Libya trade in hu­mans adds to mi­grant cri­sis

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Su­darsan Ragha­van of The Wash­ing­ton Post; and by Gre­gory Vis­cusi of Bloomberg News.

ZAWIYAH, Libya — Libya, the big­gest jump­ing-off point for mi­grants try­ing to reach Europe, is now home to a thriv­ing trade in hu­mans.

Un­able to pay ex­or­bi­tant smug­gling fees or swin­dled by traf­fick­ers, some of the world’s most desperate peo­ple are be­ing held as slaves, tor­tured or forced into pros­ti­tu­tion.

Their de­te­ri­o­rat­ing plight raises ques­tions about Euro­pean Union agree­ments to stem the flow of mi­grants. Un­der these deals, Libya was promised more than $225 mil­lion to en­force stricter bor­der con­trols and main­tain mi­grant as­sis­tance cen­ters that re­spect “in­ter­na­tional hu­man­i­tar­ian stan­dards.” Last month, Libya’s Western-backed gov­ern­ment asked Euro­pean lead­ers in Brus­sels for more money to cope with the cri­sis.

But in­stead of get­ting bet­ter treat­ment, mi­grants found at sea are be­ing re­turned to Libya to face more ex­ploita­tion and vi­o­lence.

Mean­while, the num­ber of mi­grants de­part­ing from Libya is surg­ing, with more than 70,000 ar­riv­ing in Italy so far this year, a 28 per­cent in­crease over the same pe­riod last year. More than 2,000 have drowned cross­ing the Mediter­ranean Sea, and the sum­mer peak sea­son for sea

cross­ings is just start­ing.

Ital­ian Prime Min­is­ter Paolo Gen­tiloni said June 29 that Italy needed the help of the EU af­ter 10,000 mi­grants were res­cued off its south­ern coast in one week alone. That prompted a din­ner meet­ing Sun­day in Paris with the in­te­rior min­is­ters of Italy, France and Ger­many, as well as the Euro­pean Union com­mis­sioner in charge of mi­gra­tion.

Ital­ian of­fi­cials have threat­ened they may bar en­try to Ital­ian ports of non-Ital­ian ships car­ry­ing mi­grants picked up at sea, and have sug­gested res­cued mi­grants be taken straight to other EU coun­tries.

EU of­fi­cials are work­ing with in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions and the Libyan gov­ern­ment to ad­dress the con­cerns about mi­grant treat­ment and place­ment, spokesman Cather­ine Ray said.

“We are aware of the un­ac­cept­able con­di­tions in which some mi­grants are treated, in de­ten­tion or re­cep­tion cen­ters in Libya,” she said. “And we do not turn a blind eye to it.”

Hu­man traf­fick­ing is now a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar busi­ness in­volv­ing count­less mili­tias and in­flu­en­tial tribes, ac­tivists and se­cu­rity of­fi­cials say. The Western-backed gov­ern­ment in Libya ex­erts lit­tle author­ity out­side the cap­i­tal, Tripoli, and in­fight­ing is ram­pant within some of its min­istries. Tripoli com­petes with two other gov­ern­ments, and none has real author­ity in the south­ern part of the coun­try, where most mi­grants are smug­gled through.

“No one even thinks about mak­ing ar­rests in the south,” said Ahmed Tabawi War­dako, a Libyan tribal leader and com­mu­nity ac­tivist in the south­ern city of Sabha. “The hu­man traf­fick­ers have lots of money. They buy off peo­ple, in­clud­ing the po­lice and lo­cal of­fi­cials.”

Tripoli has two main gov­ern­ment-run de­ten­tion cen­ters. A third in the coastal city of Zawiyah is con­trolled by a mili­tia that U.N. in­ves­ti­ga­tors say is in­volved in hu­man traf­fick­ing.

“[Traf­fick­ing vic­tims] are not treated like hu­mans,” War­dako said. “They are treated like mer­chan­dise.”

ROAD OF DEATH

In March, Mack Wil­liams left his home in Ivory Coast’s com­mer­cial cap­i­tal of Abid­jan. He was 29 and un­em­ployed. With money bor­rowed from rel­a­tives, he trav­eled sev­eral days and hun­dreds of miles by bus to the smug­gling town of Agadez in cen­tral Niger, on the edge of the Sa­hara Desert.

A re­cruiter in­tro­duced him to a “con­nec­tion man,” one of the many mid­dle­men on the mi­grant pipe­line to Europe.

For about $600, Wil­liams was trans­ported across the bor­der, through Sabha and the town of Bani Walid, and then to Tripoli. At each stop, an­other con­nec­tion man was ex­pected to guide him along — if he sur­vived.

“It’s the road of death,” Wil­liams said, re­fer­ring to the 1,400-mile stretch be­tween Agadez and Sabha, typ­i­cally a week­long drive through in­tense desert heat.

The deaths of mi­grants along the land route sel­dom draw much at­ten­tion. In a rare in­stance, the In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Mi­gra­tion re­ported in June that 44 mi­grants, in­clud­ing five chil­dren, died of thirst when their ve­hi­cle broke down in the Sa­ha­ran desert. A few weeks later, 51 more were pre­sumed dead af­ter smug­glers aban­doned them, the agency said.

Other mi­grants said that when some­one fell off a truck, the driv­ers of­ten left them be­hind to die in the desert.

Wil­liams, who is tall and slen­der, was packed into a Toy­ota pickup truck with two dozen other mi­grants, “stuck like a piece of fish in the back,” he re­called. Food and wa­ter were in short sup­ply. Breaks were in­fre­quent. If the mi­grants took too long to uri­nate on the side of the road, the driver and his com­pan­ion would beat them with a stick and prod them like cat­tle back into the truck.

Three days into the jour­ney, as they neared the Libyan bor­der, the traf­fick­ers spot­ted a con­voy of troops from Niger and were wor­ried about be­ing caught. They veered off the road and or­dered the mi­grants to get out of the truck and get down — and then sped away.

“They left us in the desert with no wa­ter or food,” Wil­liams said.

Two days later, as some of the mi­grants ap­proached death, an­other Toy­ota pickup ar­rived with a dif­fer­ent group of traf­fick­ers. None had the same name or con­tact in­for­ma­tion Wil­liams was given in Agadez. He un­der­stood what had hap­pened.

“If your con­nec­tion man doesn’t come, it means you’ve been sold,” he said. “Any­one can sell you to an­other group.”

EX­TOR­TION

When Ish­mael Konte, a 25-year-old from Sierra Leone, ar­rived in Sabha, nearly 500 miles south of Tripoli, the traf­fick­ers drove di­rectly to a ware­house and sold him to a Libyan.

It was one of nu­mer­ous “con­nec­tion houses” where mi­grants wait while they are moved through the smug­gling pipe­line.

Konte and the 20 other mi­grants in the truck with him were put in a tiny cell, where guards — mostly from Niger — beat them with pipes and elec­tric ca­bles for the slight­est in­frac­tion. Ev­ery two days, they were given a bowl of gruel. Other food had to be bought from the guards, Konte said, but most of the mi­grants had no money.

“We had to drink the wa­ter in the toi­let,” said Alas­sana Bah, 34, a soft-voiced teacher from Gam­bia who lost his left arm in an ac­ci­dent years ago. “Ev­ery day, they beat me on the soles of my feet.”

The men were in­car­cer­ated for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. Some still owed money for their jour­ney, oth­ers had trav­eled on credit and were now the prop­erty of the smug­glers. Most, like Konte, said they had paid in full but were tricked by their driv­ers and sold to the prison’s Libyan owner for as lit­tle as $50.

Ev­ery morn­ing, the guards

would force the mi­grants to call their rel­a­tives back home.

Four days af­ter he ar­rived, Konte called his mother. As he spoke, a guard whipped him with a thick cable. She could hear his cries.

“Peo­ple have caught me,” he re­called telling her. “They want $400.”

“Where can I get such money?” she replied. Konte could hear her weep­ing.

“You have to,” he said. “These peo­ple will kill me.”

It took Konte’s mother a month to raise the money. She wired it to an as­so­ciate of the traf­fick­ers in Agadez, and Konte was re­leased. For the next few weeks, he worked in Sabha to earn enough to pay for his trip to Tripoli.

DE­TEN­TION CEN­TERS

The Libyan coast guard and lo­cal fish­er­men have stopped more than 10,000 mi­grants this year and sent them back to Libya, ac­cord­ing to In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Mi­gra­tion data. Most have ended up in one of Libya’s 29 of­fi­cial de­ten­tion cen­ters, which in­ter­na­tional aid and med­i­cal char­i­ties visit.

All are woe­fully un­der­funded, in part be­cause of mili­tia and gov­ern­ment ri­val­ries. Fund­ing has been frozen, and bills to feed mi­grants haven’t been paid in months, ac­cord­ing to Capt. Wa­jdi Mun­tas­sar, a po­lice of­fi­cer who runs a de­ten­tion cen­ter. Two other of­fi­cials con­firmed his state­ment.

Ab­dul­razag Sh­neeti, a spokesman for the gov­ern­ment’s Depart­ment for Com­bat­ing Il­le­gal Mi­gra­tion, did not re­spond to re­peated calls for com­ment.

The coastal city of Zawiyah that is con­trolled by a mili­tia al­legedly in­volved in hu­man traf­fick­ing.

The Zawiyah fa­cil­ity — known as the al-Nasr de­ten­tion cen­ter — was set up by the al-Nasr Bri­gade, a mili­tia in­volved in oil and hu­man smug­gling that has links to the coast guard, U.N. in­ves­ti­ga­tors said in a re­port re­leased in June. Chris­tine Pe­tre, a spokesman for the In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Mi­gra­tion, said the fa­cil­ity is now be­ing run by the Western-backed gov­ern­ment, but mi­grants and coast guard mem­bers said the mili­tia and its tribes­men are still in charge.

Mi­grants sleep and eat on the dirty floors. Lunch is a six­inch loaf of bread. Din­ner is a plate of mac­a­roni.

On a re­cent day, the mat­tresses had been taken away from a group in a cell as “pun­ish­ment” for fight­ing, said Fathi al-Far, the cen­ter’s di­rec­tor. Last year, he said, four mi­grants were killed and a guard was in­jured in clashes.

In their re­port, U.N. in­ves­ti­ga­tors de­scribed Far as a for­mer army colonel and said the cen­ter is used to sell mi­grants to other smug­glers.

Far ac­knowl­edged that smug­glers come to the cen­ter to take mi­grants but said he is un­able to stop them. Guards or mili­tia mem­bers call the mi­grants’ fam­i­lies to ex­tort cash. If they pay, the mi­grant is re­leased and put back on a boat to Europe.

“The guards can do any­thing,” Far said. “They have the keys to the cells.”

On the Web

Europe’s mi­grant cri­sis nwadg.com/ mi­gra­tion

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