Gunmen prowl the desert looking for human chattel. One Eritrean asylum seeker in Germany said tribesmen kidnapped his group and sold him for US$ 500 to a military chief in Sabha, Libya.
He was tortured for months because his family could not afford the US$ 3,400 ransom the chief demanded. The women in his group, he said, were raped every time they were sold to a new owner. He escaped when fighting broke out in the city.
Because the desert journey is so perilous, smugglers let refugees withhold payment until they get to Ajdabiya, a town in northeastern Libya. Ajdabiya is dotted with abandoned buildings and barns where smugglers jail the migrants until everyone has arranged for their fare to be paid.
Some families quickly settle the debt once they are satisfied their relative is alive. For others, the phone call is the first time they learn a loved one is in Libya. When Girmay failed to get in touch after his June call, his brothers tried to find out what happened. Habtay, the 25- year- old brother living in Israel, sent Tesfom a text on Viber with a number for Tsegay, the smuggler in Khartoum.
Tesfom contacted Tsegay that week. The smuggler was brief but reassuring. Girmay would be in Tripoli in two days, Tsegay said, and promised to call back with more details. That night, Tsegay disconnected his phone. Desperate, Girmay's older brothers called people they knew in Sudan and Libya. Someone said there were three trucks in Girmay's convoy, but only two had arrived in Tripoli. One smuggler told Tesfom to be patient; someone would eventually call him for ransom. Libyan militants routinely round up refugees and hold them in detention camps until they, or their families abroad, pay for their release. The price ranges from US$ 1,200 to US$ 3,400.
In July, a month after Girmay's disappearance, there was still no word from him. Tesfom found the uncertainty unbearable.
Then, one Friday morning in mid- August, Girmay called Tesfom from Tripoli. He said he had been captured by a militia. He escaped when fighting broke out near where he was being held, and walked for days until he reached the city. He had not eaten in two days.
After some back and forth, the brothers decided that Girmay should hand himself over to a well- known Eritrean smuggler living in Libya called Abusalam. The Eritrean exodus has been good for men like Abusalam. In unfamiliar territory, refugees tend to trust their fellow countrymen.
In the days before Girmay set out across the Mediterranean, Libya and its shores were becoming more dangerous. A boat sank near Zuwara and hundreds of bodies washed ashore. In 2015, an estimated 3,800 people drowned or went missing while crossing the sea, according to the IOM. About 410 more died or disappeared this year.
On the first Wednesday in September, at approximately 1am, Girmay crammed into a small boat with 350 others. Within hours, the boat was spotted by rescue ships. The next day, he landed in Italy.
Girmay made his way quickly up Italy, into Germany, and then on to Sweden. He is now seeking asylum there, according to his brother.
Around the time Girmay arrived in Italy, his father in Eritrea was thrown in jail again. Two weeks later, he was released on a 200,000 nakfa ( nearly US$ 12,360) bail.
“That is the thing about our suffering,” Tesfom said. “It knows no beginning or no end.” – Reuters
The road to freedom is fraught with perils for countless refugees. — EPA